Today there are as many meanings of the word “family” as there are families. Welcome to the new normal.
On the cover of this magazine is a woman holding her daughter. The woman, Katherine Heigl, is a white, blond, 32-year-old, all-American actress who was raised Mormon, and her two-year-old daughter, Naleigh, is Korean. The fact that this image is not remarkable is in itself remarkable—in 2010 the concept of family has shifted organically away from the (seemingly) ideal quartet of a man, a woman, and two biological children. The nuclear four has, thankfully, exploded into an endless array of familial combinations. In nearly every neighborhood there are gay parents, single parents, blended families, and children from all over the world. The old-fashioned nuclear paradigm still exists, of course, but it’s just part of the fabric. That there is currently no particular societally approved model for family is a wonderful, radical evolution that defies political affiliations (e.g., Dick Cheney’s very Republican gay daughter and her girlfriend have two children). Heigl and Naleigh are the new normal—just another mother and daughter.
That was the idea behind this issue of W—to document the family in all its variety. The moment seemed perfect: Acceptance, in the context of family (if not everywhere else), has permeated the culture. In July The Kids Are All Right, a comedy about a lesbian couple, their two teenage children, and the man who, via sperm donation, is their biological father, was a hit in theaters. That the film seemed conventional is one of its virtues—the director and cowriter, Lisa Cholodenko, effortlessly depicted a typical family that just happens to have two moms. When the bio-dad interrupts the almost sitcom-regular rhythms of the household, the film begs the question, What is family? The answer does not boil down to a simple equation.
Similarly, on the actual sitcom Modern Family, the Pritchett clan has evolved into three households: The patriarch, in his 60s, has a hot, young Colombian wife with an 11-year-old oddball son from a previous relationship; another son is gay and lives with his boyfriend and their baby; and then there’s the daughter who has a conventional family of five. In an ironic twist, the family of five is often the most complicated of the three branches of this particular family tree. At the Emmys in August, Modern Family won best comedy, beating Glee (which, at its heart, is also a show about family). When mainstream television, which since Ozzie and Harriet has embraced the classic structure of the family, changes course, it is almost revolutionary. Network TV, more than any other medium, takes its cues from the audience. Shows are tested and judged week after week, and if they’re not popular, they’re canceled. The success of Modern Family, with its range of ethnicity, sexuality, and paternity, is wonderfully surprising and proves that family values suddenly have no set ideal.
In putting together this portfolio, we attempted to depict a similar range of family life. Consider Heigl: She grew up in Connecticut with Meg, her sister, who happens to be Korean, and her two brothers. You may notice I didn’t say Meg, her adopted sister. In the age of the new family, I think “adopted” should be abandoned as a qualifying prefix. The implication is that an adopted child is less desirable or loved than a biological one. While it is true that Heigl, along with her husband, Josh Kelley, adopted Naleigh at nine months, their connection should not, in any way, be diminished or undercut by the nature of the baby’s arrival. She’s their child, they’re a family, and the bond should not be accompanied by a metaphoric asterisk.
Although we were drawn to nontraditional families, the primary motivation for this portfolio was to capture the unique bonds of every type of family. There is a connection that all families feel, even when they fight. “Nothing changes your life like family,” Lee Daniels, the Academy Award–nominated director of Precious, once told me. “That’s where your truth is.” That truth can be a jumble of siblings (like the Hennessy family), a single dad (like Usher), or a gay father who’s raising his brother’s children (like Daniels). More than anything else, families are a powerful point of origin. If a child starts life with a more open perspective, a different view of race and gender, the culture, as a whole, will shift. What was once unusual is now ordinary. And that’s worth celebrating.