"It's possible to be an entertainer and a good mother!!! Too bad we don't live in a society where many encourage strong independent single working Moms! The next great Frontier [heart emoji] #revolutionoflovecontinues #rebelheart4ever"
It was a shrewdly calculated post, pitched perfectly to her audience of 5.7 million Instagram followers.
In the ongoing bitter dispute with her ex-husband, Guy Ritchie, over their son, 15-year-old Rocco, Madonna has been using social media to garner support from her fans and craft a fascinating new image as the loving, beleaguered mother who is also, in her words, an "unapologetic bitch." Talk about a contemporary rendition of the archetypal saintly/wicked Madonna/whore complex.
In the Jan. 9 posting, one of many she has made on the subject of the custody battle, Madonna cast herself as the suffering mom of the great domestic juggle. The accompanying photograph showed her on a sofa with all four of her children. Lourdes Leon, 19, was playfully stretched out over the laps of Rocco, Madonna, 57, David Banda, 10, and Mercy James, 9. And the caption perfectly captured the modern discourse about women's lives in which choices about motherhood and workplace ambition are constant topics for debate, judgment and meddling, prescriptive advice.
Yet no one called her out on the inherent irony. This is a pop star who doesn't give a flying banana if people judge her. If anything, she sets out to confound the judgment of the average person. Which is why, in middle age – some might say, late middle age – she refuses to give in to comments about how she is too old to be prancing around on a stage in a high heels and a bustier, acting like she did in her 20s. She is contorting herself in that strange act of celebrity: she is both above the masses – a queen who is adulated for being a sort of superstar "other" – and among them, seemingly slogging it out against a system that doesn't understand. You have to hand it to her, really, for being so clever.
Not that this should be a surprise, of course. Madonna is the pop queen of shape-shifting identities. She understands the value of imagery, which may explain why she is more active on Instagram than she is on Twitter, where she has just over a million followers.
The custody battle over Rocco with Ritchie has intensified over the recent holidays. Rocco, her only biological child with the British film director, to whom she was married for eight years, refused to return home to the U.S. after spending time with his father in London, England. Madonna, who lost her own mother at a young age, has made parenthood an important part of her identity in the last 15 years – a sort of earthly mother figure with a hot body. She already had Lourdes, from her relationship with Carlos Leon, when she gave birth to Ritchie's son Rocco in 2000; she and Ritchie adopted the Malawian-born David Banda in 2006 and Madonna adopted Mercy James, also from Malawi, in 2009. The custody dispute, though, is only over Rocco.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Deborah Kaplan favoured the pop star when she ruled that Rocco should return to New York, where he is currently enrolled in high school. The child should be with his mother, who was awarded legal custody in 2009, one year after the parents' divorce, if he wants to work out an arrangement to stay with his father, she said. Rocco has remained in England.
Madonna's social media habit not only points to the tragedy of bitter child custody cases but also illustrates how the public airing of private moments can complicate legal proceedings.
"Custody litigation is reserved for the very wealthy by and large," comments Jeffery Wilson, partner with Wilson Christen LLP in Toronto who is known for his work on the rights of children. Wilson has no involvement with the Madonna/Ritchie case but has handled many custody disagreements between divorced parents. "It has nothing to do with the children. It's just an indulgence we afford to the very wealthy to the detriment of society at large and definitely to the detriment of the children…In some ways, the legal system emulates the worst of parents because it believes that we can allow decisions to be made without involving the youth because it's in the best interest of the youth for them not to be heard. The paradox or contradiction of that is that everyone knows the position of the parents…nine times out of 10, the youth's position, I would argue, will be more sensible than that of the parents."
Rocco, who has accompanied his mother on some of her current Rebel Heart tour, has been part of her image parade for years, and not always in a positive way. In January 2014, Madonna posted on Instagram a picture of Rocco, then 13, holding a bottle of gin as he stood with some friends. "The party has just begun!" Bring it! 2014," his mother wrote as a caption. When Twitter exploded with criticism over her apparent condoning of underage drinking, she retorted online: "No one was drinking. We were just having fun! Calm down and get a sense of humour."
Last year in May, she posted a video of her son in bright orange boxers as he did a back flip, captioning it "Rocco's preferred profile #nosausage." More outrage online and in the media ensued as it was suggested that she was making a comment about her son's penis. It would be understandable if Rocco felt that his mother has humiliated him.
"From a lawyer's or judge's perspective, it's no longer he said, she said…In many custody cases, the evidence that we use that's often very damaging is from social media," offers Harold Niman, a leading Canadian family lawyer with Niman Gelgoot and Associates in Toronto. "It could be a Facebook posting or it could be an Instagram posting where something is said that's inappropriate."
Reading Madonna's Instagram feed is a colourful story of love, family, sex, power and nostalgia about a career that has spanned 30 years. She has posted sweet pictures of her children over the years. On many occasions, the image diary functions as a window into a typical domestic scene, which offers a welcome counterpoint to the hard-edged woman an audience sees on stage or at a public event. One can imagine her as a doting mother, snapping shots of her kids. Who hasn't done that? And Rocco has figured in many of them, sometimes goofing around with his mother and siblings and other times on his own, mugging the camera or captured backstage at his mother's concerts.
Children don't often ask to be on their parents' social media, of course. And every parent out there knows, if they dare to admit it, that children are part of their image – where they go to school, what they do and so forth. They can be like accessories. We live in a highly narcissistic parenting age, thinking that our children's best interests are at heart when really we're often more concerned with how their accomplishments, behaviour or looks reflect on us.
Some might say that Instgram and other social media outlets are all about spontaneous, authentic emotions. That's their beauty and value. True. And Madonna is probably very upset about her son's decision to stay with his father. How our children see us and treat us can often be the most truthful - and the most hurtful. But if she could step back and think like a non-pop-star mom, who is taking the needs and feelings of her son into consideration, she would remain silent about the battle. It shouldn't be part of her image machine. The social media postings say more about the acrimony between her and her ex – and her unending need for adoration from strangers, her fans – than anything about her love for Rocco.