Sunday, October 10, 2004

Martha Stewart: The Only Mention

I have not written about Martha Stewart before, and I don't plan to write about her again. But she's today's topic of fluffy entertainment in many newspapers. The joke is that a homemaker guru has to go to prison and forfeit her 900,000 dollar annual salary and her Egyptian cotton sheets. She got a five-month prison sentence for lying:

Stewart was convicted in March of lying to investigators about why she sold stock in a biotech company in 2001, just before its price plunged. She was allowed to remain free while she appeals her conviction, but asked to begin serving her time anyway, to help remove the cloud of uncertainty hanging over her and her company.

This is astonishing in a country where lying is the name of the game in everything from politics to business, and it's not even called lying.

Stewart is an extremely hated image in this country. Some argue that it's simply because she's a very unpleasant person, but this would not explain why so many who have never met her would detest her so heartily. I believe that she's a hate magnet for more complicated reasons than that.

First, she's a woman who has made it in what still in many ways is a man's world. I doubt that we'd ever have heard of a Martin Stewart in the exact same situation, or not at least on the front pages of newspapers. No, Martha's gender is central for the displeasure she evokes. She has broken the rules, and she has not done it in a pleasant way, the way women are supposed to break rules if they must. This alone would make many traditionalists hate her guts.

Second, she's a woman who has made a fortune from telling other women to refocus on the home, something she's not doing herself. This makes her suspect from a feminist point of view, and Martha has indeed stated that she's not a feminist. She belongs to the "honorary men" category of women. Many women with feminist leanings are angry at her for this, though feminist organizations have pointed out the sexist bias in the Martha hounding.

Finally, Martha angers many of the women who devour her homemaking advice, because the advice is largely ridiculously impossible to follow for anyone without a full-time staff of cooks, gardenerers and housekeepers. After hours of desperate crafting, a hopeful reader might end up with something that could be used to cover the toilet roll in the bathroom. In a sense, Martha is making fun of the traditionally female skills that she sells, and I suspect that many women understand this deep inside. Thus, schadenfreude is the proper emotion to feel when Martha herself lands in the dock.

Still, the subtext in Martha hating is femininity in various forms. Can it be escaped? Should it be celebrated? How is it celebrated? And what's the punishment for someone who plays games with these questions? Martha has the answer.