CELEBRITIES HAVE ALWAYS IDENTIFIED WITH UNDERDOGS. Playing a victim or otherwise disadvantaged character is a sure route to an Oscar, and everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Eminem has celebrated the underdog in song. It's not surprising that models, actors and popular musicians have focused on impoverished Africa, raising money and awareness for debt relief and famine. However, these efforts have done relatively little to address the structural causes of African misery. There is also an uncomfortable element of colonialism that runs through celebrities' interactions with Africans and the current interest in African culture.
Is the celebrity fascination with Africa genuine or shallow? Are the efforts of well-meaning celebrities to alleviate Africa's poverty and disease the continent's salvation or a recipe for disaster? The recent spate of celebrity adoptions, Angelina Jolie's much-hyped birth in Namibia, and Kate Moss's infamous blackface modeling in the Independent reveal cultural colonialism masquerading as liberal multiculturalism. And despite their good intentions, Bob Geldof and Bono are being led around by the nose by technocrats and multinational corporations who bear responsibility for much of Africa's problems.
Madonna's "adoption" of a Malawian baby epitomizes the worst of the celebrity adoption trend. Malawi's stringent adoption laws force foreigners to stay 18 months in the country to be assessed as prospective parents. After concerted lobbying, a Malawian court issued an interim order allowing Madonna to take the child out of the country for a year, triggering court challenges from human rights groups and charities who felt Madonna had "bought" the ruling through her extravagant patronage of Malawian orphanages. Unwilling to wait, the pop singer deployed a team to spirit the child back to England. Madonna follows a celebrity trend started by Angelina Jolie, who adopted children from Cambodia and Ethiopia.
A naysayer might point out that the babies will lead better lives in the West. However, growing up in an alien culture separated from one's own ethnic traditions is a recipe for psychological problems. It has disturbing echoes of the Spanish, American and Australian colonial practice of kidnapping aboriginal children in order to raise them with white Christian values; such kidnappings were justified by a similar desire to rescue the children from what was perceived as a poverty both literal and spiritual. These issues are compounded by the objectification of celebrity adoptees by the media, which publicize them as exotic objects rather than human beings. There is no doubt that Jolie and Madonna love their children, but they inevitably become exotic props and grist for the likes of Us Weekly.
The most troubling aspect of the celebrity adoptions concerns Western privilege, with Madonna and Jolie swooping into impoverished countries to essentially buy babies from families too poor to care for them. In Madonna's case, she technically abducted the baby, as her men took the child before a Malawian court could rule against her. But the most grotesque manifestation of colonial privilege occurred when Jolie turned a small corner of Namibia into an armed camp so she could give birth unmolested. Brendan O'Neill in the online magazine spiked put it this way:
Over the past six weeks a Western security force has effectively taken over the small African nation of Namibia. A beach resort in Langstrand in Western Namibia has been sealed off with security cordons, and armed security personnel have been keeping both local residents and visiting foreigners at bay. A no-fly zone has been enforced over part of the country. The Westerners have also demanded that the Namibian government severely restrict the movement of journalists into and out of Namibia. The government agreed and, in a move described by one human rights organization as …