Celebrating 'Anne with an E': Orphans in Popular Culture

Celebrating 'Anne with an E': Orphans in Popular Culture

Part One: An Introduction to Orphans in Popular Culture

Ludwig Wittgenstein once said “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”  Our language shapes our perceptions of what life is like, what our values are and the way we understand the world. The language we use matters. The way we tell stories matter. The way we discuss major issues matters.

At Children in Families, we believe that how we respond to vulnerable children is shaped by the way we view vulnerable children. And how we view vulnerable children will be shaped by the stories we tell about them: stories that we tell of our experiences, stories from our Christian or other religious beliefs, stories from conversations we have had with others, stories we grew up with, heard and fell in love with. Stories we tell for fun also greatly affect how we view the world.  The language used in our popular fiction, our children’s stories and our movies shape how we perceive the world.

And western culture’s books, films and theater are obsessed with orphans and orphan care. See how many of the names below you recognise:

When you ask westerners about what attracts them to orphan characters in popular culture, one answer comes back again and again.


They overcome lots of adversity. They are imperfect and need friends. They are brave and kind, resilient and decisive. They are gutsy despite their circumstances, and make the most of life’s opportunities. They are innocent no matter what happens to them. They can see through the bad to the good in people. They have the ability to dream past their circumstances.

orphan care in popular movies

The orphan as a literary technique

As a writer in western culture, making your character an orphan is a short-hand technique to highlight overcoming adversity. It lets the reader know that your character has had it tough, starting with the death of their parents.  But now you can see them take the hero’s journey and overcome that past to achieve greatness, or at least great personal courage.

And this isn’t exclusive to our modern day orphan stories.  The orphan stories we’ve been reading and watching since before the turn of the 20th Century set the precedent: Heidi (1881); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); Little Orphan Annie (1885); The Littlest Princess (1905); Anne of Green Gables (1908); the Secret Garden(1910); and Pollyanna (1913). Even older books like those Charles Dickens wrote in the 1830s, or fairy tales from long before even those. These are tales of courage where the plucky young orphan manages to change the communities that they are part of, winning over the hearts of their carers and their villages.

Yet what we fail to realise is that these books were written as a protest against the way that orphans were treated at that time.  “One of the aims of Montgomery’s stories about children, including Anne of Green Gables, was to change attitudes toward the vulnerable young, as valuable simply for themselves. She attempted to dispel attitudes, set in the eighteenth century and continued into her time, holding orphans and poor children as cheap labour.”  (Margaret Anne Doody, in Barry WE, Doody, MA and Doody Jones, ME 1997, The Annotated Anne of Green Gables, Oxford Uni press, Oxford. P12) All  of these were protest novels against the institutionalisation of children and against the treatment of orphans.

Myths that Popular Culture teach us about Orphan Care

Over time, we have lost sight of the protests in this protest fiction. Instead of recognising protest characters, we notice a couple of common themes that cloud our perception of orphan care. We believe that this contributes to some of the ways we respond to orphans.

  • Firstly, we take on the idea that orphans are inherently resilient and institutionalised children can easily reintegrate into society.
  • And secondly, we learn that institutions are better for kids than kinship care or foster care.

Introducing ‘Anne with an E’

what popular culture teaches us about Orphan Care
(Netflix/The Canadian Press)

That’s why some of us at CIF are so excited about the new Netflix series ‘Anne with an E’. The producers have successfully captured the feel of the books, while expanding the story of some of the characters. (That, and Amybeth McNulty is Anne.  She captures all that is wonderful about Anne and brings herself to the performance in an amazing way!) But even more significant (for us) is the way this retelling is capturing some of the protest elements of Montgomery’s stories that we miss or skim over as modern readers. How often do we ask why it was possible for the Cuthberts to adopt an orphan just by passing a spoken message on? Why was it ok to then just hand that orphan to someone else if you didn’t like them?  The show brings out the complexities of orphan care and its related trauma in a way that we rarely see in popular fiction.

To celebrate the release of ‘Anne with an E,’ the next couple of blog posts at CIF will be unpacking the myths we mentioned above, and looking at how they correspond with orphan care at the start of the 21st Century.

Check us out again next week to see Part 2 in the series when we look at Myth #1. But before you go, who is your favourite orphan from popular fiction, and why?

Celebrating 'Anne with an E': Orphans in Popular Culture

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