Breaking the Rules: The Fosters and Madame Bovary

The Fosters

I had no intention of watching The Fosters.  I am not big on television to begin with, but when I was forced to see repeated ads for this show at the bottom of my iPhone screen for a week before the premiere, my contempt meter went through the roof.  So the last thing I expected was that I would be looking forward to the series’ fourth episode that airs this evening.

What happened is that one day my wife informed me that she had recorded a new show that she thought we both would enjoy.  It’s about a lesbian couple who take in a variety of foster children, she explained.

My wife knows me very well.  As I have long been an advocate of foster care and adoption, she was right to think that this show would be right up my alley.

Coincidentally, when The Fosters began airing at the beginning of this month, I happened to be reading Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece, Madame Bovary.  Now, one would logically think that a TV drama about a modern family would have nothing in common with a classic 19th century French tale about the boredom, desire, disappointment and betrayal of a middle class wife.  But looking a bit below the surface, significant parallels emerge.

Among the themes of The Fosters are the consequences for violating the rules of society and the conflict between our true inner selves and the outward image we present to the world.  The character of Callie (played by Maia Mitchell) was introduced in the first episode of the show while she was in juvenile detention, a result of a rampage in which she vandalized her foster father’s car.  Callie’s initial reputation in Stef and Lena’s home is colored by that incident, her stint in juvie, the fact that she was beaten up there and has the bruises to show for it, and her in-your-face “what’s it to ya” attitude.  It is quickly revealed, however, that all of the above were the results of her attempts to protect her little brother.  It soon becomes apparent that her “tough girl” veneer is more of a survival mechanism than anything else.  The outer layers begin to peel away when her love of music, closely associated with memories of her mother, enables her to make a connection with Brandon (but not before she almost gets him killed trying to help her rescue her brother).  Still, Callie seems reluctant to drop her guard too far; after all, this is just another foster home and she doesn’t want to be hurt yet again.

Like Callie, Emma Bovary presents herself to the world as one thing when she is really quite another.  Emma attempts to play the role of the respectable middle class wife of a country doctor, while in reality she is bored to tears and wracked with inner passions that lead her to infidelity not once, but twice.  In the end, neither of her two lovers, Rodolphe and Léon, can save her from herself.

Both Callie and Mme. Bovary are forced to break the rules and risk the opprobrium of society in order to be true to themselves.  The moral of both stories is that standing one’s ground comes with consequences.  Callie’s attempt to protect her brother lands her in juvie; Emma’s deceptions (regarding finances and her tawdry affairs) lead her to suicide.

Brandon (played by David Lambert) and Mariana (played by Cierra Ramirez) also put up a brave front while they are fighting their inner demons.  Brandon, a talented pianist, is heading for college and is initially presented with a rather straitlaced image.  (To some extent anyway; the show contains numerous references to he and Madisen being sexually active.)  However, the arrival of Callie turns his world upside down.  He begins to shuck off his outer layer and explore his inner self as he absconds without permission to help Callie, then tells off his moms when his father asks Brandon to come live with him.  Stef and Lena are shocked by this uncharacteristic behavior; they didn’t think he had it in him.  Despite being disappointed by Brandon’s mischief, it is easy to see that they have just a tiny bit of pride in him (as they do for Callie) for standing up for what he believes in, consequences be damned.

Mariana’s exterior persona is that of the happy teen and good student with many friends and a good life.  Inside, however, she is tortured by her lack of a relationship with her birth mother.  Her attempts to regain that relationship lead her down the path of stealing, selling drugs and lying.  Mariana’s story turns out to be a bit of a morality play as her birth mother ends up betraying her and she narrowly escapes trouble with the law during a school locker search for drugs.

Like the characters in The Fosters, Flaubert presents Emma Bovary as consumed by the ghosts of the past and indeterminate longings for what might have been.  As a child, she is unhappy with the nuns at her convent, then she is unhappy taking care of her widowed father at Les Bertaux, then she is unhappy in her marriage to Charles.  She wants more excitement in her life, and chases after it in novels, in opera, in conspicuous consumption and in illicit love affairs.  She repeatedly deceives her devoted husband in order to engage in her trysts, but ends up being betrayed by her lovers.  She is more than willing to break the rules to chase her dreams, but ultimately she is unable to run away from herself.  She is left ruined financially, her public reputation in tatters, her heart empty.

One would hope that it is not too late for Stef and Lena’s kids to avoid such a fate.  Emma is so repulsed by the bourgeois lifestyle and the shell of her marriage that she incapable of turning to her husband, who has cared for her all along, as a last bastion of hope, refuge and forgiveness.  The teens in The Fosters, however, are just starting their young lives and still have time to turn them around.  They are not yet as jaded as Emma Bovary, and still susceptible to the love and guidance that their moms have to offer.

I find it interesting that the elements of a good story have changed very little from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first.  Conflicts between our public persona and our inner desires, and conflicts between temptation to break the rules and the extent of our willingness to accept the social consequences will always be a part of the human drama.

And just as Flaubert himself broke the rules when he shocked his public with a tale of adultery, ABC Family created quite a stir in conservative circles by spinning a tale of a motley crew of foster kids headed by a lesbian couple.

Perhaps authors can create a compelling story only when they themselves are willing to sample a taste of what their characters are experiencing.


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