“Kirstie”: A Shallow Take on Adoption

Racilous column topper

When I first heard the premise of Kirstie – the new show on TVLand – I was surprised and actually didn’t believe that was really the premise. I mean, I understand how adoption themes frequently make their ways into shows these days, many times they provide the dramatic plot twist a show might want, but a show whose basic premise is the story of a reunion between and adoptee and his birth mom was something unexpected. I know that when adoption is portrayed on television, it frequently uses stereotypes as a crutch, never looking too in depth at the real loss that happens. But a show that delves into a reunion – how could it possibly look at that without at least acknowledging that an adoptee may experience a void if they don’t know anything about their biological family or that a birth mother may live her whole life immersed in grief and wondering who her child is and how they are doing?

Kirstie

Reunions (and please note that this is the perspective of an outsider who has only talked to many birth mothers and adoptees in reunions and hasn’t experienced a reunion herself) are an incredibly hard and complicated relationship to traverse. Adoptees have to confront the things they may have missed out on by not knowing their biological roots. They also may feel like expressing a desire to know and love their biological family in some way subjugates the love they have for their family. Birth Mothers (or any birth family members) have to accept all they have missed in their child’s life and if the child has had a negative life they have to find a way to come to terms with their responsibility in that. Both sides have to marry the person who is with the fantasy they had created. These relationships are so complex and take a lot of work from both sides in order to succeed.

As I sat down to watch the first episode (and the subsequent three), my hope that it would reflect some of the difficulties of adoption and really look at the complexities of these relationships was pretty immediately dashed. The premise is Kirstie’s character – Maddie – is a Broadway star with a wealth of money but a lack of depth. She has only two friends – both of whom are actually employees that she pays. She is approached outside the stage door by a young man who almost immediately explains that he is the son she relinquished years before. She then sprays him in the face with perfume. As the show unfolds we find out he has a pretty crappy job, sort of dorky friends, and is definitely not the coolest guy you would meet. Maddie’s reaction seems to be embarassment – that her son isn’t cooler, that her friends will now know she’s older than she told them she was, that he is looking for money.

Her shallow reaction to all things was so frustrating to watch. I’m not saying all birth mothers react well to an adoptee asking for a place in their life, but when they don’t in my experience it has more to do with them – maybe they haven’t dealt with their own grief or they are in denial about the whole thing, or perhaps they fear letting the adoptee into their life again because they might lose them. But I have never met or heard of a birth mother react poorly to a reunion because the adoptee didn’t measure up –  because he didn’t look a certain way or have a certain job or wasn’t cool enough. That is such a dangerous idea – it feeds into some of the worst stereotypes of adoption.

In fact so much of the show seems to be Maddie showing herself as a careless shallow person and feeds into bad birth mother stereotypes. It seems every time her son reaches out to her she worries what it will do to her image or how it will affect her social life and rejects him until one of her employees calls her on it and she apologizes. And the times where she actually was trying to establish a relationship, her jealousy of her son’s adoptive mother was cringe-worthy. There are flashes of real emotions from Maddie but the truth is they are few and often interrupted by crass comments that try to be funny.

For me, there was one (somewhat) redeeming aspect to the show, and it was the adoptee Arlo. Arlo to me not only represented the regular guy in a world where everyone is way over the top, but he also showed a lot of the emotions that an adoptee might face in the first days of reunion – his initial feelings of hope and optimism, the anger and retreat when Arlo felt rejected by Maddie, the quick forgiveness and willingness to keep trying when she came around with an apology. But even though some of his reactions seemed more plausible and genuine, his story wasn’t super believable. He is a 27 who only found out when his Mother died within the last year that he was adopted (and that seems to not upset him nor have any real impact on him). He finds records which make it possible to find his birth mother – but being born in the state of New York the only way he would have his original birth certificate (OBC) is if Maddie had gotten it and passed it on, which there’s no reason to believe she did. Glazing over these two points and acting like they are no big deal seems to reinforce the dangerous idea that adoption should be filled with secrets.

I don’t know if I’ll keep watching, but if I do it will be with a hope that they will find a way to stop trying to find humor on the back of ridiculous stereotypes and will instead give the show a little honesty and depth.

About the author:
In addition to being a monthly contributor to OAB, you can also find Racilous at her personal blog Adoption in the City. There she writes about her experiences as a birth mother, navigating an open adoption with her son and his family, and how adoption has impacted her.

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4 thoughts on ““Kirstie”: A Shallow Take on Adoption

  1. This is an awesome post. I love how you said, “Kirstie’s character – Maddie – is a Broadway star with a wealth of money but a lack of depth.” Whoa. That is exactly how I felt when I watched the first episode. I had high hopes – I’ve always like Kirstie Alley. But I was hugely disappointed. I set out on a futile, one-woman Twitter tirade during the next week’s show – Kirstie and all of TVLand seemed to be on Twitter. My tweets were not acknowledged at all. I wasn’t ugly. I just tried to reach out to her and tell her that as a birthmother, I was really offended by her portrayal. She is underscoring every stereotype out there. And the way she treats her son is absolutely horrible and frankly, unrealistic.
    I realize this show is a comedy and not a documentary so I don’t expect there to be many layers of truth – but I should think the foundation of the show ought to be based in some truth. You put to words exactly how I felt. This is a great piece. You should send it to TVLand :)

  2. I’ve got this show in my Hulu queue, but I’ve been hesitant to watch it, based on reviews such as this one. I find it all the more upsetting because Alley is an adoptive mom herself.

      • In some ways it makes sense – who else besides someone impacted by adoption would come up with a premise so much about it. In other ways, you think there would be more a delicate hand in creating three dimensional characters dealing with the emotions of adoption from those who have dealt with it themselves.

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