The breadth of storytelling in cinema knows no bounds. Film is about love and heartbreak, triumph and failure, heroes and villains, dragons and haggard looking people with thick accents, Leonardo DiCaprio and lines of cocaine on butts of beautiful strangers, and so on and so forth. Through decades of beautiful storytelling and the evolution of motion pictures, it has been proven that film and television can be about anything, or anyone. However, too often these stories are only about only children.
This is not to say that there have never been characters with siblings, nor that characters’ siblings even need to occupy valuable minutes on the silver screen. Feature films have notoriously tight plots and timelines, and often cannot spare precious pages to explore every inch of a character’s background. Which is why for a format like television, that covers a finite set of characters and their development over seasons of exposition and change, I make one simple plea: give [more] characters siblings. Siblings do not necessarily have to be characters, but I implore Hollywood and the men behind the curtain (it’s usually men, right) to at least allow them to exist. Doing so paints brighter, fuller characters, and a universe that feels more like our own.
Why does it matter?
In addition to being a regular contributor to this publication, I am many things. I am college graduate, queer woman of color, Vietnamese-American, and — as is widely known and understood by those close to me — a vocal sufferer of ‘middle child syndrome.’ I am fortunate enough to have grown up with a steady older brother, who has shown me what it means to be generous and resolute, as well as a spunky younger brother, who has taught me to be responsible and kind. Whether or not it is obvious from the looks of me, this experience is baked into my identity, and subconsciously informs every facet of my being as I navigate the world. As does being a student of engineering, or a queer woman of color, or Vietnamese-American. Just as well, my status as a middle child does not define the entirety of my personhood. While it inevitably colors in the picture of me, it does not tell the story of who I am.
Birth order is like a horoscope. It will never be the only or most important part of a person, but everyone has one, and a few important words can reveal heaps about who someone is. It explains why my youngest-child roommate never learned how to load the dishwasher, why my oldest-child father is a martyr with his time and energy, and why I won’t shut up about being a middle child. Context aside: in knowing this about me, I become not just a girl, but an older sister, a younger sister, and the only daughter. Your subconscious can easily fill out my life with piggy-back rides from my older brother, walks to the bus stop with my younger brother, or vicious sibling spats that combust as quickly as they ignite. Simply knowing fills in the blanks. Without any information about my siblings, knowing they exist explains pieces to me, just as knowing that Glee’s Rachel Berry is an only child can explain her relentless determination to receive everything that she wants.
It’s not like siblings don’t exist on TV…
If prompted, we could all name a TV character with a sibling in a matter of moments. You could argue that lots of characters could have siblings — they just might not be important to the narrative. And if they didn’t, would that be such a bad thing?
Grown adults do not always have families that play prominent roles in their lives — that is true — and it is entirely reasonable that characters may have siblings that are not disclosed in the show. Only children are a fair sibling demographic that exists, and no doubt illuminates who a character is in the context of their story. Only, they are disproportionately represented in a landscape of characters who naturally ought to and would have siblings had they existed in reality. In America, approximately 80% of people have at least one sibling1. Conversely, in the Top 10 Teen TV Shows2 of the past decade, a genre that must include familial relationships by design, only 45% of main characters have a sibling, and a whopping 55% canonically do not.
The issue in this is not only that only children are disproportionately represented on screen, but that showrunners and writers neglect to disclose aspects of the most formative relationships of their characters’ lives. According to U.S. News and World Report, “the sibling relationship is the longest relationship that most people will have”1. For adolescents in particular, family dynamics are the sole relationships that define the vast majority of their lives. While we have been fed countless versions of the everpresent parent-child dynamic for nearly every character on TV (rich parent, poor parent, abusive parent, loving parent, divorced parents, etc.) and seen how that affects characters and their arc, we seldom see the same treatment given to sibling relationships, if they exist at all. All the while, the reality is that “people today are more likely to grow up with a sibling than a father”1. Do we see prominent portrayals of how sibling relationships affect a character as often as we see that for absent fathers? Even when siblings do exist in the universe of the show, how often is that being used to provide insight into who a character is? Of the main characters who do canonically have a sibling, 34% have siblings that are mentioned sparingly, if at all. This leaves less than 30% of main characters with siblings that play significant roles in their lives or characterization.
In the most popular Teen TV Show of 2011, Teen Wolf, none of the adolescent main characters have a sibling. Seeing as four in every five people have siblings, an entire friend group composed entirely of only children is extremely statistically unlikely (and honestly? Toxic.), with less than a 0.0013% likelihood*. Even in accepting that these characters are in fact only children, is this trait being used to appropriately inform their characters? In reviewing the traits often attributed to only children by Alfred Adler’s Birth Order Theory (such as preferring the company of adults, being over-protected, enjoying attention, etc.)3, none of them can be definitively ascribed to any of the main characters in Teen Wolf. In fact, Scott McCall, the ever-responsible self-sacrificial natural leader and lead of his pack, practically screams oldest child. He, among a cohort of sibling-coded characters like him, have been done a disservice by showrunners who failed to consider how being an only child molds his character in the same way that they consider how having a single mother would.
What’s your point? (TL;DR)
This is not (only) only child slander. My gripe is this: sibling status, like race, like sexuality, like health status, is a facet of a person that undeniably shapes who they are and how they move throughout the world. In perceiving that a character may be a person of color, or queer, or disabled, we are able to better understand the lens through which they see the world. More often than not, with characters’ sibling status, the lenses do not exist. If they do, they are one-size-fits-all Walmart reading glasses that do not show anything beyond what is on the page. Refusing to give characters siblings makes for lazy storytelling (yeah, I said it). Family dynamics are the single most formative relationships in a person’s life from adolescence through adulthood, and withholding information about them is not only unrealistic, but also results in muddied, two-dimensional characters. The simple act of having a sibling reveals layers to a character, forgoing the act of explicitly divulging information about their personality or backstory.
Unfortunately the sibling relationships that do exist in shows are largely reduced to tropes. Many exist transactionally, or when absolutely necessary to prove something about a character. The reality is that people have siblings all the time, and it informs who they are all the time, whether or not they contribute to major ‘plot points’ in one’s life. Giving TV and film characters siblings enhances their realism, creates more tactile and three-dimensional characters, and is in the best interest of filmmakers and viewers alike. Neglecting to appreciate this spectrum forfeits the opportunity to unfold layers beneath the surface of a character and punctuates the story of why they are who they are with a question mark.
*considering random combinations of seven or more people.
|Pretty Little Liars||Spencer Hastings||Yes||Yes|
|Pretty Little Liars||Hanna Marin||No||—|
|Pretty Little Liars||Emily Fields||No||—|
|Pretty Little Liars||Allison DiLaurentis||Yes||Yes|
|Pretty Little Liars||Aria Montgomery||Yes||Yes|
|Pretty Little Liars||Mona Vanderwaal||No||—|
|Pretty Little Liars||Caleb Rivers||Yes||No|
|Pretty Little Liars||Toby Cavanaugh||No||—|
|Teen Wolf||Scott McCall||No||—|
|Teen Wolf||Stiles Stilinski||No||—|
|Teen Wolf||Lydia Martin||No||—|
|Teen Wolf||Allison Argent||No||—|
|Teen Wolf||Derek Hale||Yes||No|
|Teen Wolf||Malia Tate||No||—|
|Teen Wolf||Kira Yukimura||No||—|
|Teen Wolf||Liam Dunbar||No||—|
|Gossip Girl||Serena Van Der Woodsen||Yes||Yes|
|Gossip Girl||Blair Waldorf||No||—|
|Gossip Girl||Nate Archibald||No||—|
|Gossip Girl||Chuck Bass||No||—|
|Gossip Girl||Dan Humphrey||Yes||Yes|
|Gossip Girl||Jenny Humphrey||Yes||Yes|
|Gossip Girl||Vanessa Abrams||Yes||No|
|Gossip Girl||Ivy Dickens||No||—|
|The 100||Clarke Griffin||No||—|
|The 100||Bellamy Blake||Yes||Yes|
|The 100||Octavia Blake||Yes||Yes|
|The 100||Raven Reyes||No||—|
|The 100||John Murphy||No||—|
|The 100||Jordan Green||No||—|
|The 100||Gabriel Santiago||No||—|
|The 100||Hope Diyoza||No||—|
|Stranger Things||Mike Wheeler||Yes||Yes|
|Stranger Things||Will Byers||Yes||Yes|
|Stranger Things||Dustin Henderson||No||—|
|Stranger Things||Lucas Sinclair||Yes||Yes|
|Stranger Things||Steve Harrington||No||—|
|Stranger Things||Nancy Wheeler||Yes||Yes|
|Stranger Things||Jonathan Byers||Yes||Yes|
|Stranger Things||Max Mayfield||No||—|
|Stranger Things||Billy Hargrove||No||—|
|Stranger Things||Robin Buckley||No||—|
|The Vampire Diaries||Elena Gilbert||Yes||Yes|
|The Vampire Diaries||Jeremy Gilbert||Yes||Yes|
|The Vampire Diaries||Stephan Salvatore||Yes||Yes|
|The Vampire Diaries||Damon Salvatore||Yes||Yes|
|The Vampire Diaries||Bonnie Bennett||No||—|
|The Vampire Diaries||Matt Donovan||Yes||Yes|
|The Vampire Diaries||Caroline Forbes||No||—|
|The Vampire Diaries||Tyler Lockwood||No||—|
|Sex Education||Otis Milburn||Yes||No|
|Sex Education||Eric Effiong||Yes||Yes|
|Sex Education||Maeve Wiley||No||—|
|Sex Education||Adam Groff||Yes||No|
|Sex Education||Ola Nyman||Yes||No|
|Sex Education||Jackson Marchetti||No||—|
|Sex Education||Lily Iglehart||No||—|
|Sex Education||Aimee Gibbs||Yes||No|
|Sex Education||Ruby Matthews||No||—|
Minh Pham is a 22 year-old queer Vietnamese American and recent graduate of Virginia Tech. She is a professional consultant from Northern Virginia, who writes in the evenings after long days of toiling away in the corporate machine. Minh has a passion for comedy, and the stories she wishes she could have had when she was younger.