Archive for June, 2013

I Think Of You Like A Son

| Gabriel |

One of the innumerable WTF moments in HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra is when Liberace suggests that he adopt his young lover. I think we’re clearly meant as an audience to first think gross, that’s fictive kin incest (see also: Nugent, Ted), and second, you know, before gay marriage that would have been the closest available approximation of marital fictive kinship available to homosexuals.

In the big picture I think the second intuition is on the right track, though it’s interesting to note that historically (adult) adoption does not necessarily connote sexual inappropriateness. In classical pederasty there was an apprenticeship relationship between erastes and eromenos, in which the older erastes would mentor the younger eromenos and this sometimes culminated in adoption. (It helps if you know that in real life Tom was 17 when he met Liberace, which makes this similar to classical pederasty in terms of age gap — although not sexual roles).

A more common practice is the adoption of a son-in-law. Again, from our perspective, adoption makes someone kin which by extension makes marriage to a daughter incest. However in some times and places they think of adoption and son-in-law status as a sort of belt-and-suspenders approach to dynastic succession and incest doesn’t enter into it because after all it’s just fictive kinship. Again, we see this in antiquity where the Roman emperors in particular used adoption to clarify dynastic succession and often combined it with marital alliances. For instance, Augustus had a triple fictive kinship with Tiberius: marrying his mother while he was still in utero (the rare wife swap marital alliance, also used by Cato), marrying him to his daughter (who yes, was Tiberius’s own step-sister) Julia, and finally adopting him.

Likewise, son-in-law adoption is also common in Japan. When a wealthy Japanese family has no sons, the family will identify a non-kin heir, marry him to its daughter, and adopt him. Thus the daughter doesn’t inherit property, nor exactly does even the son-in-law in his capacity as son-in-law, but rather property goes to the adopted son-in-law and so the family maintains (fictive) continuity of the male line even though genetic continuity is matrilineal for that generation.

What I think we see in these cases is people trying to find some mechanism to game around anomalies or problems presented by kinship and are rather selective in how they parse the implications of fictive kinship. My son-in-law is also my real son: great, I like the cut of his jib and I want this young go-getter to carry my name and inherit my property. Isn’t it weird that my adopted son is married to his legal sister: don’t be so literal, they’re not blood relatives.

That said, Behind the Candelabra doesn’t take place in Japan or ancient Rome but Las Vegas c. 1980 so it’s still pretty creepy.

June 24, 2013 at 6:19 am 4 comments


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