My younger sister has incredible natural baking, sewing, and crafting abilities. These, paired with her aesthetic fascinations with severed heads, roadkill, and garbage has led her to become known amongst her friends as “the anarchist Martha Stewart”.
As we grew older and I went to college we would spend the summers where I was home watching ungodly amounts of awful television. The worse it was the better. We’d seek out infomercials, watch those weird Christian channels where it was just security camera fidelity videos of an aged mother superior addressing a basement full of folding chairs with only half the chairs occupied. When we were able to get Youtube on the TV we once watched 10 consecutive episodes of the Chuck Barris era Gong Show. I still love The Gong Show and am one of the few staunch defenders of The Gong Show Movie, an incredibly effective existential horror movie that asks “What is it like to live in The Gong Show with no possibility of escape?” But this is a matter for another essay.
It was in one of these binges that we discovered one of my most guarded guilty pleasures as a self-styled Marxist intellectual: Whatever Martha.
The show consisted of Martha Stewart’s daughter Alexis Stewart and her friend Jennifer Hutt sitting in a house and providing Mystery Science Theater style commentary on old Martha Stewart show clips. As is the case with all disposable cultural products, deeper and more mysterious questions bleed in around the edges; the interior lives of their performers are suggested elliptically. I’d noticed this effect earlier in my life while watching the regional Fucillo Hyundai commercials and later described it in my as-yet unpublished memoir:
We spent many fruitful afternoons trying to deduce the extent of Billy Fucillo Jr.’s personal happiness based on his weight fluctuations in the used car commercials. We decided, on the whole, that Billy Fucillo Jr. was a happy man. Playing existential detective Steve called it. A pilfered phrase, I knew. But from where?
In the case of Whatever Martha, this came through in seeing Alexis Stewart come to terms with the immense specter of her parentage episode by episode, as she would look into the mirror of her mother and scoff at the similarities in the image. But at times she would seem to almost become Martha incarnate. In one episode she grew intensely impatient with Jennifer Hutt while watching a clip about twine collecting, defending the meticulous placement of the twine in cages. All this was barely detectable on the conscious level while I was watching. I just saw two people sitting on their couch sharing in that specific warmth of recreational savagery and the feeling of home that only bad television can loose, just as my sister and I were sharing watching them eating microwaved nachos. I was processing it on a deeper level than the legible and, I suppose, so was Alexis Stewart.
And in watching these clips, I came to fascination with Martha Stewart herself. There was something in her, pure, quite possibly, quite probably evil, but something that shown out with the radiance of a thing being entirely and unambiguously itself. When Martha seems out of touch or insane it seems more your problem for noticing. Her obsessive homemaking never seems like a put on or the endpoint of male oppression; she projects more forceful authority her kitchen than any public official I’ve ever witnessed. She truly does seem like she’s just a person who doesn’t know how to stop when someone hands her a labelmaker. She is precise and orderly. She does not hold grudges but simply grows impatient with those who cannot achieve a pure state of Martha.
Supposedly Martha Stewart dated Anthony Hopkins for a period in the early 1990s and ended their relationship after seeing him as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. She claimed she couldn’t separate him from the character. Yet, while watching these clips, I can imagine her as a much more effective Hannibal Lecter than Hopkins or even Mads Mikkelsen. She has that careful, impatient, charismatic authority, the careful attention to preparation and presentation. I imagine her saying “You’re eating the people wrong Alexis. The fork goes there,” and in my imagination I look on and think “The fork really does go better there.”
Her sinister confidence. Martha may be the only living person who could make a viable go of fascism. Donald Trump never stood a chance.
I’d wish that Stewart had written a memoir of her time in prison for insider trading, what sort of ruthless gang she formed in her cell block, descriptions of the shank that could only be devised after a life pondering the intricacies of napkin folding…
I’d imagine how Alexis Stewart grew up in a home as one of two Marthas, or one of one and a half Marthas. And in an unusually Freudian playing out of the classic TV trope of the good and the evil Kirk, the viewer was left with the laser pistol as both parties made claims to being the real one as they carried on verbal fisticuffs. This subtext of the need to symbolically kill the parent was the thread that gave Whatever its hypnotic appeal. What more authoritarian and castrating parental figure could be imagined than The Martha?
And so, in the dark flicker of living room, consuming the television and blue corn chips with equal thoughtless abandon, my sister and I worked out the darker questions of our upbringing.
I’m in the UK, so have been spared the Martha Stewart cult. We had the notorious Fanny Cradock – one scary lady!! Well before my time, but all the clips I’ve seen of her make me quake in my marigold gloves!
It’s partly because the Martha Stewart cult is about turning non-WASP Americans into WASP Americans. So the British really have no need of it.
I’ll have to check Fanny Cradock out. I love the weird contours of British TV history, though I must confess I mostly know them through binge watching Screenwipe.
I’m very pleased that WordPress decided to fee my review of Ordinary People into your essay about Martha Stewart. For once, they got it right.