Saturday, January 17, 2009

Any criticism of the discourse is absorbed into the discourse, or: Martha, mon amour.

There is something truly ominous about women who make their livings talking to other women about domesticity. Rachel, Oprah, Julia, Martha: there are others, of course, but these are the ones that everyone knows. Somewhere inside everybody's head, there is a kitchen, and a nice lady who lives there, and she tells you what to do, and says that you are a good helper if you do it right. She is your mother, this woman, even if your mother was nothing like her. She's the mother we're all told we should have had. The women of whom I speak are millionaires (or were; Julia's dead) because they make those kitchens, and those women, seem real.

My mother has been subscribing to Martha Stewart Living since the early nineties. She has been videotaping the shows. She has been buying the tie-in products. It is a very real relationship that she has with Martha, and one which has not always been easy. She is not an uncritical or a gullible viewer: oh, her assistant did that, she'll say, while watching the shows, or, do you really think she has time to do that by hand? I suspect most of her viewers do the same. Yet the expertise of Martha is, ultimately, unquestionable. Martha may not actually dip fruits in egg white and sugar to create seasonal holiday decorations, but we do, and we do it our own damn selves. We live up to the standards which she imposes - grumbling, perhaps, but nevertheless willing. We want that kitchen, that mastery of the domestic: Martha, more than anyone else, seems to imply that perfection is attainable on this Earth, if we will only do as she says.

The draw of, say, Oprah, or Rachel Ray, is that of a good mother: expertise that verges on omnipotence, within their limited spheres, combined with a beaming just-us-gals good nature. If I can do this, so can you, they say, and they make it seem true - by complaining about their weight, telling intimate, not entirely flattering stories about their home lives, or laughing when they "screw up" their demonstrations. One thing they never do is talk about feminism. Acknowledging that the domestic sphere may be problematic for women is not in their best interests; they'd have to talk about glass ceilings and double shifts and the distribution of labor within the home, all of those things that can cause women to cook or wash dishes or decorate their homes out of obligation, without pleasure. These women have jobs, but their jobs are to make it seem like they don't have jobs. They sit on cozy couches or stand behind counters and smile and chat about girl stuff, just like we'd all be doing if those darn women's libbers hadn't come in to make everything so complicated.

This is precisely what Martha does not do, and this is why she is more fascinating than any other woman of professional leisure. She's a wire mother, delivering the goods, but not the warmth that is supposed to go with them. If I can do this, so can you is not Martha's credo. Instead it's I can do this; can you? She never lets you forget that she has this gig because she is very, very good at doing this specific, traditionally unpaid kind of work. You can rail against Martha, make jokes about Martha, or throw Martha in the slammer, but one thing you cannot do is make Martha give you approval you haven't earned.

It is some measure of how unmotherly Martha is, as a personality, that I was surprised and a little alarmed to find out that Martha had at one point given birth to an actual child. This child's name is Alexis, and she is the star of Whatever, Martha, one of the newest additions to the Stewart television empire, which my mother tapes, and which I, while at my mother's house, am watching.

Whatever, Martha was born (my mom says) due to Martha Stewart's great love of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I choose to believe this, in the absence of anything to back it up, because I like the idea of Martha getting baked and watching Laserblast while thinking of new ways to add to her millions. The conceit is as such: Alexis watches old tapes of Martha's many shows, and yells angrily at the screen in a way that should be, and sometimes is, funny. Then she tries to do one of the actual crafts or recipes Martha has demonstrated on a show, while watching the tape and continuing to yell.

Alexis, who is a blonde, slender, WASPily boned young lady, does all this with the help of her "friend" Jennifer, who shares none of the above-listed qualities. I put "friend" in quotation marks, because I get the sense that the patient, generous-minded Jennifer likes Alexis about as much as I do which is: not very much. You guys, Alexis is terrible. She is like every young white woman with inherited money that you ever met and wished harm unto. In the most recent episode of Whatever, Martha, great fun is had at the expense of a segment about making "corn jewelry," which is what happens when you make holes in individual kernels of corn using an apparently industrial-grade drill and then string them onto bits of a Slinky. The word "maize" is used in this segment, which means that it is time for Alexis to whip out her various cutting jokes about the Native American population.

She sits cross-legged ("Indian style," she reminds the camera) and puts her palms together, as if meditating.

"Who am I?"

Jennifer draws a blank.

"I'm the guy on the Land O' Lakes package," she says.

She looks nothing like the person on the Land O'Lakes package, who is a lady. Later, Jennifer pipes up, saying, "if you're going to make jewelry..."

"Buy it," Alexis says WASPily.

"Or, you know, make it using something beautiful," Jennifer says, hopefully.

"Or just BUY IT," snaps Alexis, apparently intent on making some depressing point about class.

The cooking segment, which is about making Baked Alaska, is even more fun. Alexis makes great sport of Jennifer's penchant for sneaking tastes of the meringue, and at her amateurish use of the meringue piping equipment. Alexis has been required to pipe frosting and meringue onto stuff since she was two years old, of course, and is a pro. "Yours looks just like your mom's," Jennifer says, after Alexis has told her how hideous her own (totally adequate) Baked Alaska looks about twenty times. Alexis responds by making the most amazing face. Her lip curls and her eyes roll up into the back of her head and she looks as if someone opened the Ark of the Covenant in her direction, that's how much her face is melting.

"You're just like YOUR MOM," Jennifer responds, having at last - at last! - identified some point of weakness in her tormentor.

"Ohhhh, GAWWWWWD," Alexis says, and it is at this moment that I actually begin to feel for her, and it is at this moment that I know madness. For Alexis is all of us; her tragedy is our own.

We will never be loved, Alexis; we will never be good enough for Mother. It will never matter how many of her various complicated projects we take on: she has more, and they are much harder, and require hot glue guns. You realized this long ago, Alexis. You rage against the (industrial corn-drilling) machine, but can you win? Can you change it? You cannot! You can only turn Mother another buck or two! At least you're on the payroll - the rest of us, who yell and bitch and joke along with you, are similarly damned to feed the Martha Stewart empire, creating word of mouth and buzz marketing, comprising new target demographics for the anti-Martha media controlled and profited upon by Martha, feeding the beast that will not die. Your impotence is our impotence, Alexis, and it is eternal. Also, I think you might be subconsciously programmed to assassinate Rachel Ray. Or something, you're screwed up, I don't know.

"They call me Dark Martha," Alexis drawls, but she is wrong. There is no darkness greater than Martha. It is total, and utter, and absolute.


  1. So, many years ago, someone told me about working for Martha. He told me this the night he crashed at my house.

    He didn't know me, this person who worked for Martha, but he know an old friend of mine and was passing through town, so he called me, looking for a place to stay. I mention this mostly to say that the story he told about Martha defined him at least as much, in my mind, as he defined the story about Martha.

    So this fellow had worked for Martha. She was quite professional. His tenure at her company had been good. (Is it worth mentioning that this was pre-prison? Probably.) Back then, the "Martha Stewart is a bitch" meme was big on late nite TV and other places such things might be repeated. This always amused me, because to have an opinion presupposed actually engaging with Martha, which was something that only people who believed in Martha's product did, as far as I knew. But she was an easy punchline, I guess, and an easy shorthand for bitchiness. Or something. I never quite got it.

    But, apparently, she did have quite a temper. And, apparently, she was quite a big deal. I mean, people made fun of her. She probably deserved it. Or something.

    But, this guy, he'd worked for her. And, he said, she was quite the professional. Except for the one time she lost her cool. She was in the studio -- her studio had two kitchens, each a replica of her home kitchens, each indoors but lit by mind-bogglingly expensive lights so as to make it look as if the window in the studio kitchen looked, in fact, onto the outdoors -- and prepping for a show. Somebody involved with the show (I didn't get the whole hierarchy) told her what she'd be making and the tools she'd be using. She asked whether "we have that," referring to the tools; the person who'd told her what she'd be making told her that, no, there wasn't an MS branded whatever, but that he/she'd thought that it wouldn't be a bid deal. Martha responded that "that's not your call to make."

    And that's why she's a successful businesswoman.

  2. This was an interesting post for me, because I am in the midst of what I am calling my Martha project. I'm taking a year and trying to instill Martha-ness into my live (and blogging about it at

    I agree with a lot of what you've said. Martha creates an unattainable ideal and she has a very interesting public persona. That being said, she is a genius I believe. Not only is she good at cooking, crafting, organizing, etc, but she's also good at making it look appealing. And of course she is a shrewd business woman.

    What I'm seeking is some of the every day beauty that Martha's world is filled with. I think that if I could add some of that to my world, I might benefit from it.