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The 'Daddy' of TV Tastelessness

December 21, 2004|Adam Pertman | Adam Pertman is executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of "Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming America" (Basic Books, 2000).

In real life, people generally don't crawl into coffins with tarantulas. They tend not to get extensive surgery to reconstruct the way they look, and they rarely get to compete for huge amounts of money by marrying a stranger or getting yelled at by Donald Trump.

Most so-called reality shows don't depict reality, of course. Rather, they create fantasies (whether beautiful or grotesque) designed to appeal to dreamers, cynics and voyeurs. And, because those traits run though most people's personalities, millions tune in to watch all sorts of mortifying, salacious and occasionally heartwarming programs.

The formula doesn't always work, however, especially when it deeply offends big segments of the potential audience. A case in point was the Fox special "Seriously, Dude, I'm Gay," in which two men competed for $50,000 by pretending they weren't straight; the network canceled the show before it aired earlier this year because of an outcry from gay activists, who described it as "an exercise in systemic humiliation."

The same -- along with words like "outrageous" and "revolting" -- could be said about the latest Fox offering, "Who's Your Daddy?" In this perverse program, a woman who was adopted as an infant wins $100,000 if she can determine which of eight men is her biological father. But if she guesses wrong, the impostor who fools her gets the cash.

Though the show isn't scheduled to run until early January, it already has generated a furor in the adoption community -- which is populated by tens of millions of people whom the show's producers presumably see as potential viewers. Few of them will be watching, though, except perhaps to figure out which sponsors to boycott. Here's why:

For generations, adoption in this country was characterized by denial, degradation and deceit. Many adoptive parents were counseled to pretend they'd given birth to their children. It was considered "good practice" to advise biological mothers (and fathers, when they were involved) to forget about the children they had created and "move on." Adopted people were treated differently: They were routinely denied their medical histories in order to maintain secrecy, for instance, and they were told that the most human of instincts -- wanting to know who you are and where you came from -- did not apply to them.

The shame and stigmas that grew out of those mistaken notions, mercifully, are being replaced by honesty and pride as adoption emerges from the shadows and moves into the social mainstream. But remnants of the past remain, and "Who's Your Daddy?" is a clear outgrowth of those remnants in several ways.

First, many people make errors relating to adoption, even when they mean well, because the process has been so secretive. So television producers aren't likely to be aware of the research and experience showing that sensitive, highly emotional occasions like reunions are best accomplished methodically and privately -- rather than in a game-show format in front of millions of gawkers. "Insensitive" is the mildest word to describe the artificial, exploitative way Fox intends to depict this fast-growing phenomenon of reunions.

Second, and most pointedly, the sole reason Fox could attract anyone to be on its program is that antiquated American adoption laws and policies make it exceedingly difficult for adoptees and biological parents to contact each other. So "Who's Your Daddy?" capitalizes on the vulnerabilities of the participants, who in turn agree to play because they have few other options and don't have the resources of a TV network to conduct a search.

This concept of reunion as mass entertainment has lots of other creepy flaws too. Cheapening such a profound experience by introducing cash prizes into it, for instance, does more than just raise concerns about the motives of the participants (who, with the exception of the impostors, are undoubtedly doing this for much better reasons); it also makes many in the adoption community bristle because money already causes enough problems and controversies in their world. Ditto for using deliberate deceit as part of the game: There has been far too much of that in the real world of adoption. The objective is to eliminate it, not find new uses for it.

The producers of "Who's Your Daddy?" contend critics should hold their fire until they've seen the show, which they describe as a "fun and healthy way" for adopted people and their birth fathers to get to know each other. But you don't have to watch something racist, sexist or homophobic to understand that it's a problem.

Speaking as an adoptive father, researcher and educator, I'd rather crawl into that coffin with the tarantulas. OK, maybe just get yelled at by Donald Trump.

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