On this – last! – edition of Trope Anatomy 101, Carlie St. George examines one of our favourite tropes: found families.
Trope Anatomy 101 is a monthly column in which familiar tropes, particularly in speculative fiction and pop culture, are broken down and discussed by new regular contributor and author Carlie St. George.
Trope Anatomy 101: Choose Your Own Family
When we discuss common tropes in pop culture, we’re often analyzing them as inherently negative things, stereotypes or clichés that are in desperate need of subversion. And often, we’re right to do so; in this past year, we’ve already looked at some seriously problematic tropes in this column, from the waving away of chronic conditions and disabilities to the variety of fat-shaming tropes that arise time and again in film, television, and literature.
However, not every trope is harmful and some are actually quite delightful when embraced. Honestly, one of the reasons I love fanfiction as much as I do is that it downright revels in its tropes. They’re frequently used as signposts, specifically, welcome signs: “Are you looking for Huddle For Warmth Romances? How about Body Swapping Fics with a focus on Team Building? Come in, come in, you’re in the right place!”
Due to other writing commitments, I’m afraid to say that this will be my last essay for Trope Anatomy 101. I’ve been thinking for a while about how I’d like to wrap up the column, and have decided that it’s important for me to end on a positive note, discussing one of my favorite tropes that tends to be especially welcome during the holidays: Found Families, otherwise known as Families of Choice.
If those terms mean nothing to you, found family stories are about characters that come together and make their own family unit, despite not being related by blood. (Generally. Sometimes, a few characters in found families will be biologically related; think River and Simon Tam in Firefly, siblings in a disparate crew of misfits and criminals–who all just happen to share meals and celebrate birthdays with one another, deep in the black of space.) Very often these characters have been orphaned, disowned, or have otherwise extremely strained or stressful relationships with their biological families; the second family functions to support, celebrate, and mourn with one another in a way that their blood relatives will not or cannot.
Families of choice can be found in any medium, but they’re particularly likely to pop up in television: after all, audiences have the opportunity to watch their favorite characters grow closer together for years, which allows these characters more time to naturally evolve into a family unit than they might have in other mediums. In general, TV tends to break down into three basic types of programs:
– Family Shows (This Is Us, Modern Family, Black-ish)
– Friendship Shows (Friends, Happy Endings, New Girl)
– Work Shows (Elementary, Grey’s Anatomy, Agents of SHIELD)
Both Friendship Shows and Work Shows are well suited to tell stories about found families, but personally, I tend to find myself drawn to the latter kind, partially because those shows tend to have a bit more actual plot, but also because they’re more likely to give us the found family’s origin story in the pilot.
Take, for example, Leverage: a Work Show–hey, heists are work–about an ex-insurance investigator teaming up with criminals for a one-time job, only to end up continuing to work with them for years, pulling off elaborate heist after elaborate heist against the rich and corrupt–and in between all those crimes, the crew begins acting like a family: bickering like crazy, giving each other pep talks, and occasionally stealing sandwiches from one another. Their dynamic is particularly apparent for two reasons: one, nearly every team member has a troubled or empty family life (dead children, estranged parents, upbringings in the foster system, etc.), and two, their den of thieves closely parallels a prototypical nuclear family: Sophie and Nate are positioned as the team’s mother and father, while Eliot, Hardison, and Parker are the three metaphorical children, with Eliot probably being the big brother, and Hardison and Parker being, well, the incestuous younger siblings. (This is nearly inevitable in found families, especially on TV, as it’s incredibly rare to create an ensemble main cast of characters where no one is dating or interested in dating one another.)
The mom-pop-kids structure on Leverage certainly doesn’t happen in every family of choice, but it’s not uncommon, especially in fandom. I can only assume that Dean Devlin, who created Leverage, is particularly fond of this dynamic himself, as you can also find it in his current show, The Librarians, with Baird (the guardian) and Flynn (the older, current Librarian) filling in as the parents, and Stone, Cassandra, and Ezekiel Jones (the younger, newer Librarians) being the kids–although were Baird and Flynn not love interests, I would probably think of Flynn as being more of a wacky uncle, rather than a father figure. (Jenkins, of course, rounds out the family as the curmudgeonly grandfather. Because Jenkins is the best.)
But whether they’re based on a nuclear family or not, found families really do thrive on television, maybe most especially in shows that are episodic in nature. Consider cop shows, an often stigmatized sub-genre and subset of Work Shows that, for whatever lack of originality they may exemplify in storytelling, also tend to succeed in creating teams full of personable characters with absent or complicated family lives, characters whose lives are inextricably connected with their coworkers.
This, I believe, is one of the reasons these shows are so popular. There are other factors, of course: murder mysteries are generally engaging, and many people prefer a serial format where missing an episode here or there doesn’t massively impact their understanding of the ongoing narrative, but more than simplicity or wanting to know whodunit, I believe that audiences show up for the team themselves, especially for the scenes where they aren’t just solving crimes but are eating food together, confessing secret backstories to one another, promising to stand by each other in times of crisis. In NCIS, these scenes often happen in the elevator, or in Gibbs’s basement next to a boat. In Criminal Minds, these scenes usually take place in the plane on the way home, typically after a difficult case. These are conversations that many people would consider too personal for the majority of their coworkers, but in several cop shows, coworkers are family.
And other than just generally being sweet, the sentiment that coworkers or friends can be just as meaningful as family is sometimes very comforting, especially at this time of year when families are supposed to come together and celebrate the holidays–because, for many people, that wholesome holiday reunion simply isn’t a realistic expectation with their own relatives. For those who have no opportunity to return home, have no one home to return to, or whose families are otherwise no longer welcoming or safe, this can be a particularly difficult time. It can feel as though the whole world is attacking you with forced holiday cheer; worse, it’s sometimes presented as though your lack of holiday spirit is somehow your own fault, that coming together with your relatives is what this time of year is all about, and if you haven’t done so, perhaps you just aren’t trying hard enough. And if your relatives are dead, if there really is no coming together, then things must be very bleak indeed; after all, what could possibly bring more meaning and joy than your own family?
But in family of choice stories, the holidays aren’t necessarily bleak at all because the characters within them have found other people to love, celebrate, and create new traditions with. This is maybe best exemplified in the Christmas episodes of Community, especially “Comparative Religion” and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.”
The found family in Community is not made up of coworkers but classmates, and other than getting into increasingly wacky shenanigans laden with pop culture references, the study group has to navigate their own holiday traditions and what it means to be a new family. In “Comparative Religion,” for instance, Shirley, a devout Christian divorcee, tries to replicate her past experience of Christmas by guilting everyone in the study group to adopt her specific traditions, ignoring their own wildly diverse faiths. She even goes so far as to cut Jeff out of the celebrations because he goes to participate in a fight, something that’s against her own religious beliefs.
Eventually, Britta gently calls her out for it:
“I get this is your first Christmas since your husband left you, and I don’t know, maybe that’s why you’re being so stubborn, because you’re trying so hard to recreate something you’re afraid that you’ve lost forever, but if you really want us to be your second family, then you’ve got to start treating us like one, even if that means supporting us when we do things that you don’t agree with.”
Meanwhile, in “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” Abed has something of a breakdown and spends the entire episode looking for the meaning of the holiday, only to realize that Christmas only means anything because we believe it does, and it can mean different things to different people at different times. “For me,” Abed tells the group, “it used to mean being with my mom. Now it means being with you guys.”
These particular messages resonate with me so well, I think, because it’s important to acknowledge that your traditions, your family, or both can change with time, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean you failed anyone; it doesn’t mean you should have fought harder or that the traditions you embrace now have any less value than the ones you grew up with. It just means that you’ve found a new way and new people to experience warmth and comfort with, and that’s a lovely thing.
As I’ve said, families of choice are incredibly common in television (I haven’t even discussed The Flash, Farscape, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but they’re found in other mediums as well: some of my favorite books I’ve read this year, actually, have had found families in them–although books, by their very nature, sometimes portray families of choice rather differently than television. After all, the majority of novel plots don’t stop for the “holiday episode.” (Thankfully, that’s exactly the kind of thing we have fanfiction for!) One example of a somewhat atypical found family novel is Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song.
At the outset, Cuckoo Song doesn’t appear to be a found family book at all; in fact, I couldn’t even argue that it’s the driving focus of the story. A great majority of the novel centers upon the complicated dynamics of a biological family in post-World War I England. It isn’t until the end of the novel that we see a new family emerge between our two outsider characters: Violet, who had once been engaged to marry into the Crescent family, and Trista, who had initially believed herself to be a member of that family. Cuckoo Song is a phenomenal book that manages to be a lot of different things at once–a creepy, original fairy tale, a narrative about self-discovery, a story about grief that’s both personal and national–but I also read it as a found family origin story between two young women who don’t quite fit in anywhere anymore, women who become bound to one another and leave for a life that’s not tied to the past or to the incessant countdown of a ticking clock. It’s a type of found family ending that I’ve been drawn to frequently in my own writing, honestly, where our heroes take off for the great unknown so they can build a home together somewhere new where they can be happy. There’s something very appealing in such an ending: maybe you can’t ever go home again, but you can still leave and make yourself a new one.
Hannah Moskowitz’s A History of Glitter and Blood has a somewhat similar ending, though the novel itself is quite different. The plot centers on a war between two races, the gnomes and the tightropers, with a very small handful of orphaned teenage fairies caught in between. But, also like Cuckoo Song, it’s a novel about so many different things at once. On one level, it’s a morbidly funny book about fairies and their often blasé attitudes towards being eaten alive; on another level, it’s a book about identity, racism, and the importance of history, specifically, who’s telling it.
Initially, it seems obvious who makes up the found family in A History of Glitter and Blood: our protagonist, Beckan, and her fellow fairies, Scrap and Josha. They all live together and have literally no one else in the city, as the rest of the fairies abandoned Ferrum when the war began. (Well, Beckan has what’s left of her father in a jar, but considering what’s left–a nose and an ear–he can’t exactly communicate much, and poor Cricket doesn’t even have that.) However, as the novel continues, it becomes clear that the found family is expanding to include characters from other races who, at the outset, may have seemed like villains or at least potential villains: Tier and Rig, for instance, are gnomes, and gnomes eat fairies, so Beckan can never be certain of her safety with them, even those who’ve been kind to her. Meanwhile, Piccolo is a tightroper, and while his people supposedly began the war to fight for fairy liberation, truthfully, they only came to lay claim to the city, and anyway, the fairies didn’t particularly feel they needed liberating in the first place.
Other writers might have shaped the story so that one side or the other was evil, but instead, Moskowitz lays blame at all sides, including the fairies who left Ferrum. By the end of the story, Beckan’s worldview is no longer so cleanly divided, no longer an “us versus them” narrative, at least when it comes to race; in fact, Beckan, Piccolo, and Josha each talk about “the fairies” and “the tightropers” as though they don’t belong to those groups anymore, which, in many ways, they don’t. The only “us versus them” narrative that matters to Beckan is her found family of friends and survivors versus anyone and everyone who tries to hurt them for political reasons, and eventually, Beckan and her family leave Ferrum after all, because they’ve all come to finally realize that where they live is nowhere near as important as that they live.
Both A History of Glitter and Blood and Cuckoo Song end with found families leaving a place behind to make themselves a home somewhere else. By contrast, Becky Chambers’s novel, The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet begins with its protagonist, Rosemary Harper, leaving her home (and an ugly family scandal) behind to join the crew of the Wayfarer, an already established family of choice working together on a spaceship. What’s especially great about this novel is that while we’re introduced to the Wayfarer and the universe at large through Rosemary’s eyes, everyone on the spaceship has a POV, which allows us a much closer look at the intricate team dynamics and interpersonal relationships between the crew.
For example, we see how Dr. Chef is often a mentor figure, but that different characters relate to him on different levels: Rosemary, for instance, speaks to him about her guilt over her father’s weapons sales, which he can relate to due to his own species’ violent background. But he relates to Sissix for different reasons: they’re both aliens (from different races) living with a crew primarily made up of humans, and she comes to him not because of familial guilt, but because they can bond over their frustration with human customs, ideas, and body odors.
The difference in Rosemary’s and Sissix’s dynamic with Dr. Chef is small and bears little relevance on the plot (such as it is–The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is possibly the most episodic novel I’ve ever read), but this book is so chock full of little moments like this that the reader really has the opportunity to get the kind of intimate look at a found family that many other novels simply don’t have time for. Readers are treated to multiple scenes establishing Kizzy and Jenks’s sibling-like relationship, so that when she finally calls him a brother near the end of the book, the moment feels completely earned. We see how Sissix, who actively dislikes Corbin, ends up–for lack of a better term–adopting him in order to save his life; Corbin is a bit like an off-putting cousin who is enormously frustrating but you stand up for, regardless, because he’s important to you and yours. And the crew as a whole acts as a kind of replacement family for many of those onboard, most notably Dr. Chef, Rosemary, and Sissix, the last of whom has gone so far as to list her coworkers on the Wayfarer as her “feather family” (an extremely important familial structure for her people).
For me, The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet was a delightful comfort read because it focused so strongly on found family dynamics. Of course, we’re not all comforted by the same stories, and you may gravitate towards some other trope that fulfills your own specific needs–but there is something that seems specifically reassuring about families of choice to me, something hopeful. While I’ve discussed why this might be particularly so for readers or viewers without close family ties, the truth is that even those who have loving, safe, and supportive relationships with their biological families can find this trope comforting or relatable, as many people are blessed enough to have more than one type of family. Which is wonderful; the idea isn’t that families of choice are inherently better than biological families, or the other way around. The idea is that family–like Christmas or really any holiday–can mean different things to different people at different times, and it’s okay if yours changes, if you have a new one you built yourself, or even if you have more than one.
A relevant quote:
“Love is like sunlight,” she said when I didn’t respond. “You can give all of yourself to someone and still have all of yourself to give to others, and to yourself. To your work. To anything or anyone you choose. Love isn’t like food; you won’t starve anyone by giving it freely. It’s not a finite resource.”
That quote is from Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi (another SF novel about found families), and while the speaker is actually talking about polyamory, I feel it applies here as well because love isn’t a finite resource. It’s not something you have to reserve for only a set group of people, certainly not only for people who you’re biologically related to. A family of choice is not inferior to a biological family simply because they came second; a family of choice is not inferior at all. They are only a new set of people that you can love and be loved by, and stories that celebrate this trope and pass along the message that there’s nothing wrong with finding family wherever and whenever you can?
Those are stories I can appreciate. Those are stories the world needs, and ones I, personally, will always welcome and treasure.