Thanks Southwest! (Or, Representation Matters)

Woman and man checking out at department storyI have two very different stories of Southwest Airlines. In 2006, one of their employees tried to have us arrested for not having a piece of paper their Customer Service rep told me we didn’t need. (The captain intervened, got the paper, and we went home.) In 2011, they were the only airline that would allow us to change a ticket without a fee. You see, when you adopt, you don’t always know when you have to fly. That makes reservations rather difficult. We were able to book a random flight date on Southwest, the call a CSR and have her flag the tickets as “for adoption.” So, when we called to change that ticket because we had gotten a text message at 6 a.m. saying, “The baby here,” we didn’t have to pay a change fee, or the difference in fare. And when ICPC finally cleared (remind me to write about that), we called and got the “Gotta Get Away” fare even though we were booking less than 24 hours out.

What prompted this trip down memory lane?

Southwest has created this ad:

Two people madly dash through a department story buying baby things. A clueless cashier asks, “When’s the little lady due?”

Woman: “In about four hours.”

Cashier: Stares blankly at the woman’s belly.

Man: “Adoption.”

Cashier: Glimmer of recognition that not all families are formed in the same way. “Ah!”

In the next cut, the now Mom and Dad are shown on a plane with an infant girl.

I know about this ad because someone shared a post from a public page that stated:

This commercial reinforces the invisibilizing and de-humanization of first/birth families in the adoption narrative. There were some crucial in-between steps of a woman giving birth and a first/birth family saying goodbye to this child.

The first thing I thought was, invisibilizing isn’t a word.

The second thing I thought was, this commercial isn’t about adoption. It’s not selling adoption. It’s not an adoption agency, adoption organization, or any other entity related to adoption. This commercial is about selling airline tickets. Specifically, it is about selling airline tickets to people who need to leave in a hurry. What is one reason people need to leave in a hurry?

Well, yes, death, but, by definition, that’s a little morbid.

No, one reason people need to leave in a hurry is adoption. Max and I didn’t have the scurrying around the department store, but we did have the mad dash of packing and making arrangements in the few hours between “the baby here” text and explaining to TSA why we were traveling with an empty infant car seat.

When I saw that commercial, I saw myself.

I’ve lost count of how many “new mom in the hospital with her new baby” commercials there are. Companies sell diapers, formula, insurance, bottled water, hospitals, toilet paper, hemorrhoid cream… all while showing a happy mom who’s just given birth and one or more family members (usually a guy, presumably her husband) and maybe a nurse all glowing with that new baby mystique.

That’s not me.  That’s none of the adoptive moms, none of the moms who faced stillbirths, none of the moms who had difficult deliveries and nearly died… Happy pregnancy and birth are supposed to be “normal,” but for thousands of people, “normal” is not them. Those commercials are not about them us.

The steps in adoption between buying all the stuff (including the all-important airline ticket) and getting on the plane have nothing to do with selling airline tickets. Are those steps important in depicting adoption? Yes. Are those steps important in depicting flying on an airplane? No.

Consider… Ads for pregnancy tests always show a couple happy to see the two pink lines. It’s never the woman who sees two pink lines and says, “Oh crap!” It’s never the couple who see no lines and say, “Oh, thank God!” It’s also never the couple who see no lines and start crying. No, ads for pregnancy tests always show people who are happy to be pregnant.

A few years ago, a Cheerios commercial featuring a multiracial family became infamous. That commercial showed a kid eating cereal. It didn’t show the racism that the kid’s parents faced before they got married. It didn’t show the little girl questioning why her skin wasn’t peach. No, it showed a kid eating cereal, because the company was selling cereal, not world peace.

This commercial did its job, which was to convey the message that Southwest is the airline to fly when you have to fly on short notice.

And while I’ve been saying for years that “representation matters” in my children’s toys, literature, and lives, I don’t think that point was ever as fully driven home to me as when I saw myself in a commercial for the very first time.

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