Cinematic Adopto-Crap: Disney’s Tarzan

(Apologies for the appearance of this post. I know it’s hard to read, but when I get the line spacing the way I want it, the white background disappears, rendering the post illegible.)

I have got to quit looking at that We Love Adoption FB page. That’s where I found this:

“Look at this adoption beauty.. love to all…”

Well isn’t that nauseating.

But it surprises the spiky urchin not a whit. Disney’s Tarzanis an adoptive parent’s dream. It presents Tarzan as the perfect adoptee–his first parents even have the decency to die!–and his gorilla mother, Kala, as the Best Moms Evar! So good a job does she do in establishing proper loyalties in Tarzan that when the time comes to return to his own world, he turns his back on it without even visiting and, impossibly, becomes a gorilla instead. Feh.

I’m writing about this movie because Tarzan narrates the adoption experience from the adoptee’s point of view more honestly than any Disney film to date.  Despite itself, it addresses the unhealthy practice of denying rather than acknowledging or even celebrating differences…but it really fucks things up when it shows that this denial is the right thing to do, and that APs will be rewarded for it.

In one scene, Tarzan is sick of not being played with (even by his *”best friend,” who repeatedly ditches him) because he is so different-looking. He rails at his own reflection in a pool, and plasters his face with mud in hopes of looking more apelike. A’mom Kala discovers him doing this.

Imagine your reaction for a second here. If I found my child trying to look like another species so someone, anyone would play with him, my heart would break. I wouldn’t know what to say, but I guess I’d say something about how the fault was in the other children and not in him.

Not Kala. She wants to play Word Games and Denial:

Tarzan: Why am I so different?
Kala: Because you’re covered with mud, that’s why.

Seriously, did you read what I read? Because I read:

Child: I’m in pain!
Adoptive Mom: No you aren’t, you little silly.

So beautiful…It gets worse, Y’all.

Tarzan: Kerchak [Kala’s mate] said I don’t belong in the family.
Kala: Never mind what Kerchak said. […]
Tarzan: But look at me!
Kala: I am, Tarzan. And do you know what I see? I see two eyes, like mine, and a nose, somewhere. Ah, here. Two ears, and let’s see, what else?
Tarzan: Two hands?
Kala: That’s right. Close your eyes. Now forget what you see. What do you feel?
Tarzan: My heart.
Kala: Come here.
Tarzan: Your heart.
Kala: See, they’re exactly the same. Kerchak just can’t see that.
Tarzan: I’ll make him see it. I’ll be the best ape ever!
Kala:Oh, I bet you will!
Anyone seen my rivet gun? My mandible done dropped clean off again. What does the above say? It says “I love you very much, just as you are; so become like me, even though this is entirely impossible.” The most beautiful part of that scene, for me, is when Tarzan and Kala press their palms together and we can see how different they are while both being hands. Why insist they are identical when they so clearly are not, and when the point is supposed to be that it doesn’t matter that they’re different?
And why humor your human son in his desire to be “the best ape ever”? It makes me wince to even think about such gentle cruelty. (But this movie is full of Disney magic, so Tarzan does grow up to be the best ape ever while being human too. I wish I knew how to work that.) All right, on to the song:
“You’ll Be In My Heart”
Come, stop your crying.
It will be all right.
Just take my hand,
Hold it tight.
I will protect you
from all around you
I discovered very early on that my parents could not protect me from the things that really hurt me. In fact, I couldn’t always even explain what was hurting or why. So I quit trying, with the result that my parents were always finding out about bad things too late to help. How many times did my a’mom ask “Why didn’t you tell us?” I still suck at asking for help. It’s an admission of weakness, and weak babies get thrown away again.
I will be here. Don’t you cry.
For one so small,
you seem so strong
Damn, how this line bugs me. For one thing, Tarzan does not “seem strong.” He has, in fact, just fallen off Kala’s back because he can’t cling like a gorilla baby. For another, I’m sick to death of hearing about how “resilient” adopted children are. Yeah, sure, we’re freakin’ superhuman. That’s why it’s OK to do things like take us halfway around the world and subject us to mental cruelties, like a new name when we already know our real one, that other children can’t withstand. Seriously: we are resilient. We adjust so quickly and so well–on the surface–because we know if we don’t something terrible might happen…again.
My arms will hold you,
keep you safe and warm.
This bond between us
Can’t be broken

“Take that, stupid birth mothers! Stupid psychologists and your stupid ‘bonding is what children do to their natural mothers’ crap! Stupid! He’s bonding with ME and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

I will be here, don’t you cry.
‘Cause you’ll be in my heart
Yes, you’ll be in my heart
From this day on
Now and forevermore

You’ll be in my heart
No matter what they say

That’s sweet. But of course all “they” say to adoptive moms is How wonderful! how wonderful! how wonderful! I guess once in awhile one has to hear “Are they yours?” and “How much did they cost?” but mostly it’s How wonderful.

You’ll be here in my heart, always
Why can’t they understand the way we feel?
“I know what my infant’s feelings are. They are what I say they are. This helpless creature has attached to me not out of need but out of love, sheer pure infant love! Why can’t they understannnnnd?”
They just don’t trust
what they can’t explain.
I know we’re different, but

No, Kala, you’re not different. Your child is, and he’s marked as such forever–not like you. You can go to the gorilla grocery store or the gorilla spa alone, and nobody will know you’re an adoptive mother unless you tell them. But I guess it’s a bit of a thrill to fancy yourself an outlaw without having to suffer any of the consequences, like people who insist they’re Indians because Grandpa told them they’re 1/32nd Cherokee.

Deep inside us,
We’re not that different at all

because we both have hearts, like the cockroach and the crawdad! That makes us mother and son!

And you’ll be in my heart
Yes, you’ll be in my heart
From this day on,
Now and forevermore.

Don’t listen to them,
‘Cause what do they know?

They know the difference between a gorilla and a human.

We need each other,
to have, to hold.
They’ll see in time,
I know

No they won’t, Honey. You can’t just raise your trans-species adoptee to be a gorilla and expect nobody to notice (except in Disney movies, of course).

When destiny calls you,
You must be strong.
I may not be with you,
But you’ve got to hold on:
They’ll see in time,
I know.
We’ll show them together.

Sigh. Ambassador for humanity to the gorilla world is not the kind of job anyone should acquire for a person. And it’s no job for an infant, for fuck’s sake.

‘Cause you’ll be in my heart
Yes, you’ll be in my heart
From this day on,
Now and forevermore

Oh, you’ll be in my heart
No matter what they say
You’ll be in my heart, always

At the end of the movie, Tarzan not only rejects his heritage to become the “best ape ever,” he rejects the one bit of individuality he has been allowed. One thing Kala gets right is encouraging young Tarzan, who is a good mimic, to “come up with your own sound,” which he does. But after Kerchak dies, Tarzan does not perform a Tarzan yell in tribute.  Instead, he roars like a gorilla, proclaiming his loyalty, and stays in Africa to lead the gorilla troop in his adoptive father’s place.
Then, to put a cherry on Kala’s Reward For Adopting! sundae, the two decent humans Tarzan has met turn their backs on their entire lives to live in the jungle with him and the gorillas as One Big Happy Jungle Family. Because, shit, anyone can be the best ape ever, amirite?!
This is also Tarzan’s reward, of course, for being a dutiful adoptee–for putting up with a horrible childhood and very unaccepting a’father: he gets two new fake relatives. He does not get, or ever express any desire to know, any actual blood relatives. I’m not sure I believe the movie would have ended with this reward for him if the humans who found Tarzan had been related to him in any way. Then it would have been his duty to reject them and their world and have nothing to do with “these strangers like me” because the gorillas are his Real Family.
The only good thing this movie teaches us is that adopted children can love their adoptive parents yet still feel like they’re literally a different species than their family. It hastens to plaster over that inconvenience with pink candy bullshit, but it does admit it exists. And how sad is it that this is special and significant? It wasn’t even intended–it’s just there to build sympathy for the main character–but it’s a sop, and that’s the best adoptees can expect from popular culture.

*Tarzan’s “best friend” is voiced by Rosie O’Donnell. Yes, Rosie “My adopted kids are mistakes made by god” O’Donnell, who calls her children’s mothers “tummy ladies.” Oh, the delicious irony. It cuts up my gums, but I can’t stop chewing on it.


Filed under Adopted And Happy!, AdoptoLand, Film, Sad and beautiful

20 responses to “Cinematic Adopto-Crap: Disney’s Tarzan

  1. I am confused – people are equating a made up child’s story/movie with see your adopted children will be just fine and adoption is wonderful? Are they really implying this? Or are the using this to train the adopted child on the appropriate response to natural, normal questions?

    Mind boggled if the above is what they are doing.

  2. I don’t know what the I Love Adoption poster was thinking, because “Look at this adoption to all…” was the entire post. But I suspect there’s some of your first thing going on here, the equating thing.

  3. Great post, intruguing that Disney himself was an adopter and the theme has been in all his movies somewhere and obviously lives on stronger than ever.Wonder if adoption promotion and propoganda is in the company policy? Think how much has been achieved by Disney alone for the modern face of adoption.

  4. Lauri Lee

    “…like people who insist they’re Indians because Grandpa told them they’re 1/32nd Cherokee.”

    I had to laugh at this one because I know a PAP who used to (probably still does but I wouldn’t know because she decided to cut me out of her life because it was too much for her to hear a critical transnational adoptee when she hell bent on buying a baby and was having difficulty on the domestic market) loudly let everyone know she was an Indian because she allegedly had some infinitesimal fraction of Native American Indian blood swimming around in all her whiteness. I tried to call her on that a couple of times but the concepts of not being raised Indian or not having any Indian ties and acting entirely like a white appropriator (not that I was quite that blunt) and she looked and acted like a white American and would never experience any racial prejudice based on that fraction of Indian blood were concepts she failed to grasp. She felt that being “ethnic” and identifying with primal wound feelings (despite being raised in a large biological family) meant that she was equipped to understand being adopted.

    I couldn’t possibly accuse her of not suffering any of the emotional consequences of adoption as an AP (here’s hoping they can’t raise the funds…) when she has already appropriated all the emotions even before there has been an adoption!

    • That wannabe NDN mess gets on my spines hard. My ex-hub had a big ol’ case of “Legend of Native blood in my family means I get to borrow the shiny things I like” for awhile there.

      • Lauri Lee

        You made me go look for what NDN was as I wasn’t familiar with this term (obviously it should have been as obvious as AZN).

        Kind of thing the question of, “would your tribe recognise you and have you tried being recognised by them?” needs to be asked if you’re going make these kinds of claims, otherwise it’s just an interesting bit of family history, and warm fuzziness (or shame depending on your ethos). Did you ever challenge ex-hub on this, and if so, how did it go down?

        BTW, I’m fairly freaked out about the revelations about Disney movies and adoption. I’ve never watched many Disney films so am curious to see what other adoption attitudes are spread around in there. As it is, it has been brought to my awareness that I’ve never seen a Disney princess movie so I have put upon myself to rectifying that and will probably end up going into deep-Disney-immersion with the new agenda of adopto-crap, wish me luck in surviving this…

  5. Spare me from people who “know how an adoptee feels”. Why are they determined to get in the act? Can’t they just run along and try to identify with some other group.
    This is a great post, never thaught this pro adoption spin was in Disney movies, rainbows and all.
    I hope the I love adoption poster was overjoyed with this movie thinking primates should try to adopt, but sadly it’s the same old thing thing your real family can be replaced and you adapt.

  6. Real Daughter

    My daughter read a blog entry of mine about all Disney Princesses being bastards and started cracking up. She didn’t know Walt was an adopter, either. Now, every time she sees anything Disney related she yells, “They’re all f&Cking adopted!!” funny to us, but not so funny at the mall in the Disney Store.

    • Lauri Lee

      Wow, all these years of Disney allergy have sheltered me. I haven’t gotten far in the Disney Princess movie watching thing yet, but was watching Beauty and the Beast and afterwards I wondered (because it’s Disney) is this how the original story went? So quick look at wiki and evidently the in the first published version by Villeneuve, ” Belle’s story reveals that she is not really a merchant’s daughter but the offspring of a king and a good fairy. The wicked fairy had tried to murder Belle so she could marry her father the king, and Belle was put in the place of the merchant’s dead daughter to protect her.”

      So my question to the Disney writers is, why isn’t she f##king adopted?!

  7. @Lauri Lee, I never did challenge him. A lot of this stuff was going down while the marriage fell apart. I’m pretty sure he gave it all up after the divorce anyway (?).

    I’m not sure any of the movies I intend to discuss contain “Disney Princesses.” That’s kind of odd….

    • Lauri Lee

      It seems Disney Princess adoption is kind of odd.

      Snow White (1937) and Cinderella (1950) – full orphans but with wicked stepmothers (as I guess adoptive mothers).

      Aurora (Sleeping Beauty – 1959) – both parents living but they have willingly relinquished her to be raised by a protective threesome of fairies (could be something in that for gay adoption advocacy…). Reunited with parents as part of the ‘happily ever after’.

      1966 – Walt Disney dies.

      Rapunzel (2010) – both parents living but kidnaped, raised, and kept captive by Mother Gothel. Reunited with parents as part of the ‘happily ever after’.

      Apart from the fairies, adoptive parents aren’t looking too good if you consider the wicked stepmother archetype an adoptive mother. Walt obviously wasn’t there to oversee Rapunzel.

      Other Disney Princesses are later and mostly just have single parents. Impostors to parenthood seem to be gone, although there is a disturbing disproportionate lack of mothers and the loss of doesn’t seem to be worth mentioning in the films (well, not the ones I’ve watched so far).

      Ariel (The Little Mermaid 1989), Belle (Beauty and the Beast – 1991), Jasmine (Aladdin – 1992), and Pocahontas (1995) – all have living fathers. Mothers not mentioned.

      Mulan (1998) – both parents living.

      Tiana (2009) – mother living, father dead but part of the narrative.

      (Jeezus, I don’t believe I was curious enough to have looked into this… )

  8. Interesting article…Just a thought, it hasn’t been mentioned, but take a look at the 1953 Disney version of Peter Pan, then read the unabridged version by J.M.Barrie…

  9. Thanks, Graeme! I read the original Peter Pan many times, but I don’t think I saw the Disney version more than twice, although I had the soundtrack album as a kid. The “What makes the Red Man Red?” number bugs me all to Hell, but I think I could re-watch the rest of it.

    B.J. Lifton compared adoptees to Peter in Journey of the Adopted Self IIRC, saying we’re “betwixt and between” like he was. And we certainly never grow up: I’m 47, and very tired of being referred to as “an adopted child.”

  10. Aidan

    I found this article very interesting; it was nice to see another perspective. However, I found this article Googling “Disney’s Tarzan and adoption,” so I was coming from a very positive place.

    I’m sorry that as an adoptee, you have such strong dissonance within you. I recognize that every experience is different, but this movie touches a deep chord for some of us. I am an adult. I was adopted as an infant. I hated my mother growing up because of her personality, but I loved her as my mother. My father and I were close. As an adult, I love my mother very deeply, and my 3 year old, 8 year old, or 16 year old self could not have believed that, ever. We were very different people. My sister (also adopted) was like my mother, and never went through that. Having met my birth family (awesome siblings and cousins, much like me, but a f**ked parental generation), I can say that I have been changed by my real parents. My birth parents did not give me positives. My real parents did, and they taught me, and I learned how to be whole, real, and myself. But what I learned, ultimately, was that I admired who they are, and the values they hold, and the selflessness and compassion I learned by experience.

    And “You’ll Be In My Heart” makes me cry every time (as an adult male). I sent it to my mother as a gesture of love, and she cried as well. It’s very special to me.

    I guess I see this in a similar well-meaning dissection of the Disney message in the same way that we see misogynism or racism, sadly, still involved. However, this movie is based on an existing novel, and I think that the message should be construed as positive. Adoption is an underrepresented issue; any exposure is valuable, and this one is touching to some of us. To rip into it is to devalue the positive experiences some of us have had.

    And interesting bit about Walt being an adopter. I guess that explains the orphans. He was a good man, and a bad one. People are complex, as is the world.

    Sorry for commenting on a year-old thread.

    • Not to worry, Aidan. I don’t mind new comments on old posts. I don’t mean to represent my feelings as universal, either. I’m a huge fan of animation, and am constantly amazed at its ability to make me cry. I’m sorry if you feel I devalued your experience. My adoption experience was/is a good one, too, and, while I wouldn’t invite my relatives to read my blog, I don’t feel that deviating from the “master adoption narrative” is devaluing it.

      A lot of people land here searching for pictures of Kala and Tarzan. I suspect most of them click away pretty quickly. (-:

      If someone ripped up my favorite Disney film (which has an adoption theme), I might comment on an old post too. Thanks for reading.

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