Monsters, and Victims
Images of Adoptive Families in
U.S. Commercial Films, 1950–2000
CHRISTINE WARD GAILEY
Movies play an important role in providing metaphors and images that people use in thinking about a range of social issues, in this case, adoption. The adults in my study of U.S. public and private adoptive families had grown up with movies as a key form of entertainment.1 Every one of the approximately 1oo adopters I interviewed from the working and middle classes and from wealthier sectors of the population had seen at least five of the movies discussed below, at least three prior to adopting their particular child. Moreover, they incorporated images from the films in discussing their views of adoption, adoptees, and adopters. Their perceptions of movie portrayals of adoptees and adopters ranged from acceptance to skepticism to rejection. In some cases, the movies provided a frame for their experiences as adopters; in other cases, the adopters and adoptees framed their experiences in contrast to the movie images. In all cases, film images influenced their own representations of adoption.
The movies selected for discussion here reflect adoption practices in the second half of the twentieth century and were produced during the lifetime of the adopters I interviewed. I will focus on the movies that addressed debates about adoption in the United States at the time, especially whether adopted children are inherently or permanently troubled, who is suitable to become an adoptive parent, and whether transracial adoption should be allowed.
In keeping with cinema in general, these movies pick up controversies, fears, or desires and present them dramatically, so seeming to ground them in a certain reality, cinematic reality. The visual richness of the medium heightens and directs desire in ways that cinema studies scholars have analyzed in depth.2 In terms of adoption, wider political concerns of particular eras enter into the safe, contained