“Like a Rejection": Madonna Denied


"If Madonna had to depend on masses of black women to maintain her status as cultural icon she would have been dethroned some time ago."

--bell hooks, "Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister" in Black Looks: Race and Representation

Madonna has been called both a feminist icon and a post-feminist icon, but count me among the "masses of black women" bell hooks wrote about; I don't consider her an icon of anything but genius-level reinvention and self-promotion. 

Don't get me wrong: there's more than one Madonna hit on the soundtrack of my life as a teenager in the '80s.  But I never drank the "Madonna = empowerment" Kool-Aid.  Back then, my friends and I didn't go around talking about "cultural appropriation" or "the fetishization of race."  So if I had to guess at why we failed to adopt Madonna as our icon, it was because, frankly, ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby.  Whitney had superior vocal chops; Janet ruled the dance floor.  When Grace Jones reigned as the queen of gender-bending and subversion of sexual convention, she set trends in popular culture and subcultures--she didn't appropriate them.

As an adult, my response to talk of Madonna as a symbol of female empowerment is, "Empowering to whom?"  Certainly not to the black and brown people populating her Sex book, her videos, or her film Truth or Dare.  It is through this lens of Madonna's messy racial and sexual politics that I viewed her adoption of a child from Malawi three years ago, and her recent, thus-far-unsuccessful effort to adopt a second child there.

As an adoptive mom myself, I've watched with interest as the Will-Madonna-Be-Allowed-to-Adopt-Little-Mercy? drama unfolded.  I don't think her application to adopt should have been denied on the grounds of her being single (as at least one source has reported), but I do share the Judge Esme Chombo's concerns about child trafficking as expressed in her ruling:

...Judge Chombo addressed concerns among rights groups that Malawi's
courts could inadvertently expose the nation's children to the threat
of human traffickers.

"The issue of residence, I find, is the key upon which the question
of adoption rests, and it is the very bedrock of protection that our
children need; it must, therefore, not be tampered with," Judge Chombo

In other words, not every "orphan" is really an orphan and having a residency requirement (at least 18 months, in Malawi) helps impede would-be child traffickers.  The Malawian judge granting Madonna's 2006 adoption of her son, David Banda, waived the residency requirement.  Judge Chombo wasn't so inclined:


"Residence denotes some degree of permanence. It does not
necessarily mean the applicant has a settled headquarters in this
country," she said. "It seems dangerous to try to define what is meant
by residence. In the present case, I can only answer that question in
the case of (Madonna) by holding that she is not resident in this

"She is merely a sojourner here during a period of leave.

"Ms Madonna may not be the only international person interested in
adopting the so-called poor children of Malawi. By removing the very
safeguard that is supposed to protect our children, the courts by their
pronouncements could actually facilitate trafficking of children by
some unscrupulous individuals who would take advantage of the weakness
of the law.

"Anyone could come to Malawi and quickly arrange for an adoption
that might have grave consequences on the very children the law seeks
to protect.

"As I make the order, I am acutely aware of the high expectations
that the family of CJ (Chifundo "Mercy" James), and possibly other
independent wellwishers, had about the unlimited opportunities that the
proposed adoption would avail CJ.

"I have no doubt that all hope is not lost with the petitioner's
noble and immediate ideas of investing in the improvement of more
children's lives in Malawi.

"It is my prayer that CJ would be among the first children to
benefit from that project...

In 2006, in conjunction with the Kabbalah Center of Los Angeles, Madonna co-founded a
nonprofit group, Raising Malawi, to bring "an end to the extreme poverty and hardship endured by Malawi's 2 million orphans and vulnerable children."  She made a documentary, "I Am Because We Are," to raise awareness of poverty, AIDS and other diseases affecting Malawian children.

We can speculate on Madonna's motives--Is she sincere, or are the adoption efforts merely Kabbalah-inspired charity?  Is she competing with Angelina?  Is she using her money and celebrity to buy black children, the ultimate act of appropriation of blackness?--but who really knows?  I am, at best, skeptical, given her history. 

On various blog and news sites, I've read several comments suggesting that whatever Madonna's motives and regardless of the rules, she should be allowed to adopt because she can give Mercy a good life.  It's a sad day when a child's only choices are life in an orphanage or life with a mother who admits to exploiting nonwhite and gay people in her employ, considering them "emotional cripples" to whom she is a mother-figure.

As Carmen VanKerckhove points out over at AntiRacistParent, an American conversation about race and adoption is long overdue; Madonna's racial politics are but the tip of the iceberg, and not even a very important one, in the grand scheme of things.  But maybe, just maybe, Madonna's headlines can serve as a springboard to change that would make a real difference in the lives of children.  Peep Roland Martin's call to action on behalf of kids caught up in America's foster care system.

One thing for certain, somebody (or somebodies) really screwed up on little Mercy's behalf.  As evidenced by photos like the one above, Mercy had spent time with Madonna and her children, and she reportedly had been taken away from the orphanage to a luxury hotel near Lilongwe, where Madonna stayed while in the country. Apparently, Madonna had been told that the adoption would be a go.  I shudder to think that Mercy had been told this as well--only to be returned to the orphanage.

Madonna will appeal Judge Chombo's ruling.  I hope that, going forward, whether the adoption is granted or not, everyone involved will do a better job of protecting little Mercy, putting her best interests above all else.


by Deesha Philyaw
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12 Comments Have Been Posted

Maybe I'm being naive

I dont know about Madonna, but if I really wanted to adopt a child and all that was asked from me in order to do that is to live for a while in her home country, with the resources she has, celebrity be damned, I'd be calling the movers on a second. A real parent does whatever it takes for her child's best interest. Period.
(Pause for you to laugh at the ludicrous idea...)
Unless, of course, the logistic nighmare that it implies and being so far away from the glamourous spotlight proves too much for our Material Girl... Time will tell if she's not full of BS.

Thanks for this post,

Thanks for this post, especially the links to those talking about interracial and international adoption. I'm very curious to know more about where the cultural and policital boundaries begin and end for people. I detect a preference for international adoption coming from my friends that often gives me pause. Is it really that hard to adopt an American kid? Or do people just think it is? Are people hoping to avoid complicated relationships with birth parents? I'm really unsure, literally trying to figure out where people (at least the ones I know) are coming from.
There's a lot here to think about, including Madonna's strange racial politics. Remember when she wore a gold tooth for like 10 minutes? I was an 11 year old white kid, a decade before I even understood what the term racial appropriation meant, and that grill raised a red flag for me.

A wee critique and some thoughts on Madonna

Not to be disagreeing with your analysis of Madonna (in fact, I too am squicked out by the implications of her adoption/s and her general history of racial and sexual politics) but I would say that your interpretation of the internationalist article cited is a bit of a stretch and does a disservice to your argument. You say that in it Madonna, "admits to exploiting nonwhite and gay people in her employ, considering them 'emotional cripples' to whom she is a mother-figure," implying that Madonna believes all nonwhite and gay people to be emotional cripples and that, perhaps, this was the reason for her hiring them -- because they would be more easily exploitable than white people for this reason. Rather, the article states, "like the young dancers, whose vulnerability she admits to exploiting in order to play the mother-figure (she claims to have deliberately selected 'emotional cripples')," which is much less racially sinister. That she primarily employed nonwhites or gays is merely correlation -- she never, as you imply, "admits" to hiring them due to racial prejudices. From the information given, one could assume that she turned down scores of emotionally healthy nonwhite and gay dancers; to assume otherwise is merely speculation and makes me doubt-- unnecessarily, I think -- the accuracy of your other assertions.

Also, in terms of Madonna as a feminist icon... let me state up front that I don't like Madonna very much and I never have, but I kind of bristle at the dismissal of her as a feminist icon. Usually I hear something along the lines of what this article states, that "frankly, ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby." I think this really misses the point of Madonna and her own goals in terms of her career. She is a regurgitator, a re-appropriator, as you state... an Andy Warhol with an emphasis on stage performance, and an end goal near-absolute personal fame and power.

Whether this is valuable or not is certainly up for debate, but as to whether it is culturally relevant -- and even more so as to whether it is a point of importance that a woman is managing to pull it off? It's tricky, really, for a woman to find Madonna empowering, as part of her thing has been to exploit traditional images and stereotypes of women; by relentlessly using them in her work, she manages to transcend them, but only by culturally reinforcing them for other women. When Madonna appears in a lace bustier, she's a commercial force -- when 80's teens did it, it was continued cultural oppression cum traditional sexual oppression.

I think it can safely be said that, whether one likes it or not, her life and work are something of significance and worth a great deal of consideration. In the end I find myself rejecting this sort of "art" -- amorality, power via cultural exploitation, and empty transcendence don't really do it for me -- but I do still maintain a sense of respect for the audacity of a person put it out there and live it, as it seems to me to be a logical manifestation of the world as it has become and an extreme expression of a new system of values that we really have to grapple with. She may not be some kind of pillar of feminism, and I certainly agree that "Madonna = empowerment" isn't exactly an equation most women should come out with. To me it seems like it's more helpful to regard Madonna without the expectation of definition, statement, or purpose, and more as a performance in progress -- a life art project, if you will. What happens if you use what you know of postmodernism to put yourself first? If you consciously and purposefully treat yourself as a product? She becomes a lot of questions and no answers -- which keeps her famous and important to feminism.

"Icon" for me?

I make these comments as a Madonna fan, and one who has been a fan through several of her incarnations and reinventions. However, I was never under the impression that she represented any kind of feminist icon for me, specifically, as a Black woman. White women "pulling off" this kind of cultural appropriation is really nothing new or revolutionary. That she did so on such a grand scale, perhaps. That she may have been more in control of the appropriation than White women in previous times, perhaps.

But not anything new or particularly "feminist" about what she has done. Unless by "feminist" you mean empowerment by means of claiming some of the same hierarchical privileges that White men have claimed for centuries.

She has largely used images of non-Whites in her art in a way that is borderline if not outright fetishism. She feels a certain "connection" to other cultures, perhaps, and lives this through her choices in romantic partners, spiritual expression, and child adoption. But the idea that White people should have the freedom to roam the world, picking up pieces of cultures that they connect with is an age-old expression of privilege. That she, as a woman, is free to do so may be a step forward for some women, but it is not a step forward for me.


My argument is that she isn't someone to look to for what to do to be a feminist, so much as she is someone who raises issues of concern to feminists in her work and life. I think she also exploits white women in her work, as I mention, so as a white woman I don't think that what she's doing is particularly a step forward for me, either. It's mostly a step forward for Madonna, which I think makes her an ideal point of focus for critiques on what feminism can and does mean in Western society, and how it intersects with other ideologies, specifically capitalism.

The "pulling off" I referred to was not in reference to the cultural appropriation, but in the active creation and control of her own image to gain power. It is not rare for white women to exercise white privilege, as you correctly point out; I do think it is rare to see a woman blatantly selling herself and yet maintaining the upper-hand in doing so, which is what I was trying to communicate. I can see Madonna on two levels, which is the straightforward appreciation of her work and image, including all of the racial and sexual ickiness, which I dislike, and the appreciation of what she is doing as a concept, which is intriguing (though not necessarily in a positive way), especially from a feminist perspective.

She need not be a good feminist to be a feminist icon -- in fact, she might be a perfect example of feminist ideals <i>misapplied</i>. I think feminism is allowed to have "bad guy" icons, right? Or in the modern pseudo-bullshit parsing, "complex"? I think it's important, when holding Madonna up as a symbol strongly identified with feminism, to be really clear about her ambiguity in that role. She's also strongly identified with capitalism, post-modernism, and gay culture -- so much so I would say she could be an icon for all of those things, too. To me icon need not imply role model or idol or anything positive, so much as a strong symbol associated with something. And for good or bad, Madonna is that.


<i>implying that Madonna believes all nonwhite and gay people to be emotional cripples</i>

If that's the implication you read in what I wrote, so be it. I wouldn't know if she generalizes further to all gays or all nonwhites. That she considered those individuals in her employ "emotional cripples" (which is what I wrote) is sufficiently problematic for me. I find it indeed racially (in part) sinister as the people she chose were gay (all colors) and nonwhite (gay and hetero)--both marginalized groups. I don't believe this was coincidentally, given the larger context of Madonna's interaction with marginalized groups.

Does anyone believe that Big Daddy Kane and Naomi Campbell were chosen at random for that human Oreo picture in the Sex book? She might have chosen them to make Point about racial/sexual taboos, but she simultaneously reinforced her historical position as a white woman in those photographs--one of supremacy. I can't applaud her for challenging the status quo when she's also reinforcing it, not just for "other women", but across racial lines as well.

<i>From the information given, one could assume that she turned down scores of emotionally healthy nonwhite and gay dancers; to assume otherwise is merely speculation</i>

And to assume she didn't specifically seek out nonwhites and gays isn't speculation? Were you at the casting call? You choose to give her the benefit of the doubt; I don't.

<i>I think this really misses the point of Madonna and her own goals in terms of her career.</i>

She made her point often at the expense of marginalized groups, for her own gain. I'm not missing much.

I believe it's possible to make a point of turning the status quo on its ear, without exploiting other people in the process. That' what I call an icon.

<i>I kind of bristle at the dismissal of her as a feminist icon.</i>

I absolutely--not kind of--bristle at the notion of her as a feminist icon **for me**. *My* brand of feminism doesn't allow for making one's feminist "point" at the expense of others who are marginalized.

Why do you bristle because someone else doesn't consider her a feminist icon? What does that have to do with how you choose to view her? I don't bristle when someone considers her an icon; I simply don't embrace her in that way.

"Feminism" and "icon" mean different things to different people, so shouldn't we expect--and even welcome--some disagreement about these terms? One complaint about feminism, historically, has been an observation of rigidity in terms of definition--definitions which limited some women, and ignored others completely.

We can define feminism for ourselves, but it is presumptive, at best, to attempt to do so for others.

<i>To me it seems like it's more helpful to regard Madonna without the expectation of definition, statement, or purpose, and more as a performance in progress -- a life art project, if you will.</i>

Just as I asked "Empowering to whom?", I ask, "Helpful to whom?" Is it transcendent and helpful for black women when Madonna's art has reinforced traditional and negative stereotypes about us?

My bestowing upon Madonna the feminist icon label would be the equivalent of a Baseball Hall of Fame listing with the asterisk for steroid use:

"Madonna was a feminist icon.*"

*who in the process of making her point exploited and fetishized marginalized people.

response, in turn

In terms of the first critique... I don't feel like you are wrong in your assessment of Madonna, I felt like your wording was misleading and inaccurate. Even though this is more of a personal blog, it still in some way represents the magazine, yes? I honestly, when reading the article, thought what you wrote bordered on slander. Not because your assessment of her motivations offended my sense of Madonna's character or something, but because it was not representative of the information given in that article. I actually don't give her the benefit of the doubt and think you are 100% correct in bringing up that her dancers were primarily nonwhite and gay; my main concern was that your wording attributes that connection to the article and Madonna herself, rather than to you.

"'[I]con' mean[s] different things to different people, so shouldn't we expect--and even welcome--some disagreement about these terms?"

I think this is the crux of the rest of the disagreement... we have really a big difference in our definition of the word "icon." I think I "bristle" (which I used to imply, not a cat-like raised back sort of alarm, but more of an involuntary irritance which actually surprises me a little, given my dislike for Madonna... probably could have used a better word) because I feel that, when trying to analyze something, one should be as objective and careful as possible in order to be accurate, and that the word "icon", for the idea you're trying to express, is not appropriate. Bitch tends to be so academic that I go into academic mode when reading it -- I forget that the headlines I'm reading are actually individual's blogs and operate on their own sort of guidelines and their own expectations of tone and audience. In academic mode, for this kind of analysis, there's not really a lot of room for disagreement, as you pull out the OED and be done with it. But, trying to come at this from the idea that it's your sort of personal space to define, and that you did not write or operate under this set of expectations, and that it quite probably not even desirable for you to do so (meaning, it's probably good for a space to exist where something like the OED loses it's spurious authority), this sort of critique becomes intellectualist and very condescending, which I did not intend and apologize for.

I also, as I mentioned, read this as an aggregate, so I kind of lump all of these blogs together in my head as the "Bitch blog." There had been other discussion of Madonna as an icon in the past week, so this post, having addressed that issue, spurred me to post, but with thoughts I'd been having on and off in response to other things as well. It wasn't meant as a particular argument against your post, but to a broader discussion of Madonna as an icon, over multiple blogs. Dumbass me still can't get that straight with all the new blogs on here, so you know, I apologize. My post ended up being out of context and disrespectful, which I did not intend.

It seems to me that what I said personally offended you; my sort of attempted credo with internet arguing is to try to admit blame in upsetting someone, because otherwise whatever we say will turn into flaming, instead of actually responding and thinking. I want to very explicitly say that I am trying to consider all of the points that you make and mull them over, especially the ones that challenge my own opinions, and certainly I try to empathize with them even if I cannot adopt them. And I want to explicitly apologize for being condescending and disrespectful, because though I said that I had no intent to be so, I do recognize that it does not change that I seem to have been so.

Thanks, J

I appreciate your response; it gave me a clearer picture of your expectations (?) in terms of the whole "academic" thing.

As far as personal offense...I think it was more of...annoyance? Your words "felt" to me as if you were saying that if others could/would only view Madonna's work, her "point", etc. through x lens, then they would not dismiss her as an icon. That felt presumptive to me, and annoying, because it's the kind of presumption that some feminists are, I believe rightly, called to the carpet for, particularly at those junctures where feminism intersects with race, for example. I've been down this rhetorical road before--and unfortunately, I responded to you as a straw-woman for this kind of bothersome presumption. For that, I do apologize.

Back to the lens thing...So, I'm reacting to the "look through this lens" perspective; it seems to ignore how myopic and/or besides-the-point that lens can be/has been for others, contemporarily and historically. I'm open to disagreement, but I do chafe at hearing again and again (in essence), "Try looking through this lens. Never mind that it ignores some stuff that's really important to you."

Finally, in these forums where so much important nuance can be lost, I believe intent does matter--thank you for clarifying yours.

As embarrassig as this is...

Madonna did a lot to help me broaden myself as a preteen. I grew up in a very racist, very sexually repressed household. I was smacked across the cheek for asking what masturbation was after seeing the word in a book at the library, and "no brown people allowed" was my practically posted on the door. My mother, myself, and four of my aunts all lived with my grandmother. She was a Southern Catholic who moved down to South Florida (very multi-racial multi-cultured area, THANKFULLY) and there was constant fighting as my aunts grew into their teens and started dating, because they were having sex and they were having it without regard to race. Oh how they suffered for that. I myself never had any of these prejudices because I was born there after my family relocated to the area, so I was surrounded by all cultures and races from the time I was born. As soon as I began puberty, I got the backlash from my grandmother as much as my aunts had. I wasn't allowed to be bisexual. I wasn't allowed to bring up any topic remotely sexual in nature. I wasn't allowed to have non-white friends outside of school, let alone have crushes on or date any. And yes, I actually got smacked for "saying the word masturbation". I honestly didn't know what it was. And I was 12!

Then along comes Madonna, a Catholic woman who made no apologies for herself because she didn't have anything to apologize for, doing all of these things I was being punished for even being curious about. I lay in bed certain I was going to die and go to hell every single night when I started to hit puberty, just because I was "horny". Madonna opened my eyes to the fact that being against the sort of things my elders were wasn't "normal", it was an anomaly. Having the epitome that the older people in my family were WRONG about sex was strange, even though I had realized they were wrong about being racist as fat bas as I could remember. Gotta love the patriarchy. I can't follow illogical rules, I don't care who is making them. So I started to have the courage to explore what I was going through, in extreme private of course, and I will always be grateful to Madonna for helping me do that when I was such a suicide case. A sexually confused and repressed preteen full of guilt and no family to talk to is bad enough, but physical abuse as punishment almost pushed me over the edge. While having ten women under one roof certainly showed me that women can do ANYTHING (they were all cabinet-makers with sawdust in their hair when they came home), including never taking shit from any man, it is still probable that without Madonna becoming such a sexually "abrasive" icon at the time that she did, that I would have turned out to be some kind of freak about sex instead of enjoying it and having fun with it. I might have turned out to be a freak about people in general due to religious dogma and racism in my family. Madonna's "Like a Prayer" came out when I was 12, and then "Erotica" right after, so it was a good antidote to what I was suffering through. She was one of the only examples I had of a woman doing things I wanted to do, since I was not really exposed to much pop culture. I stopped liking her music when I was out of my teens, but I still consider her to be my first (of many) sex-positive, masturbation loving, gender-bending, shameless female icons. And she was when I was needing it the most. I don't feel sorry for myself, I just think it's sad that she was the only figure in my early years that helped me realize I wasn't a pervert on my way to hell for being bisexual, or having sexual feelings period. I realize most of that might have been because I was so desperate for what she provided, but I still appreciate what she did for me anyway. Always will, I imagine.

Don't be embarrassed! ;-)


As a teenager, I identified strongly with the character Pat Benatar played in the "Love is a Battlefield" video--teen angst, being misunderstood, etc., even though neither I nor the details of my life looked anything like that portrayal. Just feeling like someone else "got" how I felt, meant a lot to me as I wrestled with feelings of frustration, awkwardness, and debilitating self-consciousness. Like you, it's a tad embarrassing for me to admit it, but it's true. I guess we take our role models where we can find them. Best to you...

On Saturday Night Live this

On Saturday Night Live this past weekend, Kristen Wiig as Madonna and Abby Elliot as Angelina Jolie discussed how they could find their 'bay-bees' from more exotic, more 'freaky-deaky' places (I think Wiig/Madonna said 'Space'). This sums up the issue for me: celebrity international adoption seems to be more about glamor than anything else.

It also seems to perpetuate the colonial myth of the fair-skinned 'liberator' rescuing the oppressed/disadvantaged dark-skinned person. Madonna and Jolie look like saints for rescuing a handful of poor, dark children, plucking up the historically underprivileged to live a life of white celebrity wonderfulness. Certainly, there is nothing wrong in adopting a child of another race (in fact, race should be among the least important factors in adoption), but the celebrity adoptions smack of ulterior 'wow and aww' motives.

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