In a rare moment of unity, the Internet has enjoyed a collective "WTF" moment watching the case of Natalia Grace unfold.

Most recently, Dr. Phil interviewed the Ukrainian-born orphan who's been accused of masquerading as a child in order to be adopted by an all-American and "unsuspecting Christian couple"—before allegedly attempting to murder them. As the (now divorced) Indiana couple Michael and Kristine Barnett await trial for felony neglect of a minor, Dr. Phil has appointed himself to be the interlocutor to uncover new layers to the mind-boggling story. As if straight out of the 2009 horror movie Orphan, the Barnetts alleged that in 2010 they adopted Natalia from a Florida orphanage believing that she was 6 years old. While they were well-informed that Natalia was born with a rare form of dwarfism, they claim they were "scammed" by the "con artist" whom they allege was at least 20 years old when they adopted her. In 2012, they successfully petitioned a court to legally change Natalia's age to 22, claiming that bone-density tests and anecdotal evidence proved that she'd completed puberty and was a grown adult. Then they rented Natalia her own apartment in Indiana while they moved to Canada with their biological son.

Cue our collective "WTF?!"

ukrainian orphan Daily Mail

From media coverage ranging from The Daily Mail to Buzzfeed News to The Cut, we know that some details of the Barnetts' testimony are in direct contradiction with others who support Natalia. Dispute over the girl's age at the time she was adopted place her anywhere from 6 to 8 to 14 years old, with initial bone density tests never recovered or corroborated by other scans. The Barnetts had Natalia treated for various psychiatric disorders, and while Dr. Phil pointed out that children who grow up in institutional care can experience developmental difficulties, the brain is surprisingly resilient and can compensate for neglect later on. That's to say: No, Natalia Grace is probably not a psychopathic movie villain come to life.

Apparently, Natalia's been living with a new Indiana couple, Antwon and Cynthia Mans, who don't believe she's an "evil dwarf," in Dr. Phil's delicate phrasing. In the interview, Natalia says of the Barnetts, "I actually thought I had found the right family after bouncing around from a lot of families. I thought I had found the right family for me." But soon, as Buzzfeed News notes, "Things started going downhill after she underwent a surgery related to her dwarfism...and Kristine Barnett began questioning her age. 'Everything started happening after that one moment,' Natalia said." She identified her conditions as diastrophic dysplasia, as well as scoliosis. Sitting with Dr. Phil, as Natalia watches video testimony of Kristine Barnett's allegations against her, her open expression clearly wilts. She watches as Kristine alleges that she discovered evidence of Natalia having a menstrual cycle and full pubic hair when she was believed to be 8 years old (which Natalia and Cynthia Mans deny), among other claims that Natalia made threats to murder the family and hid knives in the kitchen. Natalia went into detail to recount her version of the events that drove Kristine Barnett to accuse Natalia of poisoning their coffee and standing at the foot of their bed in the middle of the night while holding a knife. Ultimately, she said she doesn't wish the Barnetts to be sentenced to prison, but "if it comes to that…" so be it. She said the Barnetts should "get right with God." Dr. Phil ends the interview by telling Natalia, "I'm very impressed with you. You're an impressive young woman."

So while we now have Natalia's side of the story, our weirder-than-fiction fascination with the (probably) 16-year-old is refracted through plenty of ableism and xenophobia that still exist within horror stories' tropes.

First, there's the creepy factor of the foreign, adopted child. Orphan worked so well to freak us out because of its excellent play with the Spooky Boy trope (i.e. children are inherently creepy and they Know Things). The good/evil child dichotomy might be filtered through the lens of tiny-psychopath-on-the-loose or the more obvious supernatural threat of possessed children, but depictions of non-biological children have been used to add an eerie quality and signal that The Kids Aren't Alright. From Damien in 1978's The Omen being adopted and maybe being the Antichrist to Macaulay Culkin as a sociopath in 1993's The Good Son to 2009's Orphan, let's acknowledge there's a not-great message that non-biological children pose a danger to our sense of safety underlying some of our classic horror tropes. In one of the most famous examples—get ready for a throwback—we have the patently horrifying appearance of Samara in The Ring. Yes, she's a dead little ghost girl based on Japanese folklore, but her full backstory is that she was a troubled kid with a horrific parentage who was adopted by an uber-Christian couple before she began showing supernatural powers—until her adoptive mother threw her in a well to, you know, protect the village.

The Ring (2002) - Samara Morgan's FULL Death Scene (with Deleted Scenes) www.youtube.com

Moreover, foreign children particularly bear the brunt of this weird, mostly unconscious anxiety, with Esther in Orphan being a young Russian girl. Evil characters using "foreign accents" has long been a not-quite-right problem in media. As carriers of racial or plain xenophobic stereotypes, many movie "villains were constructed based on views of the American people at the times in which the films were created. This would mean that the foreign entanglements at the time of production had a direct impact on the villain character as far as casting and racially biased portrayals," as studied by Bryant University. That is to say: Why, exactly, do all the headlines about Natalia Grace identify her only as the "Ukrainian Orphan"? Regardless of her age, she's indisputably been in the United States since 2008 when she was first adopted, though she was later sent to a Florida orphanage. Under the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, Natalia has been an American citizen since 2008.

In case you have a headache from how plain an allegory that is for Spooky (Adoptive) Children, let's just mention the obviously ableist aspect of our possessed-by-a-demon tropes. The unsettling truth is that many of history's famous cases of possession have compelling arguments that a medical condition was to blame for the symptoms we now associate with "evil," especially in horror movies: body deformities, strange gait, unusual facial characteristics, unusual voice. After all, who isn't still haunted by Linda Blair crawling down the stairs in The Exorcist? The Insidious franchise is predicated upon a lovely couple witnessing their son Dalton fall prey to supernatural forces, which is signaled by the fact that he falls into an unexplained coma. A sad trope in media, in general, is that of the "Sad Cripple," with plenty of professionals and activists and regular viewers who understand metaphors pointing out that there's a regressive, f*cked up stigma being reinforced about disabilities and disfigurement in today's media.


As Dr. Colleen Donnelly wrote in "Re-visioning Negative Archetypes of Disability and Deformity in Fantasy," "Fantasy and horror often exploit disabled people, presenting them as embodiments of terror and evil...Dwarves have been presented as a race of stout, earth and mountain dwelling miners, sometimes susceptible to obstinacy and greed, as in Tolkien's Hobbit (1937) and C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), and made childlike by Disney or in the presentation of munchkins in the Wizard of Oz movie. Often throughout history, villains and malefactors have also been presented as monstrous, disabled or deformed."

So if it's true that the Barnetts' behavior towards Natalia changed after she had an operation related to her medical condition, maybe the Barnetts have simply watched too many horror movies. Natalia told Dr. Phil, "I don't want people to see me as what they have been saying I am…I want them to see my personality...I don't want them to be scared to come say hi because of what they read...I want them to see the genuine me."

'I Don't Want People To See Me As What They Have Been Saying I Am,' Says Ukrainian Orphan youtu.be

Culture Feature

Drew Brees Exemplifies How NOT to Be a White Ally

The quarterback said "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country." And then he tried to apologize. And only made it worse.

Drew Brees, a man who makes literally millions of dollars for throwing a ball, has come under fire for insensitive comments he made about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.

"I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees said in the interview with Yahoo Finance. He clarified that this was in part because he envisioned his grandfathers, who fought in World War II, during the National Anthem. He continued, saying, "And is everything right with our country right now? No. It's not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together. We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution."

This isn't the first time Brees made it clear that he cares more for the idea of a make-believe unified America than he does for actual human lives. In 2016, he criticized Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem, saying it was "disrespectful to the American flag" and "an oxymoron" because the flag gave critics the right to speak out in the first place.


Colin Kaepernick Kneeling Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest of racist police brutality


Of course, the flag's alleged ideals have been proven to only be applicable to wealthy, white men—men like Brees. Sure, his grandfathers did a noble thing when they fought under the US flag during WWII, and no one, including Kaepernick, has ever said that sacrifice isn't worth respecting. Thanks to the sacrifices of many people (including the enslaved Black backs upon which this country was built, including the scores of routinely abused Black soldiers who fought for American lives), America has offered opportunity and peace for many, many people. In particular, Ole' Glory has been very kind to men like Brees: rich, white men who still control the majority of the power and the wealth in the United States.

But what about the rest of us, Drew? What about George Floyd whose neck was crushed by a police officer who kneeled on him so casually that he didn't even take his hand out of his pocket? What about Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot for the crime of being Black and going for a jog? What about Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was murdered by police in her home in the middle of the night for a crime that had nothing to do with her? What about Tony McDade, Drew–have you heard his name? Have you heard about the 38-year-old Black trans man who was gunned down in Florida last week? Do you understand why these people's family's may harbor just a bit of disrespect for your precious flag?

Is it possible for you to realize, Drew, that your wish for "unity" is not a wish for progress, but a wish to maintain the status quo? When you call for unity under the American flag, you're talking about your flag, the flag that represents a long, sordid history of racial oppression and violence. There is no unity where there is no justice. When you say that "we are all in this together," what you're saying is that we all have roles to play in the version of society that has served you so well. For your part, you'll be a rich, white man, and for Black people's part, they'll continue to be victims of state-sanctioned murders– but hopefully more quietly, hopefully in a manner that doesn't make you uncomfortable?

When you say, "We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution," what you mean to say is that POC and their allies are at fault. Sure, you probably agree that Derek Chauvin took it a bit too far, and you probably feel a little self-conscious that he's brought all this "Black rights" stuff up again. But when you say "all," you place blame on the victims who are dying under a broken system. And what, exactly, do you expect POC to do differently, Drew? Ahmaud Arbery was just out jogging, and still he died. George Floyd was just trying to pay a cashier, and still he died. POC and their allies try to peacefully protest by marching in the streets or taking a knee at a football game, and still white people condemn and criticize. Still the police shoot.

After much criticism, Brees did attempt an apology on Instagram, where he posted a hilariously corny stock photo of a Black and white hand clasped together. His caption, though possibly well-intentioned, made it even clearer that his understanding of the movement for Black lives is thoroughly lacking.


Highlights of the "apology" include his immediate attempt to exonerate himself from culpability, claiming that his words were misconstrued, saying of his previous statement: "Those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This could not be further from the truth, and is not an accurate reflection of my heart or my character." Unfortunately, Drew, white people like you are the "enemy," as you put it, because by default you are at the very least part of the problem. No one is accusing you of being an overt racist, Drew; no one thinks you actively and consciously detest Black people. But your lack of empathy, your apathy, and your unwillingness to unlearn your own biases are precisely what has persisted in the hearts and minds of well-meaning white Americans for centuries.

Next, you say, "I recognize that I am part of the solution and can be a leader for the Black community in this movement." No, Drew. Just no. Black people don't need white people's savior complexes to interfere in their organizing; what they need is for us to shut up and listen. What they need is for us to get our knees off of their necks.

Finally, you say, "I have ALWAYS been an ally, never an enemy." This, Drew, is suspiciously similar to saying, "But I'm one of the good whites!" The fact of the matter is that feeling the need to prove your allyship is not about helping a movement; it's about feeding your own ego. Not only that, but your emphasis on "ALWAYS" does a pretty good job of making it clear that you don't think you have a racist bone in your body and that you have taken great offense at any accusations to the contrary. I have some news for you, Drew: Every white person is racist. Sure, the levels vary, and while you may not be actively and consciously discriminating against POC, you have been brought up in a racist system, and your implicit biases are as strong as any other white person's. Your job now is to unlearn those biases and confront those subtle prejudices in yourself and in other white people. Maybe the first step in doing so is just shutting your f*cking mouth about kneeling at football games. Maybe you should even consider taking a knee yourself.

For other non-BIPOC trying to be better allies, check out one of these 68+ anti-racism resources.

Top Stories

Finally, a “Period Blood” Emoji is Coming to Your Phone

Over 230 new emojis have been released. One called “the pinching hand” reminds men of how small their...phones are.

Not that we needed more emojis, but the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organization whose actual job is to manage global emoji standards, will release 230 more icons this year.

The final list of new images includes interracial couples, a prosthetic arm, wheelchair users, and gestures from American Sign Language. With diverse representations of physical abilities, orientations, gender identities, and skin tones, the Emoji v12.0 data set is all about inclusivity.

The disability-themed emojis were proposed by Apple, who developed the concept with the American Council of the Blind and the National Association of the Deaf, along with other disability rights groups. The proposal read, "One in seven people around the world has some form of disability. Adding emojis emblematic to users' life experiences helps foster a diverse culture that is inclusive of disability."

One breakout star in the new crop of icons is the "drop of blood" emoji. Designed by the girls' rights charity, Plan International UK, to represent menstruation, the blood drop is meant to destigmatize the topic for young girls experiencing puberty. Plan International collaborated with the British National Health Service to propose: "Not only would a blood drop emoji be relevant for hundreds of millions of women and people who menstruate all around the world, it would also show that periods aren't taboo and they are something we should be able to talk about openly and honestly." Lucy Russell, head of Plan International, added, "An emoji isn't going to solve this, but it can help change the conversation. Ending the shame around periods begins with talking about it."

There's also "the pinching hand" emoji, which the Internet is proudly re-christening as "the tiny penis" emoji. It's the reality check for the bulbous purple eggplant that we've all been waiting for.

Beginning in September or October (depending on your mobile phone carrier), you'll have at your disposal icons for every appropriate social situation–but why not go even further? Hopefully, we'll soon adapt icons for every inappropriate social situation, as well. The next time someone at your office scream-sneezes, imagine being able to simply send one "spittle" icon to silently shame him into never doing it again. Carmen Barlow at Plan International believes emojis encourage those kinds of open conversations, stating, "Emojis play a crucial role in our digital and emotional vocabulary, transcending cultural and country barriers."

We already have the "poop" emoji; imagine having a tiny "fart" icon to alert others when someone's violated an elevator. Hey, Unicode Consortium, Emoji v.13?


Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.


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