Discipline-It's a "Good Thing": Rhetorical Constitution and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia

Article excerpt

This essay argues that Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO) taps into existing postfeminist cultural trends to produce a powerful "constitutive rhetoric" which contributes to the development of subjects who: (1) are domesticated and exercise self-discipline, (2) valorize the home and understand it as a therapy center, and (3) are accustomed to self-expression through consumer purchases. The essay explores the rhetorical techniques MSLO employs to constitute its audience and suggests the implications for women of accepting the subject positions offered by MSLO.

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   "A lot of women are discovering that their jobs aren't so great,"
   observes Stewart, "They're wondering, 'Why do I have to go to
   work? I'd rather stay home and sew.'" Martha Stewart (Gordon,
   1991, p. 74)

Martha Stewart is a powerful, savvy woman who serves as President and Chief Executive Officer for her own multimillion dollar organization, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO). Her web page reports that she was named one of "America's 25 Most Influential People" in 1996. For many women, Stewart's business acumen makes her a positive symbol of the success they can achieve in contemporary American society if they have the drive and ambition. Stewart herself confesses to getting just four hours of sleep each night, and when asked if she ever had time to relax and do nothing responded "I don't have a clue what nothing is." (MacSweeney, 1998, p. 164).

Transforming houses into "homes" is Stewart's full-time occupation. In February of 1997, MSLO acquired Martha Stewart Living Enterprises from Time Inc. (http://www.marthastewart.com). "I always saw the business as encompassing as many different media as possible," Stewart explains (Marin, 1995, p. 74). To further the success of her business, she worked with Harvard MBA Sharon Patrick. "We talked about how you take over an area--in my case, the home, the garden, the surroundings--and monopolize it" says Stewart (Kasindorf, 1995, p. 31). Today, she is in charge of the aptly named "omnimedia" empire which includes her monthly magazine, Living, a syndicated television show of the same name, some thirty-five books, a syndicated newspaper column, a national radio show, a mail-order catalog company, a web page receiving 1.2 million visits per month, and strategic partnerships with K-Mart, Sears Roebuck and Company, Sherwin-Williams, and Zellers (Network, 1998). A long-term production agreement between MSLO and the Food Network was announced in June of 1999 (http://www.marthastewart.com). In the fall of 1999, MSLO made its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, selling 8.3 million shares of stock at $18 per share and earning $149 million (http://www.marthastewart.com, investor relations).

The Home Furnishing Network remarks that Stewart has "successfully translated that personal style from her books, magazine, and television show into affordable products that allow average Americans to live a little more stylishly and elegantly" (Network, 1998, p. 6). While the "average American" may shop at K-Mart and Sears, readers of MSLO's Martha By Mail catalog are happy to make, on the average, an $85 purchase from the catalog. According to Yvonne Moran (1998) in Catalog Age, 85% of Stewart's catalog customers are college-educated, home-owning women in their forties with an average income of $70,000. Three-quarters of these customers are married, and three-quarters of them work full time outside the home. A spokesperson for MSLO remarked that demographic information for Martha Stewart's Magazine, Living, is quite similar.

Stewart's cultural impact, her work ethic, and her expanding business have recently drawn increased attention from scholars in disciplines such as sociology and anthropology. At least two scholarly collections are currently in press: No Place Like Home: Cultural Anxiety, Nostalgia, and Martha Stewart Living, and Reading Martha Stewart: It's a Good Thing (Fox, 1998). …