March 1999
s m u g
back issues
by Joshua Allen

Martha Stewart Living

You know how, despite the horror, you find some comfort in the grisly death of an old friend, because their problems are over and all agonizing decisions have come to an end? That's sort of how I feel about Martha Stewart. I envy her absolutely clear-eyed vision, so thoroughly realized that there can never be a single moment of doubt or hesitation for her. It is my goal to create a wholly manufactured universe of such detail, precision, and comprehensiveness, a universe so complete that I can live it in forever and even - and this is Martha's true genius - convince others to join me. Tricking people into believing that your delusions are real and appealing has to be, for me, the ultimate accomplishment.

I'm not saying, however, that I would want to live in Martha's universe. I appreciate the handiwork, I'm pleased that it's possible, and I'm comforted to know that she has finally found peace there, but, to be frank, the place scares the living shit out of me.

"Martha Stewart Living" is one of the more blatant misnomers in recent memory. The entire magazine is frozen with careful sterility, crystalline and inorganic. There has been a systematic removal of humanity and a supersaturation of Martha-ness, which at this stage in the game, is not a human being at all but rather a tone of voice and a deadly steadiness of hand.

The magazine is not about living, but rather the nonsexual fetishization of objects, explicated in the distinctive language of poetry scrawled in the kitty-covered diaries of prepubescent girls. "For that is what salt is," says one of Martha's drones. "Pure magic." And: "The ways of salt run deep." The only time living is mentioned is within the context of objects, and how only through the systematic perfection of our surroundings can we ever achieve true humanity: "When you stand against brown, the deeply shadowed light falling on you will make you look and feel more radiant, more confident, and ultimately more human."

Although Martha herself probably doesn't do much of the writing, every word is presented as coming directly from The Martha Cortex. Bylines are buried or nonexistent, and the diction and style of the writing never wavers for a second, no matter how many different authors are involved. It is wholly consistent, with the disparate articles each containing an equal amount of "cherish," "luxuriant," "perfect," "respect," "delightful," "tidy." There aren't even any cute, tasteful little symbols to denote the end of an article - it's as if they are all meant to flow together as one long manifesto from up on high.

The only time this illusion is shattered is when Martha's name is invoked by another author: "Listen to Martha on the subject." "Here's what Martha has to say." But this intrusion is, like everything else, calculated and deliberate. It creates an aura about Martha, a deification. She is summoned to bring holy words to the unwashed, to radiate serenity and wisdom. Gaze upon this sentence, which, to me, is like taking a deep, deep breath of ammonia: "To Martha, orchids are not rarified, or frightening, or anything of the sort, any more than her Himalayan cats and champion chow chows are."

Indulge me for a moment, while I quote from Kevin Costner's final courtroom speech in Oliver Stone's JFK: "When it smells like it, feels like it, and looks like it, you call it what it is: fascism."

There is beauty in relentless fascism, simply because there is never a moment of compromise. There is no dilution of the product, and no restraint in the artificiality of the dictator's persona. Such a level of fascism is rare these days, where every single decision is made by a committee, and so the many lost souls who are desperate for a focused, driven leader turn to Martha. The appeal of someone whose every word and move is flawless, as if preordained, is undeniable.

You have to respond somehow to such a level of perfection (or the illusion of perfection, which is even more valuable). You have to envy it, strive for it, dread it (that's my vote), or mock it. But ignore it at your peril, because an entity that has such power and assurance will smack you senseless whether you're paying attention or not.

Martha Stewart Living is ruled by fear. Martha Stewart Living fairly reeks with the maple and cranberry stench of New England. Martha Stewart Living is possibly the quintessential publication for the 1990s since it revels in the details while ignoring anything outside of one's vision. Martha Stewart Living turns obsessive-compulsion into an art form, into something to be envied and emulated. Martha Stewart Living is the apotheosis of a Puritanical, apolitical society, the natural reaction to a world where you have absolutely no control over anything. Martha Stewart Living is life-as-bonsai-tree.

But Martha herself, as always, puts it best. In her back-page essay about redecorating, yet again, one of her many homes, she lets slip the basic tenet of her personal theology, broadcast right from the core of her universe: "I know I can be happier there, confident that I have rearranged and reorganized every nook and cranny."



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