“This is my family. I found it all on my own. It’s little and broken, but still good.
Yeah, still good.
–Lilo and Stitch, making us all cry over an explosive dog-like alien since 2002
Orphan Black is coming back real soon, and I realise this means all the debates over what in the world is happening with Sarah’s love life are going to flare back up. Will she stay with Cal and make a complete nuclear family with their daughter? Or does she still harbour feelings for Paul despite their weird on-again-off-again-secret-military-clone-experiment relationship? Frankly, I’m just going to zone out, because what I’m really and actually invested in is her relationship with her foster brother, her daughter, her estranged reformed murderess of a twin sister, and all the closely-knit friends she’s made along the way. The family plotline, that is. Some of it blood related, most of it forged on her own terms.
“I already have a family,” she said to Helena in the finale of season one, refusing to be tied down by all the weirdness of her genetic family tree and referring instead to the bonds she’d forged by affection, and you know, the people who had actually taken care of her for her whole life and not started that life in an attempt to use her as a scientific experiment (an attempt they then mercilessly continue). Granted, she lets Helena into her life later on and they begin to form a messy but devoted sibling relationship, but that was still her choice. Sometimes, your family is a crappy place to be, whether it contains evil scientists or not, and it’s important for fiction to emphasise that it’s not only okay but sometimes better to make your own choice about who you call home.
Especially in kids’ literature, I think—there’s a trend towards unhappily adopted orphan heroes, as we’ll all know, who are lifted from the abuse/poverty/hilariously wonky living conditions they’re in by discovering that their parents were secretly wizards, or royalty, or holders of some great destiny that Our Hero is now tasked to take up. The truth of their bloodline saves the day, and you can dream of a giant busting through your door declaring “Yer a wizard” and scooping you off into the adventure you were destined for, away from your mundane and terrible home life.
An interesting case to bring up in comparison is Roald Dahl’s Matilda, who off the bat has a lot in common with Harry Potter— a young person in an obnoxious and abusive family who happens to have supernatural powers, both immediately relatable as heroes and providing the wish-fulfilment that we could magic ourselves out of horrible situations we’ve been raised in. Both end up leaving their toxic home environments and end up surrounded by people who love them. There’s a crucial difference between the two, though: Harry is saved by the reveal of his secret and much more appealing family lineage, and Matilda voluntarily leaves her biological family for better prospects.
Harry’s story is a much more common one: your life is terrible, orphan hero? Surprise, your real, but sadly dead and unable to help you, leading to you propelling the plot on your own, family were magical, giving you a portal to a better life you’ve been unknowingly destined for since the get go. This goes all the way back to Oliver Twist, the kicked-around workhouse boy discovered by chance by a rich old man who realises Oliver is his grandson. Happy endings ensue after plentiful struggle. This is a good narrative, and kind of so ingrained in our collective hearts that Matilda’s seems shocking in comparison: she left her blood relatives? But they were supposed to be where the hope was!
Matilda’s happy ending is being adopted, rather than the other way around. She finds someone kind and good, who knows her struggle, and together they rise up against the awful characters surrounding them and go off together to make their own family. Family is redefined as people who love, accept and protect you, and Matilda’s blood relatives are told, narrative-wise and literally, to go stuff themselves.
It’s important to express that getting along with the family you do have is good, and naturally popping a long-lost relative or legacy to come uplift the protagonist is a good saviour or plot-starter, but it’s also important to point out that biological connections aren’t the be-all-and-end-all of close relationships. In fact, as Matilda proved, sometimes your biological connections land you in a toxic environment, and her story told kids everywhere that you are allowed to pursue your own health and happiness by getting out and finding support and care elsewhere. There’s something fascinating and beautiful—and kind of cathartic—about characters that embrace a more loosely-defined nature of family.
It also gives us more untraditional families on screen and page: Matilda has a single adoptive mother. Lilo has her older sister, brother-in-law, extra-terrestrial best friend and two cross-dressing alien dads. Steven Universe has three (occasionally five) shapeshifting alien mums and a human dad who supports from the sidelines. Mako Mori has her adoptive father/teacher/saviour, drift companion and an entire army of international pilots and technicians who she’ll heroically protect.
For a less epic example, you can even look at Abed from Community, who makes it clear in the first few episodes that he has a very complicated and imperfect family situation, and over the course of the series starts thinking of the study group as his family in their place. He even assigns roles (Jeff and Britta as the ‘parents’ of the group, to their chagrin) for comedy’s sake, but there’s a very real undertone that he’s forged stronger emotional connections with his classmates, especially Troy and Annie, than his actual family, to the point of being distraught by the thought of them breaking apart and declaring (via a magical stop-motion adventure) the true meaning of Christmas is spending it with people you love, whether they’re the family you were born into or not, in fact the chosen family is in his case more reliable and supportive.
So it’s an important narrative that comes up in stories aimed at all ages, be they comedies or dramas of fantasy of sci-fi or cute heart-rending stories about grief and Hula dancing and patching a broken pair of sisters back together with alien hijinks. There’s something that really hits home about ‘chosen family’ narratives, whether they involve the character at their heart being adopted or simply forging strong bonds with platonic friends.
With so much fiction based on the grand destinies bestowed by who you’re born to, it’s nice—and really important—to have stories that also place high value on the bonds you forge yourself, determined not by any destiny cosmic or mediocre, but by your own choice of company for your own health and happiness.