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Adoption Blog: The Perfect Blend

Discovering Unexpected Adoption-Related Themes in Disney Movies

Today, a copy of Disney's Tangled will arrive at our apartment. Having seen it and fallen in love with it when it came out in theaters, my two girls are obsessed to the point that my husband, Jeremiah, reserved a copy of the movie as soon as it was available for pre-order. We have spent weeks counting down to this evening's special movie night. I will even go so far as to admit that I thought Tangled was pretty good—for a princess movie.

I actually don't hate having my daughters watch those Disney princesses quite as much as I thought I would, back before I became a parent and thought only about the negative effects they might have on girls. Rapunzel, in her Tangled reincarnation, is spunky, smart, and, well, fun. Not such a bad role model, all in all.

Mother Gothel is another story. You know, Mother Gothel, the one who steals Rapunzel from her real parents and raises Rapunzel, who all the while believes that Mother Gothel is her true parent. This raises a huge red flag for me, even though my girls have yet to notice any parallels between this fiction and our own decision to adopt. Jeremiah, I suspect, thinks that I'm overreacting. Although I got teary at the depiction of Rapunzel's birthparents, the King and Queen, releasing a lantern each year in memory of their lost daughter, I'm much more concerned with the depiction of the adoptive mother, who, in this case, is completely evil.

I know this isn't an adoption movie. It's a story about a girl who is stolen and who fights to return to her roots. But there are similarities between the Tangled story and our family's adoption journey, and I have no idea how to explain the nuances in these differences to any of our three children (our two daughters and the son we're waiting to bring home from Korea), if and when they start to notice.

Rapunzel isn't the only Disney princess who is raised by someone other than her birthparents. Setting aside the many, many princesses with deceased mothers and single fathers, there is Sleeping Beauty, for example, who is raised by her three fairy aunts when her birthparents decide they aren't able to safely parent her because of the threats of an evil fairy in the kingdom. This story doesn't worry me—at least, not as much—because Sleeping Beauty's story is, by and large, a pretty happy adoption-type story. Rapunzel's story, which ends with the death of Mother Gothel and Rapunzel's return to her birthparents, is much more violent and upsetting.

This isn't an issue yet, and I'm not sure if it ever will be. Perhaps my smart, savvy children won't be as simplistic as I am in their reading of the Tangled narrative. Maybe they deserve more credit than I'm giving them, and they'll see when a (fictional) woman steals a baby, it is an act of cruelty that in no way resembles a complicated but loving adoption. But I wonder if any of you have experiences with adoption in children's media—not with great adoption books or thoughtful depictions like the Miss Spider series but, rather, with ambiguous or negative associations. If so, how have you handled them?

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Despite having a 6-year-old daughter, I haven’t seen the movie yet.  I have every other major Disney animation accompanied by waaaay too many toys.  How many sizes can one character come in?!?!  I’m just not ready.  Maybe for Easter.  Maybe.

I do have a collection of Brother’s Grimm fairy tales, though, and while that’s not the way the story goes, Rapunzel is taken from her parents (who were not royalty) and raised by an evil witch.  The story is 200 years old, and probably borrowed from an even older story. 

Honestly, never at any point in my childhood did I see my amom as a wicked step-mother or evil witch despite fairy tales and Disney movies.  I did, however, see the comparisons between the plots and losing my own mother.  It was more of an admonition that children can be lost, and to be wise and careful with my own. 

Sleeping Beauty is a really good example because all those years of separation served no purpose.  She still pricked her finger right on schedule.  Growing up not knowing her parents or even her own name was pointless.  Yes, she was happy with the little fairies or witches or whatever they were, but there was no reason for her to be with them.  None.  That was my childhood take on it, for what it’s worth.

By Jeanne on Wednesday, April 06, 2011 at 10:56 pm.

You got me thinking, so I looked through our collection of kids’ movies to see which ones had adoptive issues.  In addition to Tangled/Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, I found:

“Anastasia” (orphan girl grows up, learns she was Russian royalty, and finds her grandmother)

“Angels in the Outfield” (boy in foster care deals with his biological father giving up his parental rights, but ends up being adopted by baseball coach)

Barbie’s “Island Princess” (separated from her family by shipwreck, Rosella grows up with forest friends, but ultimately finds her human mother, a Queen)

“Cinderella” (father dies, leaving her to cruel step-family, fairy Godmother helps her meet the prince, and she leaves her step-family to marry her love)

“Hercules” (baby boy stolen from natural parents/gods, “adopted” by normal earth parents, reconnects with his biological parents, but chooses to remain mortal)

“Jungle Book” (orphaned baby boy adopted by wolves, then rejoins human village)

“Meet the Robinsons” (orphan boy goes into the future, seeing the family who will one day adopt him)

“Pete’s dragon” (orphan boy adopted by cruel family, rescued by dragon, then finds new family to adopt him)

“Prince of Egypt” (based on biblical story of Moses – baby adopted by Pharoah, then as an adult he learns of his true roots and leaves, later connects with his biological siblings and ends up having to fight his adoptive brother to free his people)

“Rescuers” (orphan girl is kidnapped, rescued by mice, then adopted)

“Snow White” (evil step-mother tries to kill the princess, she escapes to live with 7 dwarfs, step-mother dies, & Snow White is rescued by her Prince)

“Tarzan” (orphaned baby boy adopted by gorillas, meets Jane, and together they choose to stay with Tarzan’s gorilla family)

Wow!  How did we end up watching so many of these without my daughter asking adoption questions?  I think it’s because she hasn’t been old enough to think abstractly and notice any parallels with her own life.  Thankfully, she’s already learning the difference between fact and fiction, so if/when the adoptive themes come up, we can discuss them in the perspective that they are just pretend.

I know my daughter will be exposed to lots of different movies and stories during her childhood.  Sometimes the adoptive/step family will be the good guys, and sometimes they won’t.  Honestly, what I really dread is discussing the sad/scary NON-FICTION stories about adoption!

By Lara on Thursday, April 07, 2011 at 1:49 am.

Funny you mention it, but we were watching Tangled just the other night for the first time, and at first thought the same thing, the adoptive mom is the villain! But then I realized, no she’s not (an adoptive parent, that is), she’s a criminal!

I’ve found myself wincing at several children’s books and television programs lately. Seems like every episode of “Little Einsteins” on Disney lately is about some lost “child” looking for their mother, and during the search, phrases like “She’s not your mother, she doesn’t look like you” abound. Same with some of the Dr. Seuss book. Ever read, “Are you my mother?”

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with them; after all it is how most of the world sees family and relationships. I just want to maintain control of our discussions on family and how we relate to one another, and I feel like I’m losing the battle to popular media.

By Jeff on Thursday, April 07, 2011 at 1:30 pm.

Please forgive the grammar and spelling mistakes above; it’s early, I haven’t had my coffee, and there is no edit function!

By Jeff on Thursday, April 07, 2011 at 1:34 pm.

This post got me to thinking.  So much so that I blogged about it.  (  I cannot believe Lara’s comment!  Wow!  I never before realized there were so many.  Maybe that’s why I always pretended my dollbabies were adopted even though I was never taught what adoption was.

By Peach on Friday, April 08, 2011 at 12:32 am.

It’s not that there are so many.  It’s that there are few fairy tales that don’t involve the loss of one or more parents.  From Hansel and Gretel to Disney’s Aladdin to Luke Skywalker, it’s completely unavoidable.  You cannot control it without shunning society.  And it’s not a new theme.  It’s as old as literature. 

As for Little Einsteins, well, it’s just a show that helps teach pre-school skills such as categorizing.  Pre-school involves countless games of put-the-baby-with-its-mama.  It’s not just the way in which most people see family, it’s the way nature operates. 

The bottom line is that you can’t shelter an adoptee from this.  You can’t, and you shouldn’t.  The sooner they begin to recognize the things that make them different, the sooner they will begin to deal with those differences.

By Jeanne on Friday, April 08, 2011 at 4:28 am.

It’s a plot device as old as children’s literature. I’m a former children’s librarian (now a stay-at-home mother) and back in grad school when I was studying children’s literature there was an old saying - “First you get rid of the parents.”

The reason for this is so the child is on his/her own and must learn independence and self-sufficiency. Can’t happen if there are still parents in the mix!

There are tons of academic articles that have been written on this issue, but most parents don’t even notice. Nor to most children. As Adoptive Families, we are more sensitive to it.

By Global Librarian on Friday, April 08, 2011 at 4:55 am.

Meghan, you always hit on timely topics! We watched Tangled this weekend and I was right there with you. The thing that got me was the mother who raised Rapunzel appeared very loving in the daughter’s eyes, at least at first. When Rapunzel became disillusioned I started sneaking glances at my younger daughter (adopted from China) to see if anything was clicking with her. Didn’t seem to be. By the time the scene came in which Rapunzel was reuniting with her birthparents—who seemingly always loved and missed her—our family of four was sitting in a line on the couch. At this point we were all teary-eyed and I was holding my breath to see if this would affect my daughter, you know stir her feelings for her birth family or leave her feeling as if we “took her away.” It is such an emotional scene on a lot of levels. But here’s what happened. She reached one arm toward my husband, reached the other arm across me and out to her sister and pulled us all in together, making loving sounds, as she held us all close. However the movie occurred to her now, or may in the future, this night she was in the presence of loving her family—the one squished together with her on the couch.

By Stacy Clark on Monday, April 11, 2011 at 3:17 pm.

I enjoyed your take on it, Global Librarian.  I’m a poli sci major, so when I dissect fairy tales, I frequently see the theme of Divine Right.  Sleeping Beauty unknowingly fell in love with her betrothed to prove it was a royal connection supernaturally ordained. 

We homeschool.  My daughter is in kindergarten, and we skimmed the cause of American Revolution this year.  When we were finished, she gazed at her Disney Princess Barbies, and in an instant, the princesses were admonishing their respective princes to prepare for battle.  smile  I had to leave the room to laugh.  It’s a good thing we didn’t cover the French Revolution….

Whether or not a child is adopted, many of the themes woven into fairy tales lack practicality in a modern setting.  Fairy tales are fun.  They spark the imagination, expand a child’s horizons, and create a nice little profit for the toy industry.  But at some point, they must be tempered.  For example, Prince Charming is not the way for a girl to solve her problems.  We don’t solve problems through whirlwind relationships.  We build relationships by resolving problems.  That theme carries over into adoption as well.  Just as a prince on a white horse lacks the ability to solve the problems of others in real life, so does a child.  Whether that child comes by birth or by adoption, that child is not a fairy tale solution to anything.  In recognizing that, there is some freedom to allow one’s child to experience diverse messages, process those messages, and accept whatever conclusion that child may reach without the parents’ fearing personal rejection.

By Jeanne on Monday, April 11, 2011 at 5:27 pm.

Hello.  The theme of loss and separation is as old as literature, as one writer put it in her comments. And although literary academics have one explanation for why, academics and experts in other fields have others. 
  Many to most youngsters fantasize about separation/loss of their original parents and the life that they might have if that occurred.  They can and do explore what that might mean to and about themselve.  It is a very plausible explanation for why our children’s peers AND the adults who surround them are so very curious that they ask intrusive questions, and develop strong beliefs about why our children do not live with their “real” parents, and what that means about their familial relationships with us. 

    Regardless of WHY this is a universal and common theme in literature (plus film, the media, etc..), that offers abundant opportunity for us to help our children explore what loss and separation means to and about them—from THEIR perspective.  That is, we can learn about how they think,  feel and wonder about this IF we ask questions and respond to their expression of feelings, rather than talk AT them because we believe that we can entirely shape their views.  In my work with adopted youngsters, I have observed that this almost always backfires.  Children begin to grasp what their parents expect.  They either parrot back what they think their parents wish to hear, or they shut down these discussions and say nothing at all.  They deny their thoughts and feelings, avoiding the topic of their birth families all together—with their parents, at least. 

    Children are often very willing to approach these topics when the primary character in a film/book who has endured separation or loss because it is not themselves they are discussing.  They are often very willing to express their opinions and are very articulate about putting their own theories, beliefs, fantasies, questions and feelings into words, IF they have been given a foundation FOR discussing these issues.  We, though, have to become expert listeners, and STOP trying to indoctrinate our children to see things from our own point of view, if that is to happen.

  So, perhaps these “fairy tales” and adoption-like themes are a gift to us, as adoptive parents.  They offer opportunities to delve into emotionally-loaded topics, and to also debunk societal myths and misconceptions about adoption that our children are likely to hear from their peers when we are not present to intervene. 

  A final comment: since child trafficking is such a loaded, but pressing issue in the world of international adoption these days, some of these films/stories offer a segway into discussing that, that we can take advantage of, as adoptive parents.  It gives children the opportunity to explore this overwhelmingly frightening reality, and develop ways to reply to peers who ask questions or suggest that that is why they may have become available to be adopted.  Although these are difficult issues for us, as parents, to face and anticipate having to discuss, it is far better that WE be the ones TO discuss them with our children, than to risk that our children are discussing this with their peers without the benefit of having an educated adult perspective to help them, and then NOT reporting this to us—which is too-often what is happening.

Jane A. Brown, MSW

By Jane Brown on Monday, April 11, 2011 at 5:48 pm.
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