Monday, October 19, 2015

When Murder and Adoption Meet on #HTGAWM

For those of us involved in the adoption community, we often find ourselves riveted when adoption plots enter the small screen. The second season of Shonda Rhimes’ How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) captured me this fall as it introduced viewers to the case of Caleb Hapstall (Kendrick Sampson) and Catherine Hapstall (Amy Okurda), adopted siblings accused of torturing and murdering their adoptive parents, Grant and Ursula Hapstall. Four episodes into the season, it’s clear that not only will this adoptive family storyline continue to operate as a B-level plot, but viewers also will need to grapple with understandings of race, kinship, and incest. WARNING: Spoilers concerning this particular storyline will appear in this post.

The Hapstall family embodies the 20th century transracial, and perhaps even international, adoptive family. Wealthy parents from Philadelphia’s Main Line, Grant and Ursula Hapstall operated a pharmaceutical company, valued in billions, prior to their deaths. In many ways the Hapstalls represent all adoptive parents – scions of privilege and wealth that rescued their adopted children from lives of poverty – or at least adoptive parents commonly highlighted in the media in the most sensationalized form. Their Black adopted son, Caleb, and Asian adopted daughter, Catherine, should (according to popular understandings of adoption) be grateful for the love and privilege adoption granted them. Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) captures this sentiment in Episode 1, “It’s Time to Move On” as she seeks to obtain the Hapstall children as her clients. Keating states: “Rich, spoiled, and ungrateful for the privilege that you were born into…sorry, adopted into… You don’t deserve the money. You’re not their real children, you felt that growing up and it made you resentful, angry. And then, you decided enough. Let’s shoot mommy and daddy in the head.” Keating clearly articulates what the jury’s perception of them will be upon their trial.

As an adoptive parent, Shonda Rhimes is most likely aware of the dichotomy that positions adoptees as either “happy, grateful” or “unhappy, angry” individuals. By invoking these stereotypes in the first moments we meet the adult adoptees, I suggest that she nods to her viewers that this will not be just a simplistic understanding of adoption. This assertion is rooted in Rhimes’ production of Scandal. In Season 4, Episode 14, “The Lawn Chair,” the show deftly explores the unlawful killing of a Black youth and policy brutality and in Season 5, Episode 4, “Dog Whistle Politics” viewers witness the critical examination of why racially coded language is used by the media to describe Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). Rhimes continues to prove that a one-dimensional understanding of race will not be seen on her shows. Remember the complexity of Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy.


To return to how HTGAWM, the invocation of adoption as a seemingly less than form of kinship directly speaks to the historical understanding of adoptive families as a mere facsimile of biologically related families. Meeting with Keating in their family’s home, we see Caleb and Catherine sitting across from their lawyer under a family portrait – mother, father, son, and daughter – gazing down on them. With slight resignation, Catherine states, “We loved our parents. Not because of all this, but because they loved us.” It’s clear that for Caleb and Catherine this may be the first time that their family is challenged as less than.

Nevertheless, the belief that adoptees are capable of murder is rooted in notions of their perceived deviancy. In many ways Keating seems to be operating an “if you can’t beat them, join them,” defense as she dictates to her associates, “The prosecution will argue its because of the billion dollar inheritance…and then there’s the outsider theory. They felt so alone and resentful that they tied up, tortured, and shot their parents execution style. Bonnie test psychological defenses based on adopted child syndrome, oppositional defiant disorder, selective mutism, primal wound theory” (Episode 3, “It’s Called the Octopus”). This stance accepts the narratives of adoptees as pathological capable of abnormal behavior including murder.

Yet it would not be sensationalized television if we did not further venture into the tawdry.[1] This is why, as the storyline progressed, colleagues who watch HTGAWM and know of my research on adoption, incest, and kinship waited with bated breath to see whether or not Rhimes and her writers would go there – sibling incest. And sure enough, sibling incest became the focal point of how we understand the Hapstall adoptees in Episode 3, “It’s Called the Octopus.” Marching into the Hapstall house clutching a Windows tablet with a tabloid magazine cover with the headline “SIBCEST” and tagline “Haskell heirs red hot loves?,” Keating proclaims that now Caleb and Catherine are being viewed by society as “sick, incestuous freaks.” Incest becomes the motive for why they allegedly killed their parents.

Yet to focus on whether or not incest occurred is a red herring. In fact, the focus should be on why incest seems like a possibility. We cannot understand the alleged incestuous relationship between Caleb and Catherine without an interrogation of the role race plays in the perception of the siblings. Meek, passive, and shy, Catherine embodies the submissive Asian stereotype. By virtue of her buttoned-up demeanor, Catherine exists in a double bind whereby an illicit sexuality could exist, simmering under the surface. After all, as an Asian woman, she is potentially full of erotic possibilities. At the same time, the attractive, fit, and assertive Caleb exists within stereotypes of virile Black masculinity whereby Black male sexuality is also uncontainable. Because of the way in which these racialized, sexualized stereotypes operates the belief of sibling incest becomes more real than if they were biologically related. As adoptees with no genetic connection to one another, attraction is an obvious possibility. Or at least that’s what the sibling incest rumor preys upon – the underlying belief individuals may have concerning adoption and adoptive sibling relationships.

By positioning the adoptees’ as deviant and emphasizing not only their racial difference from their parents and one another, but also their biological unrelatedness, HTGAWM makes the unspoken spoken. In other words, is it really incest if a sexual relationship occurs between non-genetically related, adopted siblings?

Yes, it is incest – a broader notion of incest is required. Given the ways in which the family is constructed through adoption, divorce, remarriage, and non-normative kinship structures, a limited definition of incest overlooks the way in which power operates within these uneven sexual liaisons. Anastasia Toufexis and Andrea Sachs discuss the complications of defining incest in the postmodern era shaped by divorce, remarriage, and adoption and ask, “how does [the traditional stricture of incest] apply to today’s blended and extended families, where blood ties are often thin or absent?”[2] This difficulty was seen amongst the law students working for Keating. Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza) states, “At least they’re not related related,” while her peer Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King) responds, “Mmm… legally they’re related.” Adoptee status marginalizes and troubles conceptualizations of incest. Incest for many is predicated upon genetic relatedness. Yet this perspective undermines what adoption is – the creation of family. The belief held by Laurel Castillo delegitimizes familial ties and reinforces outdated understandings of adoptive families as less than.

Preying upon this belief of adoptive families are less than their biological counterparts delegitimizes adoptive family formations as legible kinship structures. In making incest a possibility, no matter how remote, Rhimes reveals popular culture’s unstable understanding of adoptive families. Always striving to prove their legitimacy regarding that they are in fact “family,” adoptive families like the Hapstalls are under scrutiny and policed for potential deviancy. 

Preparing Caleb for trial in Episode 4, “Skanks Get Shanked,” Michaela asks him a series of questions concerning the proximity of his room to Catherine’s bedroom and whether they visit each other in their rooms at night. Obviously irritated, Caleb asks, “Why don’t you just flat out ask me if I’m screwing her?” In a sarcastic tone, he then states, “Because the answer is yes. We’re in love. Have been ever since we were kids. We’re actually planning on getting married as soon as the inheritance comes in.” His frustration is palpable and quite frankly relatable for many who are adopted whose relationships with their parents or siblings have ever been questioned. The notion of a sexual relationship between adoptive family members is unthinkable. The incest taboo operates in the same exact way in adoptive families as it does biological. For Caleb, Catherine is his sister regardless of racial difference. The same understanding of family applies to his parents. 

Directly addressing the complexities of adoption, Caleb asserts, “You understand nothing. I was six when they adopted me. Everybody wanted babies. Little white babies. But my parents chose me. And now the whole world thinks I killed them. Why because I look different than them?” Adoption does not undermine his conceptualizations of family. For him, adoption is permanent. He also expresses how the value of black children available for adoption is different than white children. This last point is of particular salience because of the way in which his blackness functions in how viewers of the series and potential jury members within the show locate his body in relation to his sister and the death of his parents.

Even as the siblings assert that they are in fact siblings like any other family, the burden of proof that they are not involved in an incestuous relationship or murderers lies with them. While we will not know what will happen regarding the latter, to prove the former the episode closes with Catherine undergoing a doctor’s examination to prove her virginity. This outdated symbol of patriarchy demonstrates how the burden of proof or in this case the burden of normalcy is placed on the adoptee. The adoptee of color must adhere to normative scripts of (white) femininity. Yet there is not real test to prove one’s virginity. The inclusion of this bunk science should not be overlooked. By proving her (alleged) innocence, Catherine secures her place as a “good” daughter. Even as Keating and Michaela recognize that this test is bogus, it must be done given the primacy placed on virginity as an example of one’s purity, which may influence a jury’s understanding of whether or not she could be capable of murder. Good girls don’t kill.

Again, let me reiterate that incest can and does in fact occur within adoptive families. This post is not meant to marginalize the experiences of victims of sexual familial violence. Rather, my exploration of incest and the adoptive family in HTGAWM is rooted in an investment in understanding why the sibling incest storyline even seemed like a possibility to members of society that live in the world of HTGAWM and to the show’s viewers.

Perhaps I am a little to hopeful that Rhimes and her writers will not settle for a reductive storyline of incest and tawdry murder. However, through this storyline she has interrogated what we mean by family and presumptions concerning what incest is and is not in the American imaginary. This particular storyline remains one of the more nuanced portrayals of adoption on mainstream television, one that does not fall into tropes of rescue (think the adoption of Zola by Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd on Grey’s Anatomy) nor as merely a plot device to advance a narrative of a main character (think Quinn Fabray from Glee).






[1] Anastasia Toufexis and Andrea Sachs, “What Is Incest? (Cover Story),” Time 140, no. 9 (August 31, 1992): 57.
[2] Contemporary examples of incest include Arrested Development’s flirtation with a relationship between George Michael and Maeby, Richie and Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums, the incestuous nature of Cersei and Jamie Lanniester relationship in Game of Thrones. Yet one of the most notable examples of potential incest that evokes laughter is Luke and Leia from Star Wars.

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