Volume 13, Issue 2: Cultura
Living Beyond Martha
If you’ve never thumbed through the ads in Martha Stewart Living, glued treasures from the garden into one of Martha’s perky housewarming gifts, or learned Martha’s clever tricks for restoring your lampshade’s real personality, then you probably have a spouse, relative, or close friend who has. Martha Stewart is America’s unrivaled queen of interior decor and maker of middle-class manners. She has made a career out of teaching ordinary middle-class women how to add simple adornments here and eye-catching accents there to their otherwise aesthetically challenged suburban homes. Ordinary middle-class Christian homemakers especially have found Martha’s aesthetic touch a refreshing alternative to evangelical kitsch and pious Spartaneity. And she’s undeniably very good at what she does. She’s a master at taking simple, everyday stuff and transforming it into something attractive and tasteful. Her ideas have been so consumer friendly and commercially successful that Martha’s design empire took the New York Stock Exchange by storm last year. Martha Stewart, model American homemaker, became Martha Stewart, Inc., model corporate mogul. Almost everything she’s touched has turned into cold cash and Wall Street gold.
Unlike previous commercial homemaker icons, like Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima, Martha Stewart’s principal appeal is that she’s a real person. Never mind the vast army of Martha Inc. employees busy fabricating the Martha Aesthetic behind the scenes. Martha’s actually out there herself, in person, live and on TV, showing how ordinary people can add style to their homes. Betty and Jemima were never more than two-dimensional corporate logos hawking consumer goods, some commercial artist’s rendition of an idealized 1950s suburban housewife and a stereotypical 1850s black nanny. But today almost any American homemaker can identify with Martha’s three-dimensional, can-do spirit. You may dislike her styles, you may disagree with her taste, but at least she is a real modern woman, mother, business executive, and homemaker with real-life problems to solve and a family to please.
Or is she?
Martha the Homemaker is a myth. Like most better-homes-through-consumption mythmakers, Martha Inc. shares the same aesthetic assumptions about family and everyday life that you’ll find in the pages of House Beautiful, Better Homes and Gardens, and most home-decorating magazines. They show perfectly arranged furniture and trendy accoutrements in houses where real people rarely live. Even the "handmade" stuff has a freshly manufactured trendiness about it. The Martha Aesthetic is more about projecting the proud look of the sophisticated nouveau riche than adorning the family home with honest beauty. The Martha Aesthetic is more about grasping after the trappings of wealth (appealing especially to the covetous lower middle class who can now buy Martha fashions at K-Mart) than creating an environment to delight children and grandparents alike. Martha Inc. designs have more in common with Hollywood sets and manufacturer’s showrooms than with homes where cooks splatter spaghetti sauce, young children spill milk, and families are joyfully busy with the messy business of living. Martha may be a real, living person, but the homes and designs her empire represents are made to impress everyone but real-life families.
Just who can live the way Martha Stewart would have us live anyway? Apparently not even her own family. In the September 2000 issue of Martha Stewart Living, Martha wrote,
Recently I was discussing with my daughter, Alexis, her various decorating projects and realized that she is, indeed, a born decorator. When she went as a ninth-grader to Choate, a boarding school in central Connecticut, she insisted on decorating her small, shared dormitory room—not with typical girlie things, but with severe modernist lithographs of plain women with long hair and sleek, lanky cats. She recalls that I bought her very ‘inappropriate’ sheets: white with navy striped borders, and navy with white borders.
Born decorator indeed! As a divorcee with a child conveniently shipped off to boarding school, Martha was liberated to perfect the fine art of empty nest homemaking. Her distinctive Martha Stewart style was born in a spiritual and familial vacuum. No wonder there’s a lingering coldness and sterility to the Martha look.
Before we start singing imprecatory psalms in Martha’s general direction, we should note that Martha Stewart Living has had broad appeal because so few of our homes are truly lovely or thoughtfully appointed, and it has helped fill the aesthetic vacuum of the Church’s making. Martha Stewart Living appeals to many Christian women because it translates Proverbs 31-style home decorating into the American suburban middle class vernacular better than most sermons on the subject. But if we’re serious about adorning our homes by biblical aesthetic standards—ones designed to delight generations of real covenant families—then it’s time to start confessing our hardness of heart and hearth and start looking and living beyond Martha Inc.