Dawson’s Creek reveals attitudes toward adoption

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My guilty pleasure show this summer is officially, irreversibly, unapologetically Dawson’s Creek. Somehow I missed the endless syndicated reruns of this show and only discovered it at the end of last semester, and since that time I’ve already burned through three seasons.

It’s light and summery, but some of the 90s-throwback fun in Dawson’s Creek is tempered by the show’s dated treatment of issues including mental illness, race, and the LGBT community. And, surprisingly, adoption.

As someone who is studying adoption stories in literature, and as an adopted person myself, I immediately latched on to the adoption plotline that occurs in Season 3. Here are the basics, in case you don’t watch the show:

  • The background you need to know is that Dawson Leery is 16 years old and unapologetically virginal. He’s idealistic, has previously rejected a girlfriend due to her sexual history, and he has firmly rejected the notion of having sex without being in love.
  • En route back to his hometown of Capeside, Massachusetts, after a summer in Philadelphia, Dawson meets a sexy fellow traveler named Eve. He repeatedly runs into her at his high school, a local strip club, and other similarly unlikely places. All the while, she attempts to seduce him in the style of a film noir femme fatale. (Not for the first time, the show takes its relationship to classic films too far.)
  • Eve commits a series of misdeeds that include but are not limited to giving Dawson and his friends a copy of the PSAT answer book; causing Dawson to wreck his father’s boat; and amping up the drama between Dawson and his on again, off again relationship with his childhood friend, Joey Potter.
  • A photograph reveals that Eve is Dawson’s friend Jen’s sister. (Not coincidentally, Jen is the girlfriend whose sexual history disqualified her from receiving Dawson’s affections.) Later, Dawson reveals this news to Jen’s mother, who admits to mothering an illegitimate child. Jen learns of her half sister during an emotional exchange with her frigid mother, but the following episode completely drops the plot line.

Throughout, Eve dares Dawson to lie, cheat, cave to his impulses, and explore his own sexuality. Her name, a painfully obvious nod to original sin, links Eve to the first female moral failure, attaches a Puritan sense of stigma to her illegitimate origins. Instead of the tempted, Eve is transformed into the temptress, a twist that doubly damns her.

The show’s explanation for Eve’s bizarre, impossible behavior is that beneath it all, she’s a vulnerable little girl who is just trying to find her mom by traveling up and down the East Coast with a single photograph in hand. Eve is an extreme characterization of an identity thrown into chaos. Her fluid identity may accurately capture the emotional journey of locating a birth parent, but her character is so inconsistent that the writers failed to ground her in any semblance of realism.

To provide some context for the difficulty of Eve’s search, closed adoptions were by far the norm until very recently. Though laws vary by state and country, Adoption.org offers this broad definition:

In closed adoptions, the future birth mother and prospective adoptive parents will not be given the first or last name of the other party nor will they ever meet. Birth parents have absolutely no say in who the adoptive parents will be and any negotiations will be mediated by a case worker or attorney.

By comparison, an open adoption allows for some degree of contact between the adopted child and his or her biological parents. From what I’ve read, families are now encouraged to opt for open adoptions in the hopes that more information will aid the adopted child’s identity formation.

Without entering the debate over original birth certificates, it’s important to note that in a closed adoption, chances are that the adopted person’s birth certificate will show only their adoptive parents. (Though this is a foreign concept to many, I can personally confirm it, as my own birth certificate lists my adoptive parents.) If a birth certificate is altered to reflect adoption, public records also refrain from listing biological parents, which can make search and reunion efforts incredibly difficult (though social media is quickly changing this). As a young socialite, Jen’s mother was protected from the shame of mothering an illegitimate child by opting for a closed adoption. However, by refraining from delving more deeply into the ramifications of this decision, the show fails to probe the effects and ethics of this choice.

Dawson’s Creek is fascinating for the sheer range of family dysfunction it explores. From Mitch and Gail’s divorce to Jen’s estrangement from her parents to Andie and Jack’s painful trauma, the show presents a wide range of family structures that support my suspicion that the functional nuclear family is thoroughly mythical.

Regardless, using adoption as a token plot twist is insensitive. Unless writers are willing to accurately portray an underrepresented demographic, they shouldn’t touch it at all, because sensational stories do more harm than good by further institutionalizing inaccurate portrayals. But, to be completely fair, I haven’t finished the series yet, so the show has three more seasons to redeem itself.

The thesis crawls on by way of Amazon packages, blue pens, and bookmarks. Tonight I watched The Royal Tenenbaums, which is a movie that’s dying to be put into conversation with an article about Genetic Sexual Attraction that’s sitting on my desktop in the form of a long PDF, so look out for that post soon. In the meantime, I’m splitting my reading between Anna Karenina and a neat book of essays called China in Ten Words.

Steinbeck’s Symbolic Women

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Steinbeck’s men are wonderfully nuanced and richly detailed. From jailbird good guy Tom Joad to the intriguing ex-reverend Casy, men in The Grapes of Wrath squat in the shade, patch old tires, and are the inheritors of ancient agricultural knowledge. They squint and spit and ponder the future. They take action. They drive.

In the first pages of the novel, Steinbeck establishes that men are the backbone of the family unit:

Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men — to feel whether this time the men would break.

Like most rules, this simplistic model becomes complicated with exceptions and special circumstances throughout the novel. The repetitious narrative of Dust Bowl migration challenges the Joads’ individuality as Steinbeck critiques the 1930s’ agricultural and economic status quo.

Still, Steinbeck’s women exist in the shadow of his men, comparatively shallow elements of the family unit.

We are first introduced to Ma Joad, whose physical appearance is a puzzle of contradictions. Both “strong” and “delicate,” “wispy” and “plump,” “great” and “humble,” Ma is “as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess.” She is the lynchpin of the family – understandable, considering her ability to encompass every possible positive quality.

Unfortunately, we are never told her first name; she is referred to as “Mrs. Joad” or “Ma,” confining her identity to her role as a wife and mother even as the family relies on her judgment, which is indeed faultless, time and time again. Mr. and Mrs. Joad’s interactions are [very] darkly humorous as Mr. Joad wonders aloud whether he should beat her, and how, in his bafflement that his wife is seizing control over the family’s destiny.

If Ma Joad is the character who single handedly rallies the family together, her own daughter provides a cautionary example of a nuclear family gone awry. Pregnant and abandoned by her husband, Rose of Sharon (or “Rosasharn,” according to characters’ pronunciation) becomes depressed and unmotivated to continue. Her constant whining is treated as simple weakness of character and a source of frustration for Ma Joad, and her desire to care for her unborn child is expressed as petulant greed. Tom mocks her changing body, comparing her to a cow repeatedly. (Yes, you read that correctly – Rose of Sharon is compared to livestock.) Rose of Sharon’s stillborn child comes as no surprise; by the novel’s denouement, Steinbeck has made it clear that she is a failure.

For me, one of the most shocking scenes in the novel was Al’s sexual encounter with one of the women in the Weedpatch camp:

“You think I got to go out with you. Well, I don’t! I got lots a chances.”

“Now wait a minute.”

“No, sir – you git away.”

Al lunged suddenly, caught her by the ankle, and tripped her. He grabbed her when she fell and held her and put his hand over her angry mouth. She tried to bite his palm, but he cupped it out over her mouth, and he held her down with his other arm. And in a moment she lay still, and in another moment they were giggling in the dry grass.

How quickly and easily Al’s aggressive physicality are resolved! “The blond girl” (she, too, is never named) makes her resistance known before simply giving up. This illustration of female sexuality as submissive and consent as a one-sided decision cemented a male-dominant status quo in the novel.

The Grapes of Wrath is certainly a product of its time, but like books that portray colonized peoples as simplistic and ahistorical, it must be scrutinized with a modern eye. I loved many things about The Grapes of Wrath, from Steinbeck’s ability to evoke the simultaneous multiplicity of Dust Bowl experiences to the novel’s Biblical flood. But as I read the final words, I couldn’t help but wonder why Rose of Sharon’s breast milk was only validated by the fact that it enabled a man’s survival. Think of how different the novel would be if it had ended with a meeting of women in the barn during that apocalyptic monsoon! The image of Ma Joad, Rose of Sharon, and a woman being saved by Rose of Sharon’s breast milk could have formed a new holy trinity, but instead the breastfeeding was overtly sexual and even vaguely incestuous.

I had planned to continue my research this week with Anna Karenina, but my advisor recently sent me a PBS documentary on a Korean adoption gone awry. I cannot for the life of me get this video to load, but I’m reading so much for work these days that I’m going to keep trying. Adoption has also popped up in a variety of movies and TV shows I’ve watched recently, from Dawson’s Creek to There Will Be Blood, so it might be time for a diversion into contemporary pop culture. The research continues slowly but steadily, and I’m glad that my topic of focus saturates so much of the media we consume.