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By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Meet the Robinson’s – An Opportunity for Dialogue

Posted By on June 30, 2009

Meet the Robinson’s – An Opportunity for Discussion
By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev
Okay, I know that I am supposed to be a queer parenting columnist, and for those of you who have been following my last few columns you may think I’ve morphed into more of a movie reviewer. The funny part is that I see only a small handful of movies a year. Perhaps that makes me hyper sensitive to the images that are portrayed; I often do feel a bit like a visitor from another planet ("Are aliens real, Momma?" "Yes, dear, you live with them.")

Anyone see the new movie "Meet the Robinson’s"? There is some fun and redeeming qualities of this movie, not the least is the 3-D glasses. However, as I sat in the movie, with my 11-year old son on my right and my 7-year old son on my left, I found myself growing increasing nervous as the story unfolded. Briefly, it is story about a boy with a penchant for scientific experiments who winds up in a back-to-the-future-type escapade complete with odd characters reminiscent of the Addams Family.

However, there are images and themes in Meet the Robinson’s that are enormously challenging for families formed by adoption. First of all, the main character, a boy who resides in an orphanage, is rejected by over 100 potentially adoptive families; not surprisingly, he fantasizes about meeting his birthmom. Of course, orphanages simply do not exist anymore in the U.S., sending a confusing message to children who are domestically adopted. These scenes evoke an awkward tension; my younger son grips my hand whispering, "Why doesn’t anyone want him?"

Children’s stories are rife with questionable images about adoption, orphans and homeless waifs starting with the Grimm Brothers, and continuing on in through Disney. From Snow White and Cinderella to Tarzan and Aladdin; from Peter Pan to Harry Potter, the main characters in children’s stories are often unwanted, or lost, rejected by stepparents, or rejecting of a society that has no place for them.

In Stuart Little, the new adoptive parents relinquish their son to a couple masquerading as his birthparents with nary a legal investigation or a social work intervention. ("Can that really happen, Momma?" "Yes, dear, but only in a world where people actually adopt a mouse who can talk and raise him as their child.)

In The Country Bears, the only non-human in the family who is struggling with feeling different asks if he is adopted. The answer he is given: "No, honey, of course not." That should explain why he is a bear in a family with humans!! The movie, Blades of Glory (violent, homophobic, and totally inappropriate for children of any age) features an adoptive father who abandons his son on the side of the highway when he ceases being a gold medal winning ice skater. ("Can someone really do that, Momma?" "No, dear, though parents sometimes want to.")

There is no doubt that the messages in children’s movies about adoption are beyond bizarre, reinforcing the societal belief that adoptive families are simply not "real" or permanent. It’s all I can do to not jump out of seat, freeze frame the movie, and rant loudly about the evil media moguls. I have to decide which will require more intensive therapy for the children later in life – weird adoption messages in the media, or the lunatic mother screaming in the aisles.

I err on the side of caution, though I’m please to see that some parents have chosen to tell Disney how hurtful these images can be. I think it is always good to critically examine the messages our children receive from media and speak truth to power. I confess, however, that I am surprised when parents and adoption experts say they expect more from Disney – I personally expect Disney to be sexist, racist, and homophobic, and I’m always pleased when they miss an opportunity to offend.

Nonetheless, I do not want to censor movies like Meet the Robinson’s. In part because this therapist-mom really does understand that these lost boys and girls of fairy tale fame are metaphors for universal feelings with which all children struggle. I also appreciate that parental death, homelessness, and rejection are perilous dangers that very real children experience. In reality, there are children who are still waiting to be adopted, for myriad reasons. There are children who are homeless and rejected and mistreated. There are children who struggle with questions about their origins, and wonder about their birthmothers, and if they will have a "forever home."

These emotionally-laden messages about adoption and families are part and parcel of our culture. Even though it can be painful to see my children’s foreheads wrinkle up with worry lines, I also notice that a minute later they are laughing at some nonsensical joke, learning like we all do, to hang on and ride this bucking bronco of life, while we are trying to figure out what it all means.

[Spoiler]: The movie ends with the protagonist choosing to pass up the opportunity to meet his birthmother, bringing the move to an interesting resolution, one that encourages conversation and discussion. Meet the Robinson’s evoked many questions for my children, about adoption, about families, and about the value of time-travel and I try to answer them as honestly as I can. ("Can people really travel through time, Momma?" "Of course, dear, once you invent the time machine.") 

I do not want to shelter my children so they only see happy adoption tales that mirror what I hope is how they see their own personal adoption stories. I want my children to engage with the world on its own terms, as harsh as those terms can sometimes be. I want my children to be able to emotionally participate in conversations about complex issues like adoption and to appreciate the universal quest to understand where we come from and the meaning of our lives. The movies only introduce the topic; it’s my job as a parent to facilitate the discussion.