Martha's Houseproud and Hip
by Ashley Ball
Martha Stewart is destroying feminism with one sweep of her grosgrain-trimmed spatula.
Or so say her critics, who claim she espouses a dangerously outmoded ideal of femininity. In a heated online discussion, Ellen Beattie calls Martha the "backlash's dream come true." Karen Finley skewers Martha in her parody, Living it Up: Humorous Adventures in Hyperdomesticity: "Well, wouldn't you know that under my left armpit I started growing marigolds!"
But in making the home — long scorned by "liberated" women — a valid arena for empowerment, Martha has broken new ground. Her brand of stealth feminism calls to mind that of Helen Gurley Brown.
Feminists in Brown's time resented her magazine for catering to a "male fantasy" of the sexy, no-strings woman. Betty Friedan said of Cosmopolitan, "It embraces the idea that a woman is nothing but a sex object." She ignored a crucial point: Brown's aim was to reclaim sex, to derive pleasure from something once considered a woman's duty.
David Plotz writes in Slate, "Beneath the veneer of sex talk and seduction advice was steel. Brown was not teaching girls to be geishas. She was teaching them to be bosses."
Likewise, beneath the veneer of Martha's faux-finishing advice, there's more than steel wool. Stewart is not teaching us to be shrinking violets. She's encouraging us to reclaim the home using 2-by-4s and a rotary saw.
Those who compare her to a dutiful `50s wife and mother are mistaken; Martha's persona is skilled craftsman, not nurturer. When (as she often does) she proclaims a project "perfect," it's because she's satisfied herself, not a husband or child.
Hip feminists today are more comfortable seeing empowerment in Sex in the City than in pastel-iced cookies.
But Martha Stewart is making inroads. Silja J. A. Talvi, in the alternative magazine, The Utne Reader, writes of her unabashed love for good housekeeping. Holder of a master's degree in women's studies, Talvi nonetheless asserts, "There's an aspect of (uncoerced) housekeeping that allows for enjoyment, reflection, and even meditation."
The house-as-self-expression is joining the body-as-self-expression as an acceptable outlet. Martha has a lot to do with it, but you don't have to be a fan in order to embrace it.
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