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Orphan- there’s something wrong with adoptionland’s desire to project its crap

It’s taken me up until opening day, but of course, I’ve got something to say about Orphan, just not what you might expect.

I actually wasn’t planning on blogging about it, but in light of some of the lunacy campaigning surrounding the movie, I figured another Bastard voice tossed into the fray might not be the worst thing.

So my two cents, in seven acts, since so many have asked.

(And just to get it out of the way upfront: yup, pigtails, not unlike a certain blogger you might know… .)


Yeah fine, movie.

Get OVER it already.

Plenty of people out there hear the word, “Orphan” or read about the upcoming flick, and assume this somehow is some kind of reflection on them, their industry, their christian evangelism efforts, their adopted kids, or whatever.


It has become nothing less than a sick form of ultimate adoptionland Rorschach test, with plenty of people (many of whom are not adoptees themselves) taking offense.

Seems what any one given person sees in the poster has far more to do with who THEY are than the product itself.

All of adoptionland sees what it wants in it.

And lots of people are in for a bit of a surprise by that measure.

But how do you sit these people down and say “you know, your narcissism aside, for once, it’s not all about you” is just a losing game.

Particularly when there’s cash and media to be gained by their course of action.

Look, I’m a Bastard, an ‘orphan’ if you must, and in all honesty, I could give a rat’s ass.

The squeeky wheels of adoptionland have panicked over Orphan, convinced it will destroy adoption.

Meanwhile, idiot adoptees are running around wanting “Orphan” T-shirts and “adopting” the film’s protagonist, “Esther” as some kind of adoptee heroine, convinced her “evil deeds” all stem from adoptee lack of access to our original birth certificates.

Far as I’m concerned, these two polar extremes deserve one another, both factions are completely nuts.

tribblesNo, the arrival of “Esther” on the scene does not mean no one will ever adopt again, and that worldwide, unwanted (and now supposedly feared due to a movie) children will be stacked up like so many Tribbles.

That’s the lie at the heart of the Anti-Orphan whiner’s rant, that supply will outweigh demand if the movie goes forward.

This in a land where demand (for a certain kind of a adoptee that is) outstripped supply a LONG time back.

Nor is she any kind of Bastard superhero.

Those “adopting” her as one of us are equally, collectively, off their rockers.

As I said, all these folks, deeply invested in their own projections as they are, are in for a bit of a surprise come tonight.

The various pro-adoption factions, from secular left, to evangelical right have all found a fundraising friend in Orphan. Question is, of course, has the studio found a friend in them to help its marketing efforts? Who’s using whom, and does it even matter at this point?


Then there’s the whole hoopla over the “It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own” line. The whiners whined, the studio pulled it. Now the whiners want pro-adoption materials included in the DVD sales, adoption cross marketing tie ins at theaters etc.

Me? I think removing the line was cowardly.

Further, I think the line, spoken by Ester the Orphan actually does strike at a certain Bastard truth:

Not only IS it hard to love a Bastard as your own, I personally feel it SHOULD be.


Yeah, you heard me, right.

Adoption takes an extraordinary effort of extraordinary people. It is not and should not be, and should not be marketed as easy.

Adoption is a special circumstance. It is not ‘just like everyone else’ and there are aspects of it that are absolutely difficult.

Glossing over those, failing to acknowledge them, and otherwise sweeping them under the rug tries to drive any encountered ‘bumps’ under the rug as well, morphing them into mere personal problems, rather than acknowledging that those adopting and adopted face certain situations that non-adopted people and non-adoptive parents do not. We do so as classes of people, not only as individuals.

It is hard to love an adopted child as much as one’s own, it should be, and yes, it should take the extra effort.

Adoption and its aftermath for the people affected, takes work.

Anyone who tells you otherwise, who says it’s all easy and rainbows and pink candy cotton fluff is the real problem here, not a line in a movie that for all of about one second managed to speak a Bastard truth.

But not to fear, it’s been cut.


In this post at least I’m not going to go into the particulars of the various Anti-Orphan factions nor the pro-Orphan folks.

Marley/Bastardette has been tracking some of the Anti-Orphan lunacy though, and I’d advise exploring her coverage to date,





See the thing is, whining is cheap and easy.

If some of these nuts were at all serious, they’d be doing a bit more than mere webpage creation or whining at any microphone they can worm their way in front of.

Take the example of Queer Nation. As some of you might remember, when the Bisexual Bashing and rape glamorizing film “Basic Instinct” came out in the early 90’s, Queer Nation launched its nationwide “Basically, It Stinks!” campaign, complete with plot spoiling “Catherine Did It!” materials.

The Queer Nation focus on Basic Instinct (BI) was always about far more than just a single movie, it was a teaching example that QN focused upon as part of its broader agenda of exposing Hollywood’s ongoing pattern of homophobia.


Queer Nationals out in California got a hold of the script and production schedule and repeatedly disrupted.

Among the more creative actions was showing up with American Flags and “honk if you support our troops” or “honk for the 49ers!” as the film crew attempted to work in San Francisco.

From the start, a media campaign was launched criticizing Hollywood’s portrayals of Queers.

When the movie was finally released, QN members descended on theaters with flyers doing educational campaigns, using lines from the movie’s script to pull the rape scene out into the light of day, allowing people to evaluate it outside experience of the film.

There were attempts to gum up theater ticketing lines at single screen theaters running the film by attempting to buy movie tickets with (Queer as a) three dollar bills featuring famous Queers. While no tickets could be purchased with such, the amount of time wasted on dealing with activists ensured patrons missed start times, and cut into theater profits.

Theater goers often had to pass through picket lines and chants of “Catherine did it,” “Basically, it stinks!” or “We’re here, we’re groovy, we wanna see our REAL Queer lives in the movies.”

Domestic Violence and anti-rape materials or even a booth were set up, using the film as an educational activity. Cars in theater parking lots were flyered, stickers were made. At least one theater was treated to dead fish in its heating and cooling system, making the “Basically it stinks!” quite viceral.

Come the Oscars, Queer Nationals enacted a massive plan on many fronts and managed to get inside and disrupt, creating a rare unscripted few moments of national television.

All of which is to say, if you’re going to take on Hollywood, go big or go home. Don’t whine on webpages and attempt to fill column inches in the remaining dead tree print media.

But then again, as I said, sometimes, everything you’re whining about might just turn out to not be all about you at all.

Besides, unlike Queers fighting against their own appropriated images being utilized by Hollywood and thus working on their own behalf, many of those whining about Orphan are most certainly not Orphans themselves.

Some are members of the adoption industry, others have built their ministries on the backs of those ever useful orphans, and still others are academics, some are those desiring adoption normalization (both adoption as “normal” and THEIR adoptions as “normal”, not distinct from other forms of childraising,) and an (often overlapping) subset are adopters. But in their noisemaking ‘on behalf of’ orphans, they ultimately tend to appropriate our voices.

Real orphans and adoptees have no uniform position on the film.

So, no I may be a Bastard, but won’t be mounting an all hands on deck campaign to ‘do something’ about something as irrelevant as Orphan.

To do so would mean mounting a full scale campaign against Bastard and adoptee depictions in media, and once you take that on, you can pretty much start with Disney and work from now until forever.

Which, not surprisingly is precisely what some of these same whiners have done, a bit more scattershot perhaps, but from Stuart Little on to the Esthers of this world, some of these groups have come to realize that being upset on our behalf can fill one’s organizational coffers.


This current noisefest in adoptionland is little more than providing one hell of a distraction from real things happening in adoption, like women in Guatemala on a hunger strike, trying to regain their children stolen for American adoptions.


Are there genuine reasons to critique the damn film? Sure, and they’re plenty ‘horrific’ all on their own.

To name but a few (Quotes are taken from the PDF online production notes) :

Adoption as fix all and replacement

How about the idea of the adoptee as replacement child for a miscarriage (that over and over again is labeled an “unborn child,” (propagandistic language like that alone is enough to lose my horror film dollars.)

…Kate, a wife and mother and recovering alcoholic who recently endured a stillbirth in her third trimester. “She has a gaping hole in her womb and in her heart,” …

Clearly Kate is a model potential adoptive parent.

“She lost a child in childbirth. She’s an alcoholic, and she almost lost another one of her children because of it. She’s tortured.

Sounds like Kate’s relationship with her husband, John is no winner either.

“At its core, this is a family that was broken. Kate has extreme guilt over Max’s accident, the drinking, and even the stillbirth. Despite trying to get past all of that, John’s still not sure he can trust her, and even blames himself.”

The notion of adoptees as family fixes, and interchangeable replacements and how normalized such has become culturally here in the US is plenty scary.

The idea of bringing home a new adoptee to “heal” a marriage, is likewise, a disaster waiting to happen. The two in combination, though is pretty much precisely the kind of profile that should, at least until these crises are past precluded gaining a child. But no, both in the movies and real life, getting a hold of a kid is easier than it perhaps has any business being.

Referring to the stillbirth (here propagandistically referred to as a “child”) classic ‘transference’ language is used, take all that love for your wished for child and heap it on an adoptee.

…she’s trying to persevere and to heal her marriage and her family. Her choice to adopt is an act of kindness. She needs to do something with all the love that she had in her heart for that child…to give it to somebody in need.

Do tell, what kind of homestudy is that?

‘We’re grieving like there’s no tomorrow, and our marriage is on the rocks, oh and I almost let my other kid die, but give us a new kid, it’ll make everything all better… .’

Hmmmm, how about instead, you first work through your grief and pull yourselves together before you even begin to consider taking on some other kid. A kid who will need to be approached on their own terms, who has their own needs, and is a person in their own right, not an interchangeable cog in a machine.

But no, rather than telling such potential adopters ‘now might not be the time, you have some work to do first’, seems there are plenty of folks willing to find them a kid, the proverbial ‘Oh, that one didn’t work out? No problem, we’ll just get you another.’

Yeah, adoptees as replacements, or as a therapeutic means for adults to work out their own shit and family dramas? Yup, that’s pretty scary alright.

But rather than focusing on the everyday horror that is replacement child procurement, the act of getting an adoptee replacement is viewed as ‘good’, it’s just the details of which one they selected that makes things ‘bad.’ Had they chosen some other kid instead of Esther, we’d have a Hallmark or Lifetime channel movie instead.

Added bonus? One of the kids almost died while under the mother’s care.

Kate, still healing from her loss, is a recovering alcoholic, and her drinking has led to near-tragedy in the past when their daughter Max nearly drowned on her watch. John continues to fight the urge to blame his wife for what might have happened. The fractures in their relationship run deep, making them vulnerable and giving Esther an opportunity.

Yup this is precisely who were I a social worker (or nun) I would want to entrust a troubled child to.

The whole Russian adoptee crap

Or how about the idea of psychopath dangerous murderous Esther as a Russian adoptee?russian-flag

Because Esther is supposed to be of Russian descent, and because the character Max uses sign language to communicate, Fuhrman was also busy behind the scenes learning both sign language and an accent for the role. “It was a lot of fun learning sign language,” she says. “And I liked the accent because having a different voice changed me a bit and helped me become the character.”

Right down to the costuming.

“Esther’s silhouette is what makes her Esther—her ribbons, the traditional sort of Russian dresses that she had.

In the real world, it’s American adoptive parents murdering their Russian adoptees at a rather remarkable rate, not murderous Russian adoptees going after their American adoptive families.

Americans have certain ‘built in’ feelings about Russians, yet one has to wonder, how would the same story play were the adoptee Ethiopian?

Biological determinism and Essentialism

Or the way the film has written both womyn and children from an ‘essentialist nature’ or biological determinism viewpoint; that womyn are ‘natural nuturers’ laden with maternal instinct, for whom family comes first willing to dump their careers overboard, forsaking such to raise children, that the Mother is “fighting for her family” etc.

Kate is also a gifted pianist. We learn she had a career teaching at a prestigious music school, and she gave that up to raise a family. But her son couldn’t care less about music and her daughter is profoundly deaf and can’t hear it. However, the biggest impact on her was the loss of a child, followed by Max’s terrible accident, a near-drowning she could have prevented had she not been drinking.

She becomes a womyn defined purely by her act of motherhood, or lack thereof.

In addition to the thriller aspects of the film, Killoran was also drawn to the mother-child relationships at the heart of the story. “I think Kate is a wonderful portrayal of a woman trying desperately to do right by her children, whether biological or adopted. She just wants the best for them.”


“There’s just something really primal in that mother-child relationship,” says Johnson, “so I felt like that was really the best relationship to exploit and corrupt; to take what should be the most natural bond in the world and turn them into enemies. And I gave the mother a troubled background so that when she starts saying there’s something wrong with Esther, everyone has reason to doubt her because she’s not the most reliable person.”

The biological children, particularly the daughter character are portrayed as everything Esther is not, genuinely innocent and good.

Sign language was necessary because Kate and John’s younger daughter, Max, is deaf. The filmmakers cast first-time actress Aryana Engineer, just six years old, in the part. “Aryana was really special,” offers Collet-Serra. “She was so innocent and so full of life. In one sense, this movie is about protecting this young girl’s innocence, so that really needed to come through.”

Then there’s Esther the Orphan herself, who, looking so young, obviously must, by her very nature be considered “innocent,” “angelic” even, because that’s what children ARE. Except of course, in every sense of the word, she isn’t.

Downey notes, “The character of Esther starts off one way—you have to believe that she’s this sweet, angelic girl, who’s had a bit of a difficult past, but is excited to be part of this new family. Then you realize, no, she’s pretty evil, and she has intentions. And then you go deeper into why she has those intentions.

Likewise, much of the focus on Ether is the constructed tension between “childhood innocence” and the evil child, who has infiltrated that most sacred of institutions, the family home.

In a film, when you have an evil kid who does evil things, you start small and more subtly than you might expect in a horror movie. Little things start happening, and before you realize it you have an enemy inside the house, this little girl manipulating the situation.

The Essentialist “Nature” of Orphans in Hollywood and Bastard as intruder from within

Then there is the essentialist Hollywood portrayal of orphans themselves, starting with “The Bad Seed.”

bad-seedThe Orphan is portrayed as potential snoop, or as potentially being where they don’t belong, always around the corner, listening.

But the Coleman house was almost to scale, and also an open design with different angles and walls built for specific psychological purposes, or to hide some of the violence taking place. “We wanted a house that was open in order to get the sense that Esther could always be around the corner listening.” Jeff Cutter, the director of photography, lit the house with the same intention. “Jeff created pools of light so there was never a sense that you were able to see who was in the room; Esther could be there and the others not know it,” says Collet-Serra.

Thus they intend she be transformed into a pervasive presence, a presence that makes those around her not even safe in their own homes. She becomes “the enemy on the inside.”

“Tension and fear go hand-in-hand,” says director Jaume Collet-Serra. “The horror aspect comes in with the brutal violence the family and others face in fighting this little girl, this enemy on the inside.


Producer Susan Downey states, “We were definitely trying to tap into a primal fear that people have about what they allow into their homes, or into their lives. And I think with the best intentions Kate and John open their home to Esther, and they get completely undermined by this girl. That’s something that I think will get to people, that hopefully will create fear in viewers. But I think also that the mistakes these characters have made in their past come back to haunt them because they allow this girl to get in there and find out their darkest secrets.

The plot centers around the notion of a child’s essential nature as that of innocence, movie villans such as Esther, then are made ‘horrific’ in their violation of such notions of essentialism.

“I think a villain like this is interesting to watch,” states producer Joel Silver. “You wouldn’t want to see her in the real world, but it’s fun to see her in a movie. She’s a psychopath in the shape of a little girl who will stop at nothing.”

Stylistically they wanted “innocent” yet “rotten to the core.”

“Things that look okay, things that look completely, excruciatingly normal, are normally things to stay away from,” warns actor Peter Sarsgaard. “Even the way Esther looks—she looks like this neat, clean, perfect little girl—but of course she’s rotten to the core.”

Much as the filmmakers love to insist they’re doing something new, the heart of the matter is that it’s been done before in endless variation. Stories about orphans and those adopted, relying upon secrets and lies to provide essential plot twists are an all too familiar story. While I can appreciate the screenwriter’s love of the genre starting with “The Bad Seed” that hardly means such ‘twists’ are all that special.

Working from a story by Appian Way’s Alex Mace, screenwriter David Leslie Johnson wrote the script. “David’s screenplay delivered,” attests Silver. “He really made the story and the characters come to life.” For Johnson, it was a labor of love. “I’ve loved the genre ever since I saw ‘The Bad Seed,’” he notes. “It’s one of my favorite horror sub-genres—the evil child. There’s something very visceral to it. Viewers have a strong reaction, whether it’s a child being corrupted by the devil, or whether it’s just a bad kid…we’re very knee-jerk in our reaction to it. And I didn’t want to do it in a way that it had been done before. I wanted to find a new way into it, to bring a new angle to the subject matter. I came up with the twist at the end, the secret, and sort of worked backward from there.”

Bastard lives would be useless to storytellers were it not for our built in secrets.

And everybody has a secret— Kate has secrets in her past, John has secrets in his. Even Max is being forced to keep secrets. Of course, Esther has the biggest secret of all.”

Some of us would prefer to see real Bastard lives without secrets up on the big screen, but then what would be the draw? An orphan with no hidden twist? Why make such a film. Where’s the commerical appeal?


But my most stinging criticism of Orphan?

I grew up in the 70’s and ’80’s. I know a good horror film when I see one.

I also know a BAD one when I see one, if it’s bad enough, I’ll pop some popcorn and settle in!

From late night double chiller theater with Fritz the Nightowl, to festivals at the Drexel, to the local drive ins, I got my fair share of horror flix both good and bad.

But those in the mushy middle? Regardless of budget if the storytelling and plot devices relegate it to a predictable average, it’s forgettable at best.

how-posterHouse of Wax, (also directed by Jaume Collet-Serra) didn’t suck quite as much as most of the recent crop, it had moments that hearkened back to some of the classics, but the Golden and the Silver ages of horror are unfortunately behind us now.

Orphan, far from “showing us something new” built on the frame of the Bad Seed genre, instead gives us more of the same; a “bastard” doing the see-saw act between “angelic” and “evil,” a broken mother turning to her maternal instincts and fighting for her family against an intruder, a husband who finds his wife untrustworthy, and two biological children, the boy who questions the presence of the adoptee and a girl whose “innocence” must be protected, all set against a snowstorm.

Kick in a nun, a spooky orphanage and a good biblical name like Esther and we’re off to the races.

Far from taking the genre and challenging assumptions, or pushing boundaries, audiences will instead be given yet another helping of gender and role stereotypes. Constructs of family and home are front and center in ways that again, do not challenge the dominant paradigm.

All of which is tethered to hypernatalist notions such as the miscarriage now reframed into a missing “child” in the family whose absent space must be filled (by an adoptee) and guess what? Now you have a recipe for a movie that floats along on the tide of what Americans already think about themselves and what they already want.

These bedrock assumptions are all around us in the everyday, from what roles and expectations are for womyn on into our adoption international foreign policy.

The best horror films rely on more than a mere ‘twist,’ they challenge audiences assumptions, about who they are, about what is possible, about the value of “safe” and about what “family” means.

For Orphan to provide a genuine surprise, it would first have to transcend pretty much everything laid out in the production notes.

But twists like that are once in a director’s lifetime if they’re lucky.

And horror fans as of late, have by and large not had fortune on their side.

Yes, Orphan has a secret.

But it takes more than a secret to make a film that ascends and becomes a true classic.

8 Responses to “Orphan- there’s something wrong with adoptionland’s desire to project its crap”

  1. antiprincess Says:

    one of your best posts yet…for added stereotype fun, how about the “plucky orphan”?

  2. Mara Says:

    I am NOT an idiot, Baby Love Child. My Orphan Movie T-Shirt Petition is my smart-ass way of showing how STUPID it is to protest this movie.

  3. Lorraine Dusky Says:


  4. Baby Love Child Says:

    (Note, Lorraine’s comment was approved before Mara’s, the two are unrelated)


    Considering what lies at the core of the movie? Anyone from adoptionland getting tangled up in all this marketing starts looking pretty duped.

  5. anonymous Says:

    “It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own”

    I admit, my first reaction was just to blink and think “Yeah, I can understand why they are making a big deal out of it. it must be hard to hear such a dismissive line in a movie…”

    And then I just shook my head in amusement, because honestly… it doesn’t have to be a big deal unless one MAKES it a big deal.

    And families by adoption are NOT the same as families by blood.

  6. Mara Says:

    I’m glad that you responded back. I’d like to continue to have conversations with you and I enjoy reading your blog (most of the time LMAO.)

    Sometimes it takes outlandish and obnoxious and radical things to get the public’s attention. I don’t represent any group, per se. I represent myself: a jaded, angry, disenfranchised adoptee. Adoptoland can kiss my ass.

    I always try to find the humor in everything. It’s what has kept me sane in a life full of rejection and abuse, all of it with the State of California’s seal of approval, of course.

  7. Baby Love Child Says:

    Just added Marley’s latest brilliant blog post discussing the Congressional Coalition for Adoption Institute sticking it’s nose into the Orphan fray.

    Importantly the (Arch-enemy of restored records rights) the National Council for Adoption has weighed in and thrown in their lot with scoundrels such as these. Guess ultimately, Chuck & co. has to dance with them that brought ’em.


  8. Baby Love Child Says:

    Spoiler alert, (yes this link WILL give the plot away)

    Here’s why all of adoptionland looks pretty damn stupid at the moment.

    It’s hard to adopt an older child.

    Which was precisely what I was talking about when I said,

    Then there’s Esther the Orphan herself, who, looking so young, obviously must, by her very nature be considered “innocent,” “angelic” even, because that’s what children ARE. Except of course, in every sense of the word, she isn’t.

    Seems to me, as far as public awareness sensitivity campaigns for insulted communities on the DVD release go, there might be a different community more deserving of said spot.

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