Robin Givhan on Culture: Why We Mistrust Celebrity Adoptions

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

In the celebrity vortex, all good deeds are suspect.

While it is admirable for a star to use her popularity to draw attention to a worthy cause, there's no ignoring the fact that she is also luxuriating in the spotlight and enhancing her personal brand. When that celebrity is named Madonna, a significant amount of manipulative, narcissistic intent is assumed. Throw in photos of her in sunglasses, camouflage cargo pants and layered T-shirts against the backdrop of an impoverished Malawi as she searches for an orphan to adopt, and the stench of self-aggrandizement is nearly overwhelming. This is an image we do not trust.

Madonna recently returned to Malawi to adopt a culturally kindred sibling for her youngest child, David, whose adoption from that country was finalized last year after the pop star was practically accused of stealing the boy from his father. Madonna is now planning to adopt a 4-year-old girl and will once again stir the wrath of the masses.

Madonna may have nothing but the best of intentions in seeking to adopt the child. The singer might currently be a single mom, but with a career that evolved from boy toy to "Evita" to Sticky & Sweet, she will not be struggling to make ends meet. Additional evidence of her sincerity includes having starred in a documentary about the travails of the country, and establishing Raising Malawi, a charity that supports the country's children. (As for whether foreign adoptions in general are good or bad, that is a question we'll leave for ethicists, psychologists and sociologists to argue over.)

But the combination of particular celebrities and their embrace of children from underdeveloped countries can make us queasy. It's not that celebrities can't adopt a child purely out of love and the desire to add to their family. Folks didn't work themselves into a tizzy when Steven Spielberg adopted his kids. Or when Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman adopted theirs. Or more recently when Sheryl Crow announced she'd adopted a baby boy.

But certain celebrities are so associated with self-indulgent behavior -- and with self-conscious and provocative antics -- that it becomes impossible to believe they do anything without an ulterior motive.

We begin with Josephine Baker. Back in the 1950s, Baker adopted what she called a "Rainbow Tribe" of children from around the world. Although she was an expatriate living in France, Baker's multicultural family was her personal protest against racism as well as a show of support for the American civil rights movement. Her family was a political statement, an act of defiance by a woman who understood the power of image.

When Angelina Jolie began creating her own UNICEF advertisement with the help of Brad Pitt, there was the sense that the adoptions were evidence of her interest in world affairs. She had used her celebrity to draw cameras into refugee camps and poor villages in places such as Afghanistan. And after working in Cambodia filming "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," she adopted her son Maddox.

For all the love and affection she undoubtedly lavished on him, one still had the unnerving feeling that the adoption of this child -- and later of Pax and Zahara -- seemed like a celebrity bringing home exotic souvenirs from abroad. She had done good work with the United Nations, but it was hard to forget her eccentric and provocative past: the Billy Bob Thornton blood vial necklace, the award show canoodling with her sibling, the Jennifer Aniston home wrecker scandal. We see such hyper-exposed celebrities through a hall of mirrors. There are so many piecemeal views and perspectives that it's impossible to get a true picture. It's hard to believe our own eyes.

For similar reasons, it's tough believing Madonna just wants to save the children in our global community. Too much of her public persona is wrapped up in self-creation, self-involvement and image control. We interpret every public moment as being in service to the Madonna brand -- even when she's hiding behind sunglasses and offering up nothing but silence to reporters who are shouting questions at her.

There is a certain point at which celebrity trumps everything else. The spotlight becomes immovable. No matter how hard some celebrities might try to shift the attention from themselves and toward their cause or their charity, every eye remains riveted on them. All the work they'd done to craft a public persona and to capture the popular imagination has paid off. But it has also left them trapped and distrusted. And their celebrity becomes a punishment.

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