The Con of Martha Stewart

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I was re-organizing my linen drawers today and as I was trying to fold fitted sheets with the elastic rounded edges I suddenly remembered an old episode of Martha Stewart Living, where she taught us mere mortals how to fold the perfect fitted sheet and for those who are extra particular and have the extra time to spare, we can iron the edges so it looks better on a shelf or in a drawer.

I am slightly embarrassed to say I was a fan of Martha Stewart. I liked her brand, her ‘effortless’ homemaking style and the idea of your home is your castle so treat it like one. Whether you live in a log house or mansions in Connecticut, New York or Maine, it doesn’t matter, show some pride in your home. Cook the best meals you can whip up, entertain in the best manner you can manage, live an elegant but outwardly simple life using all that you have in your attic or what you can buy and make your domestic life fabulous. She made a killing promoting this ‘lifestyle’. Women all over America ate up her cookbooks, magazines, TV shows,  all hoping to replicate a piece of the Martha Stewart magic.

When rumors swirled about what a terrible and exacting boss she was to work for (apparently she made her staff pick up the pink granite off of her long driveway in her home in Maine before each summer season for storage), she not only didn’t go into damage control mode by having the press see the softer side of her with her dogs and menagerie of groomed and immaculately kept animals, she defended her actions. She is a teacher, she teaches people how to do things, make things, cook things and bake things, therefore she has to be particular, exacting and close to ‘perfect’ as possible. Her standards have to be the best, everything she does has to be the best, otherwise how is she fit to teach? She made the analogy of would you take French lessons from a teacher who didn’t have the French language mastered? She is the original master of self-promotion, using her own life story as the ‘American Dream’ turbo edition and it was her grit and her determination alone that saw her go from Martha Kostyra from a middle-class family in Nutley, New Jersey to Martha Stewart, chatelaine of great mansions all along the East Coast. Martha Stewart claims that her mother (also called Martha, affectionately known as Big Martha when she’s on TV with her daughter) taught her how to cook and sew and her father taught her how to garden and grow food and her grandparents taught her about canning and food preserving and this is where she got her wealth of knowledge from. Along the way she married an Andy Stewart, Yale Law Graduate and later stockbroker and she went from Martha Kostyra to Martha Stewart. She kept her more Anglicized married name after their divorce. Martha Stewart sounds all-American, apple pie and upwardly mobile.

Even when she was convicted of insider trading in 2004 and had to serve jail time at a white collar prison, she turned it into a ‘Martha Stewart Event’. She taught prisoners how to sew and make things and when she was released from jail, she left with a shawl that was knitted by another inmate. Because she was convicted of insider trading, she wasn’t allowed to be CEO or a business executive for a certain period of time, but it hardly mattered. She was the face and brand of her company. No one cares who the CEO of Martha Stewart Omnimedia is. In business and Wall Street circles, Martha Stewart was known as the woman who was able to turn something so mundane as homemaking into not only an art form but was able to monetize a very scattered and broad market and made herself a millionaire many times over. And all of her ‘fans’ ate it up like suckers. Martha Stewart is teaching women (and some men) how to do the things they’ve doing for millennia but now do it the Martha way. With the implication that if you turn your home, however modest, into your own personal sanctuary, you will be happier, your life will be better, you’ll have more friends. She is also a living example of what she teaches. She is hardworking and diligent, she sleeps no more than 5-6 hours a night, rises early, does her morning exercises to get her going, doesn’t have any vices or bad habits (according to her self-description), she doesn’t drink coffee, only caffeine-free teas, rarely drinks alcohol to excess and she is equally demanding to all those that work for her. She makes it clear to live the Martha Stewart way takes effort and diligence, it’s not for the lazy.

It’s unclear why I suddenly remember that episode of Martha Stewart Living as I was folding my my fitted sheets. After struggling with it too long, I rolled it up into a neat ball and put it in my drawer, like how 99% of the people fold fitted sheets. Martha Stewart Living is just another massive con sold to women that if we can learn to do and be everything, we are better and stronger for it. Making our home a castle is a time consuming and arduous task, something most people don’t have the time or inclination for. I am far too lazy to ever be a mini-Martha, to bake the perfect cookies and cakes, or make a roast just-so. It’s also a massive waste of time. The best parties I’ve ever hosted or attended are the ad-hoc ones. Ones thrown together the last minute where everyone shows up with a bottle of wine and the hosts tries to put together a quick meal of hors d’oeuvres and light dinner or a meal by potluck. None of this matching plates to napkins and obsessions about where the utensils go or which glasses to use. Real friends don’t care if you have the table setting right, they just want to sit, chat, eat, drink and have a good time.

Martha Stewart is part of a long list of people who want to make everyone else feel inadequate unless we do things their way. To encourage women to spend time, money and energy to do things which are totally unnecessary. Clearly Martha Stewart’s target market are for the upwardly mobile middle class. A big part of social mobility is hosting good parties so that guests at your party can go tell other people you want to impress that you are a hostess with the mostest, with the ultimate goal of everyone wanting to be on your guest list. It again shows that when something even so mundane as homemaking is turned into a capitalistic enterprise, it becomes exploitative and corrupted.

There is nothing ‘effortless’ about homemaking, anyone who’s had to do this boring, tedious, usually unpaid, under appreciated ‘art’ can attest to it. There is nothing glamorous about it too, keeping a well ordered and clean home takes massive amount of time and effort, and if we are honest, unless there is domestic help, there is no such thing as an always immaculate and orderly home. But in our late stage of capitalism, when there is nothing more to sell or profit from, it tries to monetize things which has no monetary value. The Fyre Festival (selling an experience not product) ripped jeans costing hundreds of dollars, more than whole in tact outfits and Martha Stewart Living and the art of homemaking.

3 thoughts on “The Con of Martha Stewart

  1. I enjoyed reading this – quite a rip! Really nicely written too. Matching placemats and all… But you know I wonder if homemaking is really as mundane as we make it out to be. Like you I used to feel resentful of it, particularly that I seemed to care about more than my family who got to back to sit back and enjoy the fruits of my efforts. But now I see homemaking/housekeeping in a new light. Now I feel sorry for people who are unable – usually for emotional as much as financial reasons – to create a home they want to wake up in. Now I see homemaking as a quietly powerful act. Not everything that is lasting and important makes the headlines, and certainly homemaking never will. Which is why it was ripe for Martha Stewart’s picking, perhaps.

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    1. Thank you. Homemaking on its own is neutral, something that must be done, whether you like it or not. You either do it yourself or pay someone to do it. Most do it ourselves with very little appreciation or good feedback. But when it’s monetized and commodified like what Martha Stewart has done, it becomes a competition of Keeping up with the Joneses again. I am against anything which makes women or people feel inadequate because they can’t set the perfect table or cook the perfect meal.

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  2. The real danger of Martha Stewart rests in her trivialization of important issues and how she has legitimized people and ideas who are not deserving of such. So when Martha Stewart bakes brownies with Matt Lauer she confers legitimacy to him, his program and any nutty idea, like perpetual war, that is implicitly promoted there. The powers that be are not stupid. They know why Martha Stewart is there. Martha Stewart appears on television for the same reason reverends and preachers appear at these prayer breakfasts in DC. They exist to sanctify war and our federal government. The reverends and Martha Stewart are both tools appealing to different markets to achieve whatever the federal government wants.

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