The Seduction of Control, Perfection, and Fantasy: Playing House with Martha Stewart

Theodora Carson

Issue 2 * Spring 2000

Ed. note: When originally published in 2000, this article included at least one metalink per sentence. It's been a while since then and those links are long gone.

I have a strange fascination with Martha Stewart. I read Just Desserts by Jerry Oppenheimer and my interest in her peaked: she sounded, as portrayed in that book, as the toxic boss (we’ll call her Sheila, though it is not her real name) from whom I had just "divorced" myself by quitting. I could see Sheila emasculating her husband on a daily basis, screaming obscenities at her employees (that didn’t take much imagination), and plotting to take over the world. Despite these issues, Martha and Sheila alternately inspired and repelled me. They both showed me power at a time when I was just developing my own sense of being in the world. Those two women were in control; if they weren’t, they were miserable and made every one miserable too.

It is that sense of perfection and control that leads too many women, teens, and even children to become anorexic. Obviously, Martha Stewart is not anorexic; while some may proclaim that she is fixated with food, most of her attention is really on decorating. Sheila was displayed a few minor symptoms of anorexia, although we ex-employees believe she was a frequent user of coke instead of dieting. I am not arguing that either of them are anorexic; instead, I want to explain how their obsessions can be linked to anorexia.

Anorexia is about much more than food, just as Martha Stewart is. The control over food is just one aspect of anorexia and what I call Marthamania. Control over one's body, fantasy and a regression into girlhood is a common aspect of both. Of course, the anorexic's and Marthamaniac's version of control is an ironic one.

Some anorexia researchers claim that anorexia offers its victims a way to control the development of their bodies. Since anorexia occurs most frequently in the years of puberty, researchers suggest that anorexics have difficulty adapting to the roles that come with "becoming a woman." That fear, hatred, or despair of becoming all it means to be a woman in today's society is wrapped up in Martha Stewart. She is a fiercely independent woman, succeeding financially in a man's world. Formerly a stock broker, she has combined feminine and masculine roles and is able to buy her home and decorate it too.

Stewart sells a dream, of course, like many entrepreneurs. But what makes Stewart's dream different than other chefs (Julia Child, Emeril Lagasse) is that it is a complete fantasy. Not only will Martha make maple syrup from your own trees, she'll blow the glass bottle she'll serve it in, and build the table you'll eat at. It's less work to do a house Martha-style than researching what it is you might really like; it's way too easy to just get her magazine and see the whole realm of what your house could look like.

But here's where the girls come in: her magazine is full of ads directed at young girls. In a recent issue, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren were marketing girls' clothes, there were Pooh ads, and a full-page ad for Barbie. Certainly, Stewart's readers are likely to have female children, but the fantasy world she creates goes deeper. Stewart is "playing house" and allows others to play right along with her.

Her preplanned, but do-it-yourself ideas are toys for almost grown-up girls. The same girls that played with their Barbie dollhouses until they moved into their own home are likely to fall into the Martha trap. Playing house with Martha allows one to control their home ("no, no, we need a lighter shade of lime for the Christmas cards"), but Martha always maintains the upper hand. Stewart essentially provides a diet for living: you must have a certain ratio of lavender to beige.

Playing house ultimately offers escape from reality; it's the same kind of escape that anorexia provides. What Martha Stewart teaches us is that while we can’t control the outside world, we can make sure our cookie cutters are in the proper order.It's not important if your husband is cheating on you, what is crucial is that your sugar cookies are frosted in icy colors.

Her hyper-representation of women's reality has become a joke, just like Calista Flockhart's miniscule frame. Most people know when to say enough is enough, but some Marthamaniacs, just like some anorexias, get sucked into the false images of control. Anorexics are sadly ruled by the food they believe they control; Marthamaniacs are controlled by her highness Martha. It is when people waver on that line between obsession of control and control of the obsession that the situation gets dangerous.