Downton Abbey’s Alarming Failure to Pander

or, How Can TV Writers  Fail to Consider My Fee Fees?

(This post needs editing in a bad way. For one thing, I don’t remember the show as well as I thought I did.)

So there’s this TV show. The snurchin watched the first three seasons and has currently lost all interest, but she remembers it pretty well, and (warning!) is about to spoil some of it for you.

On Downton Abbey, one of the noble Crawley family’s three daughters, Edith, has a baby out of wedlock. She does what wealthy women in such a situation did back then: flees to France to give birth in secret, leaves the  baby with a rich family, and “gets on with her life.”

However, the show currently takes place in (I think?) the 1920s, so this is not an adoption. When Edith changes her mind, she simply goes and retrieves the baby. She can’t keep her, of course; she moves her daughter from France to live with a family on or near the Crawley estate, so she can interact with her.

And Dr. Russell Saunders of The Daily Beast hates that, because he’s adopted a kid and attempted another adoption. He wishes Downton could be a bit more modern about these things,  like it was about that one gay character. He knows “it would be ridiculous to expect contemporary mores about adoption to apply” to this situation, but he goes right ahead and demands them anyway.

Then he’s sad when he gets them, because they’re too contemporary. Make yourself comfy; this is gonna be a long one.

First, the lack of contemporary mores: Dr. Saunders apparently wishes the show had considered the grief of the first “adoptive family” for no reason other than to see the grief of a contemporary adoptive family. We have no evidence they grieved; even Saunders can only muster “presumably loving” to describe them. Perhaps they thought of themselves as fostering a child, not parenting it. Perhaps they thought of themselves as helping someone out of her trouble. Perhaps they were relieved to not have to raise the girl. Who knows? What we do know is that they did not adopt. So when Dr. Saunders’ “thoughts immediately turned to the family that had loved the baby and lost her,” he was definitely wishing Downton Abbey would portray them as a contemporary pair of PAPs whose adoption fell  through after years of waiting and hoping and wishing and praying for someone like Edith to get knocked up and give them the greatest gift a couple can ever receive….and for no reason at all. Not only is it probably not realistic, these are incredibly minor characters.  I can’t even imagine where the scene would go or how incongruous it would seem. (“Hey, remember those French people? They’ll never be part of the story again, but we need you to know they’re real sad now.”)

But it really bugs Dr. Saunders that “[t]here was scarcely a mention that Edith’s change of heart would wreak havoc in theirs,” even though there’s no reason to suspect any heart-havoc happened. And he knows that, and he knows it’s wrong to ask that it change, but he really wants it to change. He relates to those barely-even-characters, and feels for them. And so, it seems, he wants his their pain to be part of the story.

It hardly occurs to him that we don’t see this couple because they are not part of the story. The Lady Edith’s baby Downton Abbey plot thread is not about that first family. It is not about an adoption. It is certainly not about an adoptive couple and what they went through and how long they waited and their special deal with god and their adoption that fell through and their trip overseas and their RADish and their adoption that “disrupted” (all by itself) and their book and their blog and their blahblah snore fart sound. It’s not about them.


I think that’s what really annoys Dr. Saunders, not the fact that the show didn’t project contemporary values back in time for his pet issue (as I’ll eventually argue, it sort of did). He’s finally encountered a conversation addressing something vaguely like adoption that isn’t about him, the adoptive parent. I am entirely sincere when I tell you that, should they choose to do so, adoptive parents can still easily live their whole lives without encountering such a conversation, if they want to. And some of them still want to.

The use of “What about the adoptive parents?” in conversations about adoption is starting to remind me an awful lot of “What about the men?” in feminist circles or “What about the white people?” in conversations about race. What ABOUT you, Dr. Russell? Conversations about adoption are expected to be all about you and your feelings. You are the people with the power and the voice, and yet the minute someone doesn’t pay proper fealty to you, an injustice has been done, even if only to minor fictional characters.

Back at Downton, “another family is now raising [Edith’s baby] as their own, and loving her just the same.” This second family is shown to care about the baby very much–i.e. they are being presented as the good, progressive adoptive parents  Saunders wanted to see. They even took in a child from a sort of “disrupted adoption”! They even have a form of “open adoption”! What could be more contemporary while still being reasonably true to its time? Dr. Russell should be pleased with Edith now, right?

Especially since the audience’s sympathy is with this couple as well as with Edith. They are loving people! We’re even expected to consider their suffering, as he just requested for the first couple! Isn’t it actually better for all involved that Edith placed the baby with them? No, Sirree, not to Russell Saunders.

Why? Because the “progressive” adoption story he said he didn’t want but really does want is too progressive: It does not feature the proud new adoptive couple as the One True Pair of parents. What Dr. Saunders really wanted was a nice, contemporary-flavored Downton Abbey story about adoption featuring a nice, nuclear, Baby Scoop Era adoptive family–not a contemporary, progressive one. But this “adoption story” is going all wrong! Why can’t the baby’s “second adoptive father” (he isn’t) and Edith see “the damage they are doing”?

To what “damage” does Dr. Saunders refer? The damage wrought when the “second a’father” asked Edith, the child’s wealthy, noble mother, to be more involved in her life and to be her godmother. This hurt the “second adoptive mother’s” feelings, because the child already had a godmother. But if you were a pig farmer raising someone else’s kid, especially if you loved her, wouldn’t you want her to have friends in high places, mother or not? And if you were the kind of loving, educated, contemporary, progressive  adoptive father Mr. Saunders said he wanted to see, might you not you feel it would be in your daughter’s best interests to grow up knowing her heritage and her mother? (Oh Hell no, that’s going too far. That woman’s hurt feelings are too important, and we are going to turn this time machine around and go back [or is that forward?] to the 1950’s RIGHT NOW.)

“When the farmer’s wife objected that the child already had a godmother, I could feel her frustration and anxiety. Her love for her daughter has weight, too, and the show owes it to her character to honor it.”

If the show/actress makes it plain that this love exists, isn’t it already being honored? Or would true honor for that love require Lady Edith to turn her back on her daughter and stay out of this couple’s lives forever like a “good birth mother” of the 1950s or 1960s? I think it would require that; in fact, I can’t think what else it would require in Dr. Saunders’ mind. Because I got something wrong about him. I thought he wanted to see a story that would show us what contemporary APs might feel in this situation, i.e., pain. But no. Toward the end of his essay, he says very clearly, “I don’t want to see the little girl’s *adopted parents [sic] in pain.”

(Fuck Lady Edith’s pain. Fuck the baby’s pain, which it will obviously never feel because these two would do such a good job of parenting if that cow would just get out of the way.)

Imaginary people who remind Dr. Saunders of himself, it seems, should not have to feel pain at all. Saunders needs for the APs to be the two and only parents because they are like him. And when people like him  appear in adoption stories, they have always been the main characters and the good guys. Good guys don’t get hurt–they get rewarded. And the reward of adoption was supposed to be the gift from someone else of a baby that has (somehow) never, ever been anybody else’s. Not this “pain” bullshit.

Meanwhile, the people who actually want change in adoption are speaking out and have been for some time. Adult adoptees and our first families want to tell our truths about our stories in our words. You still have most of the power, Dr. Saunders, but you can’t be the main character in every story that involves (or almost involves) adoption anymore. And I don’t care very much how you feel about that.

*?! She didn’t adopt them!Seriously, y’all need to cut that “babies adopt adults” bullshit out, NOW.



Filed under AdoptoLand, Stop Saying That, Tee vee

11 responses to “Downton Abbey’s Alarming Failure to Pander

  1. Brilliant. Just brilliant!

  2. Reblogged this on elle cuardaigh and commented:
    Thank you, Adopto-Snark, for just the right amount of necessary snarkiness in this post. As a Downton Abbey fan and an adoptee, I appreciated it.

  3. My grandmother was adopted in the 20’s. i have watched this show and followed this story, waiting to see how it pays out. I agree with you. My grandmother, before there were any of these actual “adoption” laws (those didn’t get put into play until a few years later (thanks Georgia Tann, you bitch) and she had I guess what would be called now, a semi open adoption. Her mother had died from complications to childbirth, but she did always know her birthfathers name. She also went to meet him when she was an adult.

    Adoptive parents just need to get the hell out of the way, and let the people who were affected by the loss, (not the ones who benefited from it), the adoptees and birthparents, speak.

  4. Nancy Rodgers

    I so enjoyed reading this, wonderful. Of course Dr. Saunder’s world revolves around himself and those like him, so 1920 should be changed to suit him.
    I had watched for the costumes but didn’t stick around when I saw this story line starting up..

  5. Cindy A.

    Reads coherent to me, course being a one of ”those” mother’s probably has something to do with it. (see can read can see.. I had to do a double take to catch it) You wouldn’t perhaps be one of thoooose, would you? (meaning a perfectionist) (~_~)
    I don’t suspect Dr. Saunders could handle being one of ”those” mother’s or father’s.. the grief and pain that Disney and so, soooo many shows, tv series, and movies cause natural parents (and adoptees too) you can’t get away from it, so it seems. Many 50’s and 60’s tv westerns are even saturated with -adoption- related stuff. Dr. Saunders *seems to be* clueless in that department. If he wasn’t so seemingly clueless, he might have been willing to allow a natural mother contact/hope in regard to her child and been content to stay silent on the matter. .. perhaps. But then maybe his seeming cluelessness is because all the adoption loss related crap! makes -him- feel good so he doesn’t notice. Ya think?
    I don’t get his upset at all though. It’s not like one of us -mothers- took baby back and road off into the sunset, (oh what a heartwarming, happy storyline!) she still didn’t have custody of her child!

    • Thanks, Cindy A. Often I read back over what I’ve written and it seems so ranty I can’t believe I didn’t have to wipe the foam away when I was done.

      I’m so glad you mentioned the effects the media can have on adoptees and first mothers. I had several paragraphs in there about the long history of orphans in literature and how I bet this guy never thought about how his adoptee feels about that, but I cut it.

      Yeah, I suspect he had a deadline and nothing else to say. I can’t believe he really expected anyone to take this “What about the feelings of adoptive parents who are both imaginary and not adoptive parents?” mess. I mean, he didn’t even try to apply it to actual adoptive families/lives, which he totally could have done. Instead he just Baaws.

  6. Cindy A.

    You dear snarkurchin, It seems a shame that you cut several paragraphs especially from the adoptee point of view. Have you thought about having someone or a small team of post previewers? People you are comfortable and confident with in regard to ”saying what needs to be said, in the best way it could be said”, (while not taking away from the snarkyness that makes you so endearing to those of us who are ‘snarky wired’ too.) Friends who might be able to help tweak what you are trying to, wanting to and (most importantly, I think) needing to say, to where you can be comfortable with it. Sometimes things seem ‘ranty’ (or *more likely* others are telling us we’re ”ranting”) when in fact what we are saying and the way it is said is simply putting an uncomfortable truthful ”pressure” on them. I looked up the word -rant- which, as always, led to looking up further definitions.. and I came to pretentious and bombastic.. I don’t think that describes you at all. I appreciate what you say and (esp. in the superman post and a couple of others, which I can’t find or remember title now) the snarky way you say it. You have an ability to point out how ludicrous so much of this adoption stuff is. I have to thank you for the laughter you have given me over the years, even though I suspect some was really grief coming out and as such, I have to thank you again… for being a ‘safe place’ to mourn, the loss of my son. ..and my grandparents, and to heal.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Cindy. I felt the paragraphs were off-topic. Maybe I’ll use them in another post.

      It might be of help for me to run a post by someone who has nothing to do with adoption now and then. I do have two readers whose opinions I’d trust to the grave (you know who you are).

      I worry about “ranting” because I started this blog as a way to blow off steam and crack wise, hoping other adoptees would be amused. Since then, commentors have told me they learn from the blog. So when I said I worried about ranting, I meant I didn’t want to prove unintelligible to people who don’t already agree with me, but who are open enough to my ideas to read posts of my usual snark level.

      I would have predicted there are no such people, Sometimes it’s a wonderful thing to be proven wrong.

  7. I just love this. What a breath of fresh air. I am, of course, my own expert, as I am both a first mother and an adoptive mother. I did not suffer the heartache of infertility. I adopted to “rescue” a Vietnamese orphan, but that’s another story. I identify with Edith because what happened to her happened to me: nice, respectable girl falls in love, loses lover, has baby, goes away, and surrenders baby to presumably “better” parents. They weren’t, but that’s another story. In Edith’s shoes, I would have done exactly what she is doing. That is totally comprehensible to me. What isn’t comprehensible is the second adoptive mother’s jealousy. She already has several children, so she knows that the bond between mother and child is of a different order than that between adoptive mother and child. I’m not saying there isn’t love there, lots of it, but it’s not the same. If the show were realistic, it would show the adoptive mother’s relief at having help with this extra child brought into her household by her husband. It wasn’t even her idea! Now she all possessive and jealous? I don’t buy it. If my adoptive son could find his first family, I would be the first to rejoice with him. Because I love him, and it’s not all about me.

  8. kathleen mann

    Fantastic! Loved this.

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