Martha a good thing?
By Caroline Greene
Martha Stewart is not only the homemaker of the '90s but, according to some students at the University of Toronto, she is also a cultural icon.
Zoe Newman, a doctoral student in sociology and equity studies at the U of T and Kyla Wazana, a journalist and recent graduate of the school, explored the impact of Stewart on popular culture in a thesis paper entitled, Martha Stewart's Living: History, Fragmentation and Late Capitalism's esthetician.
The research conducted was not centred on Stewart herself but the industry surrounding her and the public's response, Newman said. "She is an industry her fame depends on the world of mass production and popular media while she preaches a return to the simple."
The paper explores the paradox of Stewart. "She is an incredibly successful business woman but at the same time she is the epitome of a housewife and echoes post-war 1950s values," Newman said.
Stewart attaches spiritual value to consumerism, allowing the public to believe they are transcending materialism, said Joel Faflak, a professor of popular culture at Western. "Women become capitalists within the household."
"We see Martha Stewart's work as reflecting cultural anxiety," Wazana said. She tries to create a calm environment in the midst of cultural chaos making sure our homes and neighbourhoods stay respectable while larger social forces are kept at bay, Newman added.
The students also found a racial aspect of Stewart's role in society. "Martha Stewart explores what it means to be white and what it means to be a woman," Wazana said. However, she is also the focus of hostility from women. "Women have a love-hate relationship with her."
Faflak agreed Stewart is problematic to feminism. In a positive sense, she represents women taking control of their lives, but she also takes us back to a highly conventional role for women, said Alan Gedalof, a popular culture professor.
For Newman, studying people like Stewart is a way of studying our culture. She warns the public must think critically about why they read and watch what they do, she said.
Stewart was not available for comment and her public relations office would not speak on her behalf.