Martha, no Steven

Martha_iiThis ought to be the start of Martha Stewart’s rehabilitation.  Ms. Stewart is out of jail and available for interviews, photos ops and other revelations of how prison life has changed her. 

One of the first of these, a cover story in Vanity Fair, appears not to grasp the opportunity at hand.  We are told that Ms. Stewart is "shell shocked," that she feels the constraints of house arrest, that this empire and empress are diminished. But there is no indication that Martha Stewart is more interesting or complex. 

Perhaps she just isn’t.  She may have been too busy making sure that prison did not "break her" to use it as an opportunity to think about who she is and what she wants.  Or it may be that Vanity Fair was not listening with suffcient care or intelligence to glimpse a more nuanced subject.  (Vanity Fair is so celebratory of celebrity, it routinely leaves nuance to others.) 

C’est dommage, ca..  Here’s what Steve Jobs had to say about one of his career dislocations. 

[G]etting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Surely, this is the opportunity of a cataclysmic change in personal circumstances.  It forces us to give up tangible accomplishment for mere promise, something we could never bring ourselves otherwise to do.   In any case, even if we do somehow, against the odds, recreate this lost world,   we are likely to appear (cliche advisory in effect)  "mere shadows of our former selves." 

But then Stewart was always an agent, never the object, of transformation.  She turned ordinary things into glittering prizes and middle class lives into status spectaculars.   There was no sense that Stewart would ever be acted on, ever allow herself to be transformed. 

No, this is wrong.   As long as both the object and agent of transformation were Martha, she was more than willing.  She began as a Polish-American girl from a small town in New Jersey.  She made herself a doyen of Connecticut grandeur.  And perhaps this is the real crux of the problem.  When your model of perfection comes from the Connecticut playbook, there are only one set of objectives, only one set of things to aspire to, only one path to greatness.

Thank god for the real transformational options of a contemporary culture.  For most of us, they mean that even quite disasterous episodes merely wipe the slate of the present transformation option.  They do not foreclose the possibility of becoming someone new.  When the fates intervene, we can begin again.


Tyrnauer, Matt.  2005.  The Prisoner of Bedford.  Vanity Fair.  August: 110-118, 176-180.


Carol Sandy, for pointing out the Steve Jobs’ speech at a Stanford commencement.  (Sorry, link now lost)

5 thoughts on “Martha, no Steven

  1. Irene

    Martha’s case is a little different. Martha Stewart equals her brand in a way Steve Jobs does not (for example, Martha appears in ads), so re-invention and transformation for her may be trickier. Also, I believe she’s appealing her verdict which may shape and limit any expression of contrition. A more transformational event for Martha was probably her divorce — perhaps the ultimate humiliation for a domestic goddess. There again, she seemed unchanged. But her fans want to project transformation onto her, so such events seem to make her more human and sympathetic even if she, in reality, is not. It’s a curious phenomenon. It’s part of her magic.

  2. Grant

    CarolGee, thanks for the link. Yes, I guess the big difference could be that she is not performing Martha, but letting her public self emerge. In which case we have wait and see…and forgo symbols for signs. Thanks, Grant

    Irene, You’re right, there are important differences and very good point about the divorce. But I always thought this event was her opportunity to become more human and sympathetic, but these qualities may be a stretch for her. And maybe it comes down to this: could you become this famous if you were more human? This might be the essential contradiction of celebrity. No real humans need apply. Thanks, Grant

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