“You’re an orphan? Of course! I’m an orphan. God, I wish there was a war, then we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.” — Hamilton, An American Musical
One of my favorite moments in the movie Moonrise Kingdom (2012) happens after Sam and Suzy have pitched their tent in their cove, and they are talking about their futures and their lives. Here’s the scene below:
I love this scene because it hits on something so prevalent in fiction, especially fiction aimed at children and teens, that I noticed a lot as a young reader myself. Many main characters in books written for that age range, especially in fantasy and science fiction, are orphans.
Disney is probably most notorious for killing its protagonists’ parents, and the Disney wiki even has a page dedicated to listing orphans. There are loads of articles available online speculating the reason for this, but most significant is the 2014 interview with Don Hahn in Glamour Magazine. Apart from speculating on the death of Walt Disney’s mother, Hahn says:
One reason is practical because the movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up. They’re about that day in your life when you have to accept responsibility. Simba ran away from home but had to come back. In shorthand, it’s much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents. Bambi’s mother gets killed, so he has to grow up. Belle only has a father, but he gets lost, so she has to step into that position. It’s a story shorthand.
Hahn goes on to speculate that Walt Disney avoided maternal figures after the death of his own mother, for which he blamed himself, which is a touching story but doesn’t really pan out as an explanation. Parentless children are a massively recurring motif in all media geared toward children and teens, not just Disney films.
What gets me about that Moonrise Kingdom scene isn’t just how blunt Suzy is in talking about wishing she was an orphan because her favorite characters are, it’s also Sam’s shocked face and equally blunt, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” So often in children’s and YA fiction, I feel like authors write orphans and just don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s just story shorthand to help this young character become incredibly wise beyond her years as quickly as possible, or it’s just a Tragic Backstory to get instant sympathy from the reader.
What bugs me about the trope the most, though, is the failure to then show the more complicated aspects of life without parents, or life lived in an extended family member’s or stranger’s home. Speculative fiction is most guilty of this, especially epic fantasy and dystopian science fiction. Parents of main characters in these universes may even be seen as a burden and gotten rid of, despite being loving and supportive. Remember when Hermione uses Obliviate to erase herself from her parents’ memory, effectively turning herself into an orphan?
As someone who grew up in a home with both of her biological parents, I’m not sure I should be the one to comment on this. But adoption has played a significant role in my family’s composition (my one sister is biologically my half sister and was adopted by our father as a baby; three of my cousins were all adopted as children) and one of my deepest desires is to get involved with foster care and work with teens that have been screwed over by the system. And even if it was by choice to study abroad, I spent a year of my teens living in strangers’ houses and being subjected to verbal and emotional abuse by one of my host families. The older I get, the more pressing the desire to be a foster parent is for me–and the more I pay attention to the overwhelming and contrived representation of orphans and parents in fiction.
Anime, especially shonen action/adventure, but also mahou shojo and everything in between, tends to be the a huge culprit of orphanhood in the name of fast character development, and I watch a lot of anime, so I notice it a lot. Sometimes the parents are dead, sometimes the parents skip out, sometimes it’s a mix of both. The big problems of “who changed that baby’s diapers?” or “how is this child getting money to buy food to eat?” or “who signs this child’s parental permission forms?” or “where the hell are Child Protective Services????” rarely, if ever, get addressed. Our main characters move into temples to replace local gods or start working as butler/bodyguards or join elite crime fighting organizations or go through a life of exclusion with only the hope of becoming Hokage at the end of the verbal/emotional/physical abuse tunnel.
The most typical case I can think of of mishandled fictional orphanhood is that of Sailor Jupiter. Sailor Jupiter, aka Makoto Kino, is the fourth Sailor Scout to join the senshi lineup. She’s tall, got curly hair, loves to bake and arrange flowers, is massively strong and is probably forever in love with her senpai. Jupes is also a fourteen-year-old who lives completely alone because her parents died in a plane crash when she was two. We learn details about Jupes’s parents’ death in “The Melancholy of Mako-chan,” a chapter in Sailor Moon Short Stories 1, but the details are just there to dress up a general feeling of malaise. She’s lonely, and it’s clear that she’s lonely because she’s a child living alone with no family, but instead of actually delivering some emotional depth or growth, Jupes is given a fear of airplanes, lots of tea and a fancy couch. And unlike a series like Naruto, which is set in a completely fictional universe, Sailor Moon is set in 1990s Japan. Where are Makoto’s guardians?? Why has she been left to live alone her whole life? And she has been, because when her parents’ death is briefly brought up in the main storyline, she says she’s been alone for a long time.
I love Sailor Jupiter, she’s my favorite of the Inner Senshi, she was my second ever cosplay. But I’ve always felt that her backstory was unrealistic and irresponsible. She can be a orphan whose parents died in a plane crash, but give her legal guardians. Japan doesn’t have the greatest track record for foster care programs or adoption, and in fact has a general problem with it despite its comprehensive laws and guidelines, but there are systems in place. Even if the systems failed Makoto Kino, let the systems fail.
The fact that so many characters in anime, and in media in general, are orphaned in worlds in which there are no systems in place has begun to really bother me. I find myself asking time and again, “Where are the adults? Where is CPS?” I know these systems are flawed, but maybe let’s write those flaws instead of ignoring them altogether. Instead of using orphanhood as a story shortcut to create mature characters, let’s actually explore what this might mean for our characters.
I can think of two stories off the bat that do just this, and do it perfectly. The first is Disney’s fabulously perfect 2002 film Lilo & Stitch and the second is Yuki Midorikawa’s hauntingly beautiful manga and its anime adaptation, Natsume Yuujinchou. In the first, Nani is trying to make ends meet as her kid sister’s legal guardian while social services is breathing down her neck. In the second, titular character Takashi Natsume has been shuffled from relative to relative to institution to relative all to keep up appearances after his parents die, and the emotional scars this has left on him are dealt with delicately and thoroughly. In both of these examples, orphanhood isn’t used to quickly age up the characters, nor is it used as tragic backstory to garner sympathy from the reader. Their lives, the interference of the State and of relatives, and the emotional maturity of the characters are all at an appropriately explored and realistic level.
And just in case you’re unfamiliar with these stories, neither one is anywhere near realistic fiction in terms of genre. Lilo & Stitch is a science fiction comedy about an alien genetic experiment gone wrong and Natsume Yuujinchou is about a boy with spiritual magic powers who inherits a book that allows him to command a legion of yokai. These are speculative fiction stories, which are so often guilty of orphanhood as fast character development. Yet these stories take the time to do right by their characters and their worlds, even while presenting us with parentless children.
In fiction writing, we talk about killing our darlings, and this trope is definitely our darling when dealing with stories for kids and teens. Don’t kill the parents for a quick characterization fix; kill this trope.
**I do know there’s an entire subgenre of tough reads in American YA that often deals with these issues more closely, but they aren’t anywhere near as popular and I’m mostly talking toward SF, so don’t chew me out later please.**