Martha Stewart: Free but Still in Chains?

by: Melissa Click / University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Martha Stewart Living

Martha Stewart Living

One story dominated the US print and electronic media over the weekend of March 4-6: Martha Stewart’s release from Alderson Federal Prison. We saw Stewart leave the prison in her SUV and board the private jet that would fly her to her home in Bedford, New York, where she will serve five months of house arrest. Reporters camped out at Stewart’s Bedford estate and followed her as she walked her property, greeted her horses, and emerged from her greenhouse with her arms full of lemons. Since then, journalists have filed story after story suggesting that Americans love a comeback tale, trying to convince us that we ultimately want Martha Stewart to succeed. Reality-TV producer Mark Burnett figures prominently in these accounts, which give special attention to the plans Burnett has for making Stewart more “human.”

These claims about Stewart’s supposed new image trouble me partly because in Stewart’s case, success (read: approval) is attainable only by walking the narrow path we have constructed — and accepted — as a public woman’s role. I am not convinced that prison is the best thing that ever happened to Stewart, and explored my suspicions in February by interviewing some of the hundreds of people who auditioned for The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.

The US fascination with Martha Stewart has been the focus of my research since just before the ImClone scandal broke in January 2002. What intrigues me about Stewart as a public figure is that since her rise in popularity in the mid-1990s, the public simultaneously loves her and loves to hate her. My work has focused on Stewart’s audience; I have spoken to Stewart’s most devoted fans as well as those who despise her. Since Stewart reported to Alderson in October 2004, public opinion seems to have swung to the “love” side of the spectrum, captivating even the most strident of Stewart’s detractors. I question whether this will last.

Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart

Oddly enough, this newfound love for Stewart follows a two-year legal battle in which everything from Stewart’s lack of admission of guilt (and lack of apology) to her clothing and accessories was scrutinized daily. The media coverage of the indictment and trial seemed to reiterate and confirm a popular characterization of Stewart as a rich bitch who gets her way, no matter the cost. Many followed the daily news of the trial with glee.

Even before the ImClone scandal Stewart was a polarizing figure who raised questions about the roles in which we are comfortable seeing women. Tabloids, tell-all biographies and made-for-TV movies offered to reveal the “truth” about Stewart — she had a strained relationship with her family, she intimidated her staff, and she became successful by stealing others’ ideas. Underneath many of these critiques lay the ways in which Martha Stewart’s public persona confused gender norms. Stewart was an expert in the business of domesticity, yet her public persona as a successful businesswoman eschewed all that is feminine. Caught in a culture holding tightly to strict gender norms, Stewart became one in a long line of bitches whom Americans have sought to publicly discipline.

Stewart’s indictment and conviction raised the stakes for those on both sides of the love-hate fence — and pushed many who would have been otherwise unwilling to support Stewart in the past to call attention to the ways in which the public treatment of Stewart may have been more about the fact that she is a woman and a celebrity than about her crimes. As Stewart’s trial began in January 2004, questions were raised about the fairness of Stewart’s legal trouble. Stewart’s case was compared to the crimes of the Enron, Worldcom and Tyco CEOs; many believed Stewart’s case paled in comparison. Even Ms. Magazine’s Elaine Lafferty, who readily admits that Stewart “never made the short list for Ms. Woman of the Year,” came to Stewart’s defense, calling the indictment and conviction a “bitch hunt.”

Stewart’s September 2004 announcement that she would like to serve her jail time before she knew the outcome of her appeal seemed part of a well-crafted plan to revitalize Stewart’s public image and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which lost $60 million in 2004. In February 2005, Mark Burnett announced that Stewart’s daytime show would be rejuvenated by putting Stewart in front of a live studio audience and that a new prime-time program would follow the format of The Apprentice. Burnett’s strategy is to use these formats to display Stewart’s supposed sense of humor and spontaneity to the viewing public. Burnett’s approach acknowledges that Stewart’s troubles stem in part from the construction of her public persona–we expect certain behaviors from public women and Stewart had been breaking the rules.

Auditions in twenty-seven cities for The Apprentice: Martha Stewart began in February 2005. I attended the Kansas City, Missouri, audition on February 26 and spoke to some of the five hundred people who stood in line for hours to get the chance to work for Stewart. I was particularly interested in the ways in which the format of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart may revive some of the previously dislikable stereotypes of Stewart. For example, how will Stewart’s audience evaluate her when she pushes candidates through challenging tasks? What about when she will need to evaluate candidates’ performance, personality, and credentials? And how about when candidates are eliminated? While Burnett has suggested that Stewart’s version of the show will differ from Trump’s, the lavish displays of wealth, control and business savvy that bring respect to Trump are exactly what fueled hatred of Stewart before and during the ImClone scandal.

Many of the applicants at the Kansas City auditions confirmed my suspicions — while they had sympathy for Stewart’s legal troubles, negative opinions of Stewart as a businesswoman persist. Many of the people I interviewed felt that Stewart and Trump possessed several of the same characteristics: they both make good mentors and both are business savvy. A few indicated that Stewart would be a tougher boss than Trump, but believed that Stewart had to be tough in order to be taken seriously as a businesswoman. One respondent suggested that Stewart is like many other women who “have been turned so cold by an industry and [a] society where white males lead.”

Many respondents were critical of Stewart’s potential leadership abilities. To these folks, Stewart was “shrewd” and inflexible, “not a very nice person,” “cut-throat,” and “a bitch.” One respondent candidly told me that he believes Stewart would be an “absolute bitch to work with.” He stumbled a bit to describe the reason behind his belief: “I don’t take demands very well, demands from a, I don’t want to say this but, from a female.”

While Stewart is riding high on a wave of popularity since her release from prison, it will not be long until the pendulum swings. The suggestion that Stewart was convicted because she is a woman does not clearly illuminate the public reaction to Stewart’s legal troubles; Enron’s Andrew Fastow, ImClone’s Sam Waksal, Credit Suisse’s Frank Quattrone, Adelphia’s John and Timothy Rigas, and WorldCom’s Bernard Ebbers have been found guilty of the crimes of which they were accused — with much less fanfare. Stewart, on the other hand, had been convicted in the public eye long before she sold her ImClone stock — her punishment was repeated ridicule for not performing the narrow role she was expected to play. Stewart’s treatment in the media was not about the fact that she is a woman, it was about the kind of woman that she is.

Stewart may have been rehabilitated, but over the course of her five-month stay at Alderson, the public has not changed. Entwined in the media coverage of Stewart’s release from prison is a perceived humility and a reverence for her ability to make lemonade of lemons — we broke her, she relented, and now we will let her rebuild if she will learn from her “mistakes.” All eyes are on Stewart, watching and waiting for her to misstep. As she rebuilds her company and reconstructs her image, Stewart will no doubt land squarely in the middle of controversy, unless, of course, she can find a way to teach us that femininity and power are not mutually exclusive — that would truly be “a good thing.”

Image Credits:
1. Martha Stewart Living
2. Martha Stewart

A CNN reporter’s experience at the New York casting call
Details about the upcoming series, The Apprentice: Martha Stewart
The New Yorker interviews Stewart
Newsweek article
Ms. Magazine open letter

Please feel free to comment.


  • Pingback: FlowTV | This Week on Flow

  • The Marthinator

    In thinking about the kind of attention that Donald Trump has received around his involvement with and appearances on “The Apprentice,” it seems as if people are willing to forgive him his teenaged boy antics and idiotically hypermasculine swagger. His cajoling and berating of contestants on this show has been dismissed in a “ah, but that’s just ‘the Donald'” kind of discourse that I don’t think Martha Stewart will be able to initiate. This is a tricky moment for her and her resuscitation of her public persona. I don’t think that she can berate contestants and continue this upward trajectory. And this is how I think these shows survive — anyone remember “The Rebel Billionaire”? I didn’t think so.

  • Vanessa Freeman

    Martha Stewart’s success has been based upon her ability to take the perfect stereotypical cheerful housewife role to the extreme (while teaching us easy recipes and at home craft projects.) As a result of her somewhat recent public scandal, I think that it is going to take a slightly different type of Martha to regain her popularity. The next few months are going to be especially critical for her. She is going to have to find a new twist to add to her former role in order to improve her current image in the public eye. Everyone seems to be holding mixed opinions on whether they love or hate Martha more, but no matter which is the case, she will continue to be a controversial icon representative of this time period’s history.

  • Scarlett Oehlke

    Martha Stewart is definitely getting a great deal of attention right now, but I agree that it will quickly fade. In my eyes, Martha appears to be an uptight bitch, but that does not mean that she is not intelligent and creative. Though she doesn’t seem to be the warmest woman, I have always been a fan. I can’t say that she would be fun to work with, though. I think the public’s reaction to a reality show featuring Martha as the Donald Trump character will be harsh. While most people seem to be fully supporting Martha, they will most likely change their opinion quickly when they see her behavior towards those who are inferior to her. If Martha cares at all about what the public thinks of her (and I’m assuming she does) she will be extremely careful about her actions on a reality TV program. And even if she does maintain a good response, it is doubtful that her popularity will last that much longer anyway. Everyone is talking about her jail time right now, which has caused an increase in her popularity. But I think people will tire quickly of the Martha fad, just as they do of every other fad, and things will basically return to the way they were before the scandal. She may be mentioned here and there, but for the most part, no one will pay much attention to her.

  • Jessica Richards

    Stewart- The media’s favorite target

    Martha Stewart is guilty of her crime. I am not defending what she did, but the way she was prosecuted in the media was not fair. She has always been forced to live up to impossible standards. The media has been waiting for the day when she would mess up and when that day came they took full advantage of it. The problem though is that there are far more serious crimes occuring in America that are being ignored. She was humiliated because she was a woman in a “man’s world.” How can she be expected to live up to some unrealistic idea of feminity when she is trying to be treated as an equal. If Donald Trump had been in her situation the outcome would have been very different. The public hates a “bitch.” They view it as unacceptable behavior. But in a man the same tough attitude and rude treatment are accepted and even somewhat admired through the media. This whole thing is ridiculous. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is probably spinning in her grave. And as for the idea of making Martha more likeable or acceptable- why? Why does she need to work so hard on her image if she is producing a worthwhile product? The media should stop focusing so much hatred on Stewart and start placing the attention on more serous issues at hand.

  • She’ll be alright

    Martha Stewart is certainly in a wavering stage right now. She has to make sure she makes all the right moves to redeem herself. But they say that there is no such thing as bad publicity. I believe that she might have even more fans after this incident; they just might not be the same fans. She may have lost many of her fans from her previous show, but with the upcoming Apprentice, she will probably reach a whole new set of viewers as well as keeping some of her forgiving viewers from the past. Martha Stewart is using the power of the media to branch on to a successful reality TV show. Even if she has to appear stern and “fire” apprentices on the show, she will be able to show a new side of her that will lure audiences and old fans into seeing the “new” Martha Stewart. Along with the new show will come talk show interviews, magazine coverage, etc. Which will lead her into the spotlight but away from her present criminal image.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *