Monday, February 16, 2015

Fifty Shades of Gross: a Feminist Confrontation of the Story's Adoption and Foster Care Themes

I read the Fifty Shades of Grey books at the suggestion of my sister-in-law who has dual degrees in communications and English and is a popular books maven of sorts. She has the uncanny ability to predict whenever any bit of media will become relevant in pop culture. If you want to look like a pop culture genius at your book club, you ask her for a title to recommend to the group. If you want to know what basically unknown lit is going to explode into everyday conversations tomorrow, she can tell you that too. Her suggestion regarding Fifty Shades fell into the latter category.

"I'll apologize in advance," she said. It's the worst thing I think I've read in a long time."

Indeed, it was so bad that I hesitated to write about it at all.

I originally wrote this piece years ago to address the book trilogy. With the release of the movie grossing over $81 million dollars in its first three days, it's time to update the piece and release it anew. Although some herald the franchise as a victory for women in media, my piece joins a chorus of others across the web calling out the Fifty Shades franchise for marketing child sexual abuse, rape, stalking, coercion and other forms of violence as "romance." To add, I ask the chorus, "Why isn't the use of adoption and foster care in the trilogy-turned-franchise included in these critiques?"

Fifty Shades is far more more disturbing than most people realize. This is evidenced by what little discussion--or perhaps little notice--there is regarding why the abusive male protagonist, Christian Grey, stalks, harasses, and rapes his supposed "love interest," Anastasia Steele. According to E.L. James, it's because he was adopted. Not just adopted, but he was adopted and born to an unknown woman whom he labels "the crack whore."

A young and naive Anastasia Steele is smitten when she meets this handsome, disturbed man. Christian Grey, who is written as earning a totally believable $100,000 per hour, is billed by the world around him as an intensely mysterious yet very eligible bachelor. After several scenes of Christian engaging in stalking, harassing, violent, and intrusive behaviors, the trilogy finds him and Anastasia married. In the process of becoming his girlfriend, then fiance, then wife, Anastasia learns the origin of Christian's intense interest in pursuing and controlling her. 

Anastasia looks like Christian's "birth mother." 

Under the guise of what Christian professes to be BDSM, he discloses a lengthy history of targeting and forcing himself on women who remind him of his birth mother. He explains to Anastasia that he discovered BDSM  when sexually assaulted as a child by an older female friend of his family. 

Few adoption stereotypes were missed in Fifty Shades. Christian harbors a deep anger at his first mother; his early life experiences leave him devoid of empathy and with a strong propensity to harm others. His mother is described as a drug addict who neglected him. In contrast, his adoptive parents serve the roles as his saviors who lavish him with love, wealth, and privilege. The final book reveals that the other man stalking--and who finally attempts to murder--Anastasia is fueled by jealousy that he was not adopted from foster care as was Christian, his former foster brother.

This, all of it, was a painful read. Yet I don't regret reading the books to a certain extent because doing so allows me to add to the feminist chorus pushing back against its praise. Reading them has allowed me to call attention to the adoption and foster care "subplots" (if you can identify the story as having any real plot let alone subplots) and implore readers to notice that being adopted and fostered is harmfully and unquestioningly used to explain one man's desire to obsess and rape and another's desire to obsess and murder.

There are few subtleties in Fifty Shades. Words and phrases, such as "oh my" are repeated dozens, even hundreds, of times across the three texts. The male protagonist's eyes are grey, his tie is grey, his last name is "Grey." In the book, "Fifty Shades" is a nickname Anastasia gives to Christian to indicate just how disturbed he is. Although Ms. James might now, on her Twitter bio, boast in all caps that Fifty Shades is "A LOVE story," it was arguably crafted to both disturb readers and leave them unsure of where lines are crossed.

Don't be fooled, Fifty Shades crosses all the lines. Rape is rape. Child sexual abuse is child sexual abuse. Violence is violence. Touching someone after they say "no" is violence. Coercion is not consent. Stalking is stalking. None of these areas are "grey" nor are they romance nor love. Advised by an individual I presume to be an attorney and by a physician who graduated from Yale Medical School,  E.L. James saw fit to develop two characters who would cross these lines and offered both characters' adoption and foster care experiences and mental health issues as explanation. This is beyond relevant in our critiques as feminists and we must not leave it out.

To the people that loved this book or the movie, look into my eyes for a moment. I don't intend to alienate you or make you feel badly. Let the survivor of an abusive relationship speak to your soul. I was in a relationship with a wealthy, gorgeous man who was controlling, entitled, coercive, and abusive. Here's what I know. Your partner should not need to know your whereabouts at all times; nor should you require their permission to be without them. You should not be tasked with "fixing" your partner. "No" means "no." Your partner should never eliminate your resources to force you to depend on them. They may replace what they take, but these are not "gifts" no matter what the expense. What an abuser takes from you, your safety, your sense of self, your innocence, are priceless. No one owns your body but you. This wasn't love. There's nothing thrilling about being scared all the time. My experience was not exciting or entertaining. These behaviors are not romance; they are abuse.

Now let an adoptee speak to your heart. The stereotypes about my community shouldn't be used for entertainment. Adopted and fostered people, and our families, should not repeatedly be used as literary examples of deranged, dangerous people. We cannot simultaneously say that rape and abuse passing in our culture as romance is harmful to women without also acknowledging that using the stigmas of adoption, foster care, and mental health to explain that behavior isn't also harmful to the adoption, foster care, and mental health communities. Critics, including feminists, for the sake of the human beings who live adoption each day, let's no longer let their pathologization in media escape our awareness or our criticism.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Happy Reunionversary: 9 Things I've Learned in 5 Years of Reunion

My necklace of our matching pair.
I had already known my original mother's name for several months before we reunited. As is the practice in my birth state, most adoptees can have their original birth certificates and know their mother's name using the established government channel. We are forbidden to reach out on our own as the civil and criminal legal consequences of doing so are thoroughly explained and signed off on before our records are unsealed. My mother, my first mother, had given me permission to see my original birth certificate. I received a copy of her handwritten permission letter addressed to the Department of Children's Services. I traced my index finger along the curly writing imagining that she must be so nice.

Saturday marked the 5th anniversary of the first time I heard my mother's voice since infancy. Our "reunionversary" was something that took me a year to put into words. In the past four years, I haven't written much about my reunion because keeping boundaries between my public blogging life and my original family's very private life helps maintain the stasis of our relationship (more on that in a minute). Also, not until now have I had any words of reunion wisdom to offer.

Friday, November 7, 2014

VIDEO National Adoption Month? The Lost Daughters #flipthescript

Headed by @mothermade, Lost Daughters is flipping the script with this awesome round table style video by Bryan Tucker.

Click here for the full length version and remember to share with the tags #NationalAdoptionMonth and #flipthescript.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

PA, Adoptee Rights, and an Amended Bill--What now?

Photo (c) Julie Stromberg
On Tuesday, September 16, 2014, the Pennsylvania Senate Aging and Youth Committee held a voting hearing for HB 162.  As drafted, HB 162 would restore the right of PA-born adult adoptees, nineteen years or older, to access a copy of their original birth certificate (OBC) with the same regard under the law enjoyed by every other PA-born citizen.

When a child is adopted in the U.S., a amended birth record replaces their OBC that lists their adoptive parents as their biological parents.  In 48 states, the OBC is sealed.  Every single state has a law on the books providing for the release of the OBC to the adoptee at the discretion of a judge in addition to other avenues of access. However, only six states honor the right of adult adoptees to access their OBC with the same regard as all other people.

The history of how HB 162 came to be is peculiar. Until 1985, Pennsylvania was one of three states that allowed adoptees equal access to their OBCs.  Following the passing of Roe v. Wade, concerns arose in religious pro-life communities that adoptees accessing their OBCs would increase abortion rates. They first questioned the interpretation of the law. In 1978, the PA Attorney General issued an official statement identifying OBCs as separate from sealed adoption records and confirmed that Vital Statistics should continue to release OBCs to adult adoptees.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Adoption and Fundraising: When Money to Breaks Down Systemic Barriers for Families

Aselefech runs for family preservation.
There are a number of factors behind why I was placed for adoption.  Economics by far is one of the most pervasive.  My narrative is one among countless that attest to the way in which economics constricts the choices families and parents have--to keep their children, to not experience the removal of their children, to not become pregnant if they do not wish to be.

I have been outspoken for the past five years against adoption fundraisers.  I have been asked countless times over the years to donate my written word or official endorsement to adoption fundraisers, and each time I have declined.  According to my mother's narrative, at the time she stepped off of the plane in her sister's home state where she would birth me, she owned just one change of clothes. It seems irreverent for the wealthy to exchange money for inspirational adoption t-shirts among themselves, too expensive for my own mother to have worn herself, to raise money to adopt her baby.

Hierarchies of power and privilege push impoverished children into orphanages and care and trap them there with their families on the outside looking in, the empty arms of biological families aching.  One adoption fee could vaccinate tens of thousands of children or fund an entire medical center for a village.  The average cost to adopt a newborn from a struggling parent could pay the TANF allowance of a family of four for three years.