And when it's a rich white mom and an adopted African child, can it ever be that simple? Well, says one mom, yes and no.
While Bess Rattray's essay feels like part of Vogue's conspicuous recent push to run more "serious" content - albeit safely online - it's a piece worth reading. Rattray, like Madonna, has adopted a little girl from Africa. And while this might imply a certain solidarity, Rattray's feelings are ambivalent.
I would like to think that Madonna had pretty much the same motivation I did when I adopted an eleven-month-old girl named Nettie Tesfanesh from Ethiopia a year ago: She wanted a child, and if that child could come from a place where millions of kids live without safe homes and loving arms, well, all the better. Yes, OK, it's always to the greater good when a celebrity adoption gets us talking about Africa's children-so why could the sound of smacked foreheads be heard in multiracial families across America? Because the talk that results when a white Western superstar-sporting an $800 haircut and Parisian safari gear-"rescues" a black child is not usually an enlightening dialogue on AIDS orphans, or how money can best be spent to address poverty. In the hands of the tabloids, it's more like an outtake from Brüno.
In other words, whatever the motivation, these celebrity adoptions run the risk of reducing the act to a fad - or worse, to politicizing the dynamic in ugly ways. And of course, with Madonna, everything's different. It's like, is Madonna a role model for single moms? Is she showing how strong and independent a woman can be, that she's perfectly capable of taking on the challenges of parenting alone? Not really; Madonna has nothing to do with the challenges of the average single mother. Maybe in some contexts, a newly-single woman adopting a child could serve as an empowering example, in Madonna's it's... not. Simply put, no one would think to compare Madonna to other single moms. They will, however, compare her to other white women adopting African children, and while in one sense this is equally unreasonable, in others it's inevitable.
Madonna, Rattray notes, has further muddied the waters by, in both her adoptions of children from Africa, engaging in custody battles with the children's families, further increasing the impression of colonial entitlement that already, inevitably, hangs over the business. Says Rattray,
What is so irksome to workaday adoptive parents like me, is ...why Madonna, who adopted a boy named David to much criticism in 2006, decided to adopt another child from a country that doesn't have an established, transparent adoption system. In reputable adoption countries-which include China, Russia, and South Korea-there are elaborate checks and balances in place to guard against baby-trading and to protect the rights of a child's birth parents.
In contrast, Rattray says her adoption of her daughter, Nettie, was carefully supervised, and requires periodic updates and contact with Nettie's family. The writer finds it frustrating that Madonna's cavalier approach, the seeming ease with which she and Angelina acquire children, serves to trivialize both the seriousness of the process for most parents, and their motivations.
It was important to me to adopt a baby who might otherwise languish in an institution, scramble to stay alive on the streets-or die. People often ask why I didn't adopt in the United States, and, boiled down, my answer is that I wanted an infant, I wanted to go where the need was greatest, and I was open to a child born to a mother infected with HIV. In the States, there are families waiting around the block to adopt healthy infants, while in East Africa, formal foster-care and domestic-adoption systems are more or less unheard of. It's never easy to leap through the flaming hoops of paperwork and bureaucracy, especially as a single parent, but my year-and-a-half journey to motherhood via a remote, coffee-growing hill town called Mudula was relatively smooth, even speedy, in relation to most international adoptions.
Rattray acknowledges, however, that this dynamic will always, to a degree, be fraught. Given the burden of context, it simply is - hence the frustration when a star seems to reduce it even further to cliche. Take last year's controversy surrounding Italian-Brit artist Vanessa Beecroft's work. She says it's art that plays with ideas of colonialism. Critics say it can do this and still be racist. Beecroft says her images of African men in blackface devouring fried chicken, or of herself as a Madonna nursing Sudanese twins, are about reclamation. But there's the inevitable question: can it be "reverse colonialism" when it's still, well, colonialism? Can we get away from the fact that this is a white woman rescuing African babies - and, at the end of the day, does she want us to? Beecroft, who attempted to adopt the little boys, said the process - captured in a documentary film - was (according to the artist's press releases) "not just fetishization of the blacks. It will be a beginning of a relationship with that country." But her high-handed attitude, her patronizing references to "these people" and "these poor creatures" render her easy to dismiss. Said New York in its review of the documentary,
In the film's most disturbing scene, sisters from the orphanage try to stop her from stripping the children nude inside their abbey for an elaborate photo shoot. Beecroft refuses, complains, starts shooting again, and eventually loses a physical confrontation with one of the sisters, who takes the children away from her, furious that Beecroft is stripping children naked inside a church.
As Racialicious's Latoya Peterson sagely puts it, "Her penchant for darkening the features of the models used in her work, the casual disregard for the environment she is in, and even her positioning as a white woman who wants to make the world aware of these issues plays into longstanding issues with neo-colonialism and racism" and that the viewer can see two things:
"1. That she is an artist, interpreting the world as she sees it.
2. That artists can be influenced by racism and colonialism, even as they are trying to make a statement about one of these topics."
And there's the rub. Because anyone is influenced by these things, making a statement or no. And take someone like Bess Rattray. She may not be making the same kind of self-glorifying statement Beecroft is, but by definition, her act is still a statement in itself. What I was struck by, looking at Beecroft's lightning-rod image from The Art Star and The Sudanese Twins was the sheer vulnerability of the babies: they don't know whose breast they're suckling, just that they want nourishment. They don't know that their skin is being used as a contrast to the artist's angelic robes, or that the image is burdened with centuries of context and meaning. And it's this at the end of the day simplifies and complicates everything. And it's pretending that it doesn't, as Rattray knows, that's the problem.
Madonna And Child [Vogue]