FOR RELEASE: THURSDAY, DEC. 16, 1999
SOCIOLOGIST STUDIES THE MAKING OF MARTHA STEWART
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- In a new study of race and gender, a University of Arkansas researcher finds that the recipe for Martha Stewart's success relies on a combination of contradictory ingredients: mix equal parts male assertiveness and female sensitivity, add a dash of white privilege, a cup of multicultural consciousness, and simmer in front of a live audience.
After years of gathering information about the domestic media maven, UA sociologist Dr. Magalene Harris Taylor has come to the conclusion that Martha Stewart not only cooked up her own success, but she also discarded three half-baked social stereotypes in the process. Taylor's article "Martha Stewart as a Sociological Phenomenon" will appear next year in The Practical Skeptic, a sociology reader published by the Mayfield Publishing Company.
"Part of Martha Stewart's great appeal comes from her ability to embody contradictory qualities," said Taylor. "She's traditionally committed to home and family, but her ambition and her business sense are highly feminist. She comes from a middle class white background, yet she appreciates different ethnic and cultural lifestyles."
Stewart's success comes as no surprise considering her great intelligence, creativity and drive. What interests Taylor is the fact that Stewart established such a lucrative career doing work that most people consider insignificant and unprofitable.
Since the Industrial Revolution when families -- mostly men -- began working outside of the home, housework has become steadily devalued. It lost further status with the feminist movement, when large numbers of women abandoned their mops and ovens for outside employment. Not only was housework unprofitable, but it was viewed as a symbol of women's subjugation.
According to Taylor, Martha Stewart stepped into this domestic vacuum and reminded the public that making one's home pleasant and presentable is both a valuable and meaningful endeavor.
By devising tips and techniques for every household project, Stewart gave people new tools to make their chores more efficient and enjoyable. And by emphasizing creativity, Stewart has reminded men and women that their homes should be reflections of their own personalities.
"Martha Stewart's house does not contain imported china, designer furniture, expensive cookware or famous art," said Taylor. "With hand-made items and personal projects, she's used her own creativity to decorate her home until the whole house acts as an expression of her own values and identity."
By investing personal interest and talent in their domestic work, people derive greater pleasure and take more pride in their homes, said Taylor. Thus Martha Stewart is changing the way society views housework -- making it once again respectable by reminding people that domestic work is not such much about cleaning a house as about making a home.
"Stewart has never had to defend the fact that her job revolves around domestic work because her products are so pleasing and of such high quality that people instantly recognize the value of what she does," said Taylor.
One of Stewart's favorite techniques is to "recycle" -- a method she applies to everything from furniture to food. Whether dressing up leftovers for a tasty new dish or refurbishing flea-market finds for home decoration, Stewart shows a thrifty disposition that is uncharacteristic of her middle-class upbringing.
Taylor's article suggests that Stewart adopted this recycling technique from a long domestic tradition that minority women have followed since the days of slavery. Because slaves had neither the money nor status to buy household goods from a store, they learned to reuse their masters' discarded belongings to feed their families, clothe their children and decorate their homes.
Furthermore, by practicing recycling in front of the public and by showing large audiences of people how to employ these techniques, Taylor asserts that Stewart has introduced a marginalized minority lifestyle back into mainstream culture. In doing so, Stewart -- a wealthy white woman -- has validated the creativity and resourcefulness of poor, minority families.
Though Taylor believes that Stewart's success has brought greater diversity to mainstream society, she also views it as a sign of lingering racism.
"A black woman, regardless of her financial status, would never have been able to accomplish what Martha Stewart has accomplished," said Taylor. "Black women are saddled with stereotypes such as the mammy -- racist images associated with housework and servitude. These images will have to be dispelled before any minority woman can make domestic work profitable."
In addition to crossing racial barriers, Martha Stewart has also challenged the boundaries of gender. As a woman devoted to home and family, Stewart embodies the traditional ideals of femininity. However, she also acts as a model feminist -- having founded a profitable and rewarding career that engages her intelligence and requires economic savvy.
When it comes to her personality, Stewart has shown that dinnerware is not the only thing she can mix and match.
"On one hand, Martha Stewart shows traits that we usually attribute to men -- she's motivated, competitive, rational and ambitious. On the other hand she's nurturing, gracious, sensitive and stylish," said Taylor.
While Stewart's "masculine" characteristics have helped her run a business, present her ideas with confidence and strive for greater success, her "feminine" traits have enabled her to relate to her audience, to communicate the importance of home and family and to emphasize the art and beauty of living well. Needless to say, she has forced the public to reinterpret its concept of gender roles.
Despite the fact that Martha Stewart embodies so many contradictory characteristics, and despite the fact that she challenges many social definitions, her popularity seems to be universal. When asked to explain how Stewart came to be so influential without being controversial, Taylor suggested that it's all in the presentation.
"She's dealing with recipes and wall-hangings, not social issues, not political questions," said Taylor. "And we can all appreciate what she's trying to accomplish. Family, comfort, security and home -- those things appeal to everybody. Those are things that everyone values."
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