A few years ago, I taught Intro to Playwriting for kids, ages 11-13. On the first day, I asked students what kinds of plays they each wanted to write. To my surprise, nearly half of them wanted to write plays that featured an orphaned protagonist. As someone who had once been legally classified as an orphan, I had grown up with mostly negative associations with the word. “Orphan” always conjured up images of hungry children, cold and alone. In my young mind, orphanhood was something I had needed to be saved from. So what was the attraction for these kids, who were by and large from two-parent families of middle-class income or higher — that is, kids who did not outwardly seem to have much in common with orphans?
Oliver Twist, Cinderella, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre, Annie, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Superman, Spiderman and most of the X-men … Western literature (and later, television, movies and comic books) has been populated with parentless children since Ellen Montgomery first crawled into the hearts and minds of readers in Susan Warner’s 1850 novel The Wide, Wide World, often considered America’s first bestseller. However, the place occupied by orphans in popular culture has been largely defined by the wants and needs of society at any given time. Charles Dickens wrote the character of Oliver Twist to build sympathy for the plight of the poor in Victorian England. Mark Twain sought in Huckleberry Finn a child’s voice through which he could critique American institutions like slavery and the wealthy elite. Thus, the orphan character has been traditionally deployed as a strategy of sorts by writers who did not share its displaced status. My students’ intentions reflected its shifting role over the years, from 19th century moral wake-up call to 21st century fantasy figure. And I have to admit, I found it curious.
Somewhere in my files, I have a piece of paper from Holt Adoption Agency in Seoul titled “Application for Certificate of Orphanhood.” This status meant that I was not registered with a family lineage in Korea and was thus a non-entity by that society’s patriarchal standards. But it also meant that by American economic standards, I was a desirable commodity. I did not come with any baggage in the form of pesky relatives who might show up later in life, nor any known history that might further complicate things. I was a clean slate and therefore highly adoptable. In that shift in connotation from non-entity to desirable daughter, the word “orphan” shows how adaptable it can be, depending on the needs of the situation. In a society that privileges the individual, my clean slate created the possibility of self-creation. In America, I could be anyone I wanted to be. And it is this Horatio Alger-like myth of the self-made person that I believe so attracted my students to the idea of orphans. After all, they had seen this theme played out in orphan stories from Anne of Green Gables to Batman.
After the success of Superman (himself an orphan) in 1938, DC Comics wanted another superhero title, so they enlisted comic book writer Bob Kane and artist Bill Finger. Kane and Finger decided that, rather than the lone survivor of a doomed planet, their caped crusader would be human, but they wanted him to have a complicated backstory that would give him both psychological complexity and emotional vulnerability. So they made him an orphan. Kane describes it this way: “Bill and I had discussed it, and we figured there’s nothing more traumatic than having your parents murdered before your eyes.” And with that, Batman was born, with a now-famous origin story involving him witnessing his parents’ murder at a young age. In stripping their protagonist of his parents in this way, Batman’s makers wanted to elicit sympathy from readers while instilling in their character a dark and deeply personal sense of justice. This sense of justice drives Batman to become “the world’s greatest detective.” What his creators perhaps didn’t realize was that they had also written a potent fantasy figure, blending the pathos of Dickensian foundlings with the mythos of the self-made man.
In her study of the portrayals of orphans and foster care in America, scholar Claudia Nelson notes: “The United States has long-presented itself as both self-made orphan (it celebrates every year the anniversary of the severing of its relationship with the mother country) and as adoptive parent to countless immigrants.” The dream of upward mobility and reinvention has been poured into our nation’s psyche with the orphan figure as the ideal empty vessel to hold it. Further, in his examination of the role of superheroes in our society, Danny Fingeroth writes: “To be an orphan means the possibilities are endless. We are not from the small town, the confining neighborhood, the constricting ethnic roots … We could be the King of England, the scions of industrial wealth.” Here is the key to my students’ imaginings. One young playwright was writing about a girl whose parents were both dead but who discovered during the course of the play that she was descended from royalty. Another orphaned protagonist had to outsmart mean aunts and uncles in order to solve a mystery and earn her rightful inheritance. These characters were extensions of my students’ fantasy selves, free from rules, exceptionally intelligent and with special powers. Just like Batman and his young fellow orphan, Harry Potter.
Perhaps no one embodies the 21st century fantasy orphan myth like Harry, that literary and cinematic juggernaut. Unlike Bruce Wayne, Harry has no memory of his parents’ death. Rather than turning him brooding and cynical like Batman, Harry’s orphanhood reinforces his innocence and compels him to figure out why exactly his parents died. Further, as author J.K. Rowling told The Guardian, “Harry had to be an orphan, so that he’s a free agent, with no fear of letting down his parents, disappointing them.” Not only does Harry’s displaced status afford him independence, but it also allows for the possibility that Fingeroth describes – that he could be exceptional, the prophecy, The One who will take down Voldemort. Who wouldn’t want to discover one day, in the midst of his mundane life, that he was truly a wizard?
I do not fault my young students for indulging their fantasies through their writing. They were simply mirroring what popular culture has sold them. What I find troubling is how our culture sells the idea of “orphan” in such blatantly opportunistic terms. Need a lone hero with a tragic backstory who will appeal to readers? Or perhaps you’re looking for a preternaturally cheerful and spunky kid who will transform lives and make audiences feel great? Make him or her an orphan. Yet as we adoptees know, the reality of being “orphaned” is infinitely more complicated, populated by real-life characters that resist stereotype, emotions that defy predictability, and endings that are anything but neat (and hardly any spontaneous dance numbers). Rather than masking some latent and important destiny, true orphanhood actually signifies a web of decidedly unglamorous social problems. This, though, is not what my students wanted to write about.
Around the same time I taught the playwriting class, I was flipping through channels and came across televangelist Pastor Rod Parsley pitching a donor campaign on behalf of “beggars, orphans and widows.” Over and over again, the rhythm of his evangelical preaching style kept circling back to this phrase, as he practically sang lines such as, “Friends, I’m asking you today to open your hearts to beggars, orphans and widows.” I watched for a few minutes, fascinated. Beggars, orphans and widows – the words sounded so old-fashioned, like they were ripped straight out of A Christmas Carol. Yet here we were in the 21st century, and Parsley was invoking those very words to urgently plead for money. It occurred to me then that this label – orphan – affected me but was also much larger than me. Like any word, it could be used for a variety of purposes, including financial gain. And even though in many ways it had shaped my entire life, in the end I had absolutely no control over it.
~ Katie Hae Leo