I don’t remember exactly how old I was the first time I heard one of my classmates hurl “You’re adopted” at another as an insult. But I was old enough to know two things: First, that my parents’ process of adopting me was long, complicated, and emotionally exhausting—not to mention expensive; and second, that some kids’ parents euphemistically called them “surprises.” To my young mind, being adopted meant being desperately wanted and prayed for; some of my friends had little siblings who joined their families purely by accident, but I was a long-awaited miracle. So when I heard a kid my own age sneer at a classmate, “You’re adopted,” I was bewildered.
It was the first of many times I would hear it. “You’re adopted” has long been a popular insult or pejorative, used by schoolkids on playgrounds and by older siblings to taunt younger ones. It’s even been the basis for movie punch lines: In 2004’s Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Vince Vaughn’s character taunts an opposing dodgeball team composed of young girls with “You’re adopted! Your parents don’t even love you,” and a controversial laugh line in 2012’s The Avengers has Chris Hemsworth’s Thor distancing himself from his brother Loki’s murderous tendencies by quipping, “He’s adopted.” (Loki was, in fact, adopted, a story that plays out in another film in the franchise.) “You’re adopted” has also enjoyed continued popularity online as a retort or rejection.
Abbie Goldberg, a professor of psychology at Clark University, has been interviewing adoptive families for 15 years, and she finds it both curious and telling that it’s rarely actual adopted kids who complain about getting called “adopted” as a put-down. Rather, she says, it’s an insult usually leveled at people whose parents are at least putatively their biological parents. “You’re adopted,” when weaponized between non-adopted people, can have a number of different cruel subtexts in a number of different situations. The insult has had remarkable staying power, and it continues to evoke unfounded or outdated stereotypes about adoption.
“You’re adopted” gets thrown around pretty frequently between siblings. As Goldberg notes, in that context, it serves to alienate the sibling at whom the insult is directed. “It’s a way to say, ‘You are different. You don’t belong,’” she says. “It’s a way of differentiating you from the rest of the family, who obviously belong together and like each other. ‘We’re all meant to be together.’ It’s a way of isolating somebody.”
“You’re adopted” can also, when aimed at a sibling or at anyone, imply that the person on the receiving end has been duped—i.e., You’re adopted, and Mom and Dad never told you, or You’re adopted, and your family has been lying to you about it. Especially among kids, “that taunt can cause a person to question what they thought was true, or cause them to wonder about things they really don’t have any direct knowledge of,” Goldberg says. “It undermines the knowledge of yourself that you think that you have.”
However, as Amanda Baden, a professor in the graduate counseling program at Montclair State University, notes, some people invert this idea; they invoke the fantasy of being adopted to create distance from their families. She’s heard people who believe their families to be particularly dysfunctional say things such as “I hope I’m adopted” because “they didn’t want to have a genetic tie to people who they saw as somehow different, somehow wrong,” she says. “And so they hoped that they weren’t going to look like them, act like them, carry their blood in some way.”
Between nonrelatives, however, “You’re adopted” can be shorthand for something else entirely, and something arguably crueler: that the person in question was abandoned by his birth parents because they didn’t love him. In instances such as the Dodgeball scene, “They’re saying, ‘You’re not lovable. Someone somewhere didn’t want you,’” says Baden, who has researched adoption stigmas and “adoption microaggressions.” “I think it means, ‘You weren’t worth it.’”
Of course, the great irony of using “You’re adopted” as a slur is that it draws on such outdated—and sometimes purely fictional—stereotypes that today, it tends to confuse actual adoptees more than wound them.
The real-life practices of adoption, for starters, have evolved in such a way that many of the stereotypes baked into the “You’re adopted” insult are now obsolete. Among those unfamiliar with adoption, it may be popularly believed that families often withhold from their adopted children the fact of their adoptee status, for example. But the consensus among adoption experts and adoptive families now is that adopted children should be told as early as possible.
Experts also sometimes recommend to adoptive families that they place the emphasis on the happy ending of the adoption story—the completion or betterment of the family that has adopted the child—rather than on the part in which the birth parent or parents relinquished her. Some research has shown that adoptees who believe that they were “chosen” or rescued by their adoptive families, or that some element of destiny was at work, actually report higher levels of self-esteem than do some of their non-adopted peers. This is not, of course, always how adoption works; parents do not necessarily always literally choose the child they adopt from a broader selection of options. Still, nowadays, “I think that’s the confusion for actual adopted children,” Goldberg says. Actual adopted children often believe that they were predestined or ended up where they were meant to be, and that that sets them apart from their peers who were born into their families—where “it’s more like ‘you get what you get,’” Goldberg adds with a laugh.
Baden also notes that the impressions of adoption that people get from pop culture tend to be that adoptees are either special or defective; superheroes or “bad seeds” with troubled or tragic pre-adoption backgrounds, or a mix of the two (see: Clark Kent of Superman and the titular characters of Jessica Jones, the Hercules myth, and Dexter, respectively). Many popular adoption story lines also involve the family keeping the adoption a secret from the adoptee (see: Rafael Solano on Jane the Virgin, Jon Snow on Game of Thrones).
In the past half century, however, adoptions in the United States have evolved from mostly “closed” to mostly “open.” As Goldberg notes, with the structural openness has come “communicative openness,” in which adoptive families don’t just maintain contact with the biological family, but also talk freely both at home and in public about the adoption. So although “You’re adopted” can be a way of suggesting that someone has a sketchy or tragic past life that has been concealed from an adoptee by the new parents, in reality, more adoptees than ever before know their birth relatives and can attest to their relative normalcy and humanity.
Perhaps counterintuitively, then, the people most likely to try to wound others with a “You’re adopted”—and those most likely to be wounded by that implication—are those who aren’t adopted, or who aren’t familiar with how adoptions work in real life. Kids who are adopted, or adults who were adopted as kids in the past 50 years or so, whose parents raised them in accordance with modern best practices, tend to be able to deflect the insult or let it sail right over their heads, Goldberg adds. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m adopted. And?’”