Martha versus Martha

by Aaron Michael Gordon
June 4, 2003

Playing a traditional role is both liberating and confining for Martha Stewart.

Martha Stewart is definitely wallowing at the bottom of the bell jar. The allegations of insider trading have ravaged her pristine image as a domestic goddess, and the various brands of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia are all suffering as a result. Yet, since Ms. Stewart has been role-playing for years, the question remains: why did it take so long for the "real" Martha to be unmasked?

After all, to even the most guarded, insolated eye, Martha Stewart was anything but the sweet, detailed, family-oriented WASP she pretended to be. Had Martha Stewart been "Martha Stewart," she wouldn't have been such a successful businessperson. Yes, exquisitely prepared and presented meals are important -- if she were a mere caterer. And demanding the right color paint for the absolute right look is admirable -- for Trading Spaces. But for business? Sweet? Family-oriented? These are not qualities that enable you to swim with the sharks. And Martha is a hammerhead.

Don't get me wrong. If I were planning a traditional wedding party, I wouldn't turn Martha Stewart away. Martha makes a mean turkey, and she demonstrates that skill: she gives you that part of her talent, effectively leaving out the woman who took her dinners from the coffee clutch in Connecticut to a Wall Street banquet. This slice of Martha's brilliance was deliberately pushed out of view, in spite of her accomplishment in this arena.

Why? In many ways, Martha Stewart, the marketing maven, is the living embodiment of female liberation. Thousands marched and burned their bras wanting the status quo to change, and Martha Stewart, the brilliant head of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, is a vibrant example of a dream fulfilled. And yet, when a "Martha" devotee describes her as a genius, the prodigious abilities in question involves color-coordination, macramé planters, and custom-made centerpieces. The fans are enamored with "Martha Stewart."

But it's the real Martha Stewart who pushed through gender-defined barriers. For young MBA candidates, Martha Stewart is a supreme deity. As a business leader, Martha Stewart is brilliant, and worthy of our attention. Under her leadership, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia has mastered the art of synergy, with the television show selling the products of the advertisers, the magazine directing the reader to her housewares line at Kmart, and the crowds at Kmart being directed to her website.

This is the same woman who wrestled control of her publishing interests from Time Warner by getting an advance from Kmart, paying off Time Warner in cash (millions of dollars), and then going public with her company, only to make a billion dollars in one day at the market. This remarkably engineered coup is certainly worth admiration, if not outright adoration. But then, Martha Stewart would be showing too much of her business hand, Martha would be revealing too much of the truth, putting "Martha Stewart" in jeopardy.

Stewart knows that nothing matters except for the brand: her perfect, upper-crust image of genteel entertaining. Martha Stewart may have expertly created a business, but that business was (and is) dependent on "Martha Stewart," a housewife whose sole goal is the perfect family gathering, not building a multi-tiered, branded corporation encompassing retail, publishing and television.

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia exists because of Martha Stewart, the real, flesh-and-blood person with a head for big business, and because of "Martha Stewart," the calm, collected host of many sterile dinner parties.

Yet, this dichotomy merely scratches the surface, for "Martha Stewart" liberated and self-actualized Martha Stewart; her stereotype of confinement (the prissy homemaker) is the catalyst for her personal advancement. While "Martha Stewart" creates the ideal for gracious living, inspiring many to "traditionalize" their lifestyles, Martha Stewart reaps the benefits by living the life she wants, effectively shattering the glass ceiling, and having "Martha Stewart" think up great ideas for holiday decorations using the shards.

This double-talking is nothing new to successful women. Madonna's career is built on this duality. Her presentation implies that a woman can be on top and call the shots, provided that she's barely dressed and fully made-up. And Madonna's liberation from the norm is as much a result of her marketing savvy as her music, or her penchant for changing her image. But Madonna acting out, or getting mired in controversy, is Madonna's brand.

And, unlike Martha, Madonna always wore her marketing skills on her sleeve. To Madonna, "Madonna the businessperson" is merely another persona to be explored, exploited and exchanged. Her documentary "Truth or Dare" is fascinating because it shows the Marketing Girl behind the Material Girl.

But seeing Martha Stewart hosting a television show, then going to a board meeting, and then calling K-Mart to demand more money is certainly not the perfect day "Martha Stewart" fans imagine her to have. So, the allegations of insider trading are more harmful than their surface value. Not only is Martha Stewart tainted with a scandal mired in wealth and deception, but "Martha Stewart," the image Martha Stewart tirelessly created, has been revealed as a portrayal.

If only the image of "Martha" had been more Martha, then this loss of "face" would have been less surprising. But, alas, that lesson is learned not by Martha, the master, but by students of Stewart, who will be more careful when they use a traditional image to liberate their lives. Yet, because of Martha Stewart, these future living logos will have to make certain that the life they portray is compatible with the life they live.

Perhaps they can leave the "role" behind, and sell their genius in a genuine way, leaving the portraits on the wall, and be the whole, brilliant women they are. Because there's nothing wrong with being a woman with a head for business.

Martha Stewart should be admired for who she is -- for playing to win -- like any man would, and like any woman should. It's just a shame that she had to employ a more traditional role to make her liberation from tradition kinetic.