The Avengers: Is the Adoption Joke Funny, Offensive, or Both (as is often the case)?

Along with a zillion other people, my husband and I saw The Avengers when it came out.  I had been warned ahead of time not to bring my daughter Katie (which was not a problem because Katie is too young for the movie).  But the reason I was warned wasn’t due to her age, it was due to her status as an adoptee.

Apparently, I was told, the movie contained a joke at the expense of adoptees.

So, here’s how it plays out:

During the film, there is a scene where Thor is defending his brother Loki to The Avengers.  Then one of the Avengers complains that Loki has "killed 80 people in the last three days."

Thor responds, "He's adopted."

I put a post on the Portrait of an Adoption Facebook page about how I didn’t like the joke because I thought it would be hurtful to adoptees.  The resulting discussion – one of the most lively ever on the Portrait page—was really fascinating.

I was surprised (and reassured, on behalf of Katie) to find that the adoptees who commented on the post largely said that they found the joke funny and that it didn’t upset them.  They talked about how they often make their own jokes about biological versus adopted kids in their families.

What was really interesting was that the people most likely to be offended by the joke were either adoptive parents of young children or birthparents, because we are worried about how stereotypes about adoption might be harmful to our kids (the protective mother bear instinct), but the adoptees themselves took the joke in stride.

One of the lessons I have learned from this discussion is that it is good to be aware of possible negative consequences of jokes, but that it is also important not to take things too seriously.  The best possible outcome is an honest discussion, with an ability to appreciate jokes while also maintaining sensitivity to others.   When does a joke cross the line from funny to harmful?  When does a joke based on a stereotype translate into actual discrimination?

And when can we just laugh? When can we say, hey, that was funny!

A few thoughts from my commenters:

Julie: “I have to say, I thought it was kinda funny. My brother and I were adopted; sometimes when he or one of my sisters does something less-than-intelligent, I quickly point out that I was adopted! They think it's funny - we try not to take it all too seriously :) Just my 2 cents...

Sarah: “I was adopted by my step dad at 3 yrs old and growing up I would have found that funny. We used to tease my little brother saying he was adopted from aliens from another planet. It was all just joking fun, but NOW as a birth mother, those comments sting a little. Before I would brush them off, but not so much anymore. because now I don't see myself as the adopted child, I see my little 4 year old beautiful child and don't want him to be in that stereotype. =/

Susanne: “I had a strong reaction to that - thought how would my daughter feel if she heard that statement and what discussion would ensue about why people laughed (including me). The conclusion I drew was that what made it funny was that Thor was espousing a belief so very strongly, and then did a rapid backpedal. I think it would've been amusing, too, if he'd been proposing any viewpoint & then when challenged, did a quick reversal. I felt good about understanding that what made it funny really had nothing to do with being adopted, but more about that rapid shift.

Jonathan: “The "joke" isn't that he is adopted it is that he isn't Thor's blood brother.  No one is saying the root of his evil is from the fact that he is adopted - that is a very, very over-dramatic and over-sensitive interpretation of the joke.  The "joke" is the fact that Thor defends him, it is pointed out that he is evil, and Thor backpedals... his being adopted isn't the joke, it isn't implied that it is the source of his evil, nothing... nothing bad about adoption at all except for the fact that Thor uses it as an excuse not to continue defending him as his brother... because of a very valid point about the nature of his character.  We need to be careful how we portray things. No one said "adopted kids turn out to be evil" and interpreting the joke to mean something it didn't is irresponsible.”

Linda: “I'm glad this has sparked discussion, I'd like to see a post based on how we look at humor in the world. What is constituted as appropriate and inappropriate? What does society accept? Does that need to be changed? How do we prepare children for a society that is very slow to change? How do we teach them to react appropriately to cruel or inappropriate comments, jokes, or communication?

I really enjoyed seeing the different opinions.  Interesting how a simple comment on Facebook can lead to such a rich discussion, where people can have different takes on the same issue and can express those differences without launching personal attacks at each other.  It is cybercommunication at its best.

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  • This joke has nothing to do with adopting, adoptees, the institution of adoption, or parents who adopt. It's Thor distancing himself from his brother by saying they're not related. Plus, they're immortal gods, which makes this entire argument meaningless.

  • This was one of the first down falls of this country when we lost our humor "oh! we can't joke about this or that or him or her" followed by the push that "we have to be more sympathetic" so everyones feelings don't get hurt at some point or another. Grow up everyone! or at least lightin up, lifes to short cry and pout every little thing that someone says or does that you don't like. Parents, whether you adopted your kids or not as long as you are a parent first and a friend second and you teach your kids "right from wrong" and "honesty and respect" they will grow up just fine.

  • In reply to 1TruAmerican:

    Hmm... 1Tru-- I hardly think Carrie was suggesting censorship or anything. As someone who is currently going through adoptive-parent certification right now, I've read a bit about the sensitivities among adoptive families about adoptions portrayal in popular culture, and I think this parent the most sensible thing. She took a "look-before-you leap" approach and previewed the movie before bringing her daughter. And the responses to her other posting from parents and siblings should be very inspiring. I think it is great that family members are looking out to protect each other -- isn't that what we what from all families? Great blog posting Carrie.

  • I saw the movie and I thought it was funny because Thor was trying to distance himself from something his brother did. It wasn't trying to make anyone who was adopted not seem like they are not a part of family.

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    All the coolest heroes are adopted-- Batman, Superman and Spider-Man. http://www.catholicreview.org/blogs/open-window

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