Rumors of Martha's redemption are greatly exaggerated

America wants her saga to have a sweet and noble conclusion. It shouldn't hold its violet-scented breath.

By Rebecca Traister
Published March 4, 2005 6:16PM (EST)

"In anticipation of spring -- and Martha's homecoming!" reads the desperately hopeful headline in Martha Stewart Living editor Margaret Roach's newest letter to readers. In it, Roach describes the attitude of her once and future boss -- finishing her five-month stay at Alderson Federal Prison in West Virginia for having lied about a stock sale. Roach tells us, "The anticipation of these new beginnings -- a new house, a new garden -- has certainly sustained her spirits ... I can tell you she is, indeed, ready to get planting ..."

The anticipation of Stewart's release from prison is no less breathless in the non-Martha media. The current cover of Newsweek is lit up with a photo of the imprisoned businesswoman grinning gaily as she steps through bright orange curtains under the headline "Martha's Last Laugh." "Here Comes Martha," crows the Boston Herald, suggesting that the Bedford estate where she'll spend the next five months under house arrest will become "the staging ground for what could be a comeback of epic proportions." We have read that Stewart is trim and in fighting shape, that she's hired veteran ABC executive Susan Lyne to steer her company ship, and that her "Apprentice"-franchise television deal will make her a bigger star than ever. The forecast for Stewart is bright, fresh -- an unplanted garden where fortunes will bloom in hues so vivid we can't yet imagine them. She has never looked as good as she does today, about to show us all that she has been wronged but that right will triumph; that like Andy Dufresne in "The Shawshank Redemption" she "crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side."

We love a good redemptive narrative to give shape to our prurient celebrity obsessions.

The problem, of course, is that none of this verdant garden stuff is actually true. Stewart's soil is clogged with a number of weeds and stubborn roots that will not be eliminated, even with the best landscaping in the world. She is not, as she once ill-advisedly suggested about herself, a modern-day Nelson Mandela. She has served five months in a pretty comfy prison for having lied to federal prosecutors, a crime that, no matter how much we strain against the injustice of her prosecution, it seems she did in fact commit.

But a rare kind of alchemy has transformed Stewart since the beginning of her legal travails. She is no longer the woman we loved to hate for the way she made us feel inadequate for not cultivating our own fines herbes gardens. Nor is she exactly our economic role model anymore, thanks to some steep stock plunges and that nasty insider-trading stuff. Instead, she's become a folk hero who plied a trade of providing quality products at reasonable prices, became a successful business leader, and got hunted down and punished for the kind of petty white-collar crime that male Masters of the Universe commit all the time and never get caught at. Of course, much of what has been said in her defense is true: Stewart is prosecuted for smudged ink in her datebook while Enron execs roam free over the Texas tundra. She's been questioned more thoroughly about her call log than Dick Cheney has about his role at Halliburton.

But our desire to canonize her as she walks free on Friday is only going to set us up for disappointment.

It has been admittedly delicious to envision our pathological preacher of home comforts stuck in the slammer. It makes sense that we would have eaten up the details of her humanizing incarceration with a spoon. We know that she foraged for healthy dandelion greens in the prison yard, read the works of John James Audubon and Bob Dylan, and taught her fellow inmates yoga ("Engage your core, Big Marge"). According to Roach's letter, Stewart found some old pottery molds in the prison basement and used them to create a nativity scene for her mother. It's been reported that she crocheted toy opossums for her dogs, and learned the steps to Brooks and Dunn's "Boot Scoot Boogie" during line-dancing classes. Stewart's friend Barbara Walters came back from a visit to Alderson and told her "View" audience that Martha "misses absolutely nothing material."

That is a sketchy claim to make about a woman who has already hired former Le Cirque chef Pierre Schaedelin to cater the next five months of her house arrest and has flown celebrity hairstylist Frederic Fekkai to Alderson for a pre-release color consultation. Tuesday's New York Post reported that Stewart's daughter, Alexis, just selected a $3,980 suede jacket at Bergdorf Goodman to flatter her mother's newly svelte figure. Then there's the talk that Stewart has been busily hammering out a deal with the SEC that would make it legally possible for her to take over the reins of her company once more.

Not that there's anything wrong with any of this. A girl can get her roots done; and who doesn't buy new clothes when they lose weight? God bless her for trying to wrestle back control of the company she created. It's just that the image of Stewart munching black-truffle risotto while making corporate decisions in her $3,980 jacket is going to disappoint those counting on her to fulfill the media's ascetic promise by becoming a line-dancing yoga instructor who knits little baby Jesuses for her former Camp Cupcake roommates.

It may be that Stewart won't be fulfilling our redemptive human fantasies anytime soon, that in her emancipation the power broker may celebrate by going straight back to being the same power-hungry, financially ambitious person she was before her legal ordeal. That's part of the other path we want her to take: the one in which she triumphs financially, and wrests business power back from the jaws of legal humiliation. Our desires for Martha's financial redemption and our desires for her moral redemption contradict each other. If we are looking for her to have the last laugh as a businesswoman, then there is no way that we're also looking at a figure who is going to remain the introspective prison-food reformer she supposedly became in lockup.

It is the dichotomy that has always been the central tension of Martha Stewart. It's what makes her so difficult to digest. We know how to accept bullying from men who manufacture cars or create computer programs. But we don't know how to accept it from women, especially those who upholster their own couches. From them we expect a degree of decorousness.

Former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing was famous for calling you "Honey" just as she stuck the shiv in your gut. Martha has never bothered with such niceties. She is famous for calling her broker's assistant "a little shit" for no apparent reason. Then again, Lansing probably doesn't make her own votive candles.

Stewart has always frustrated us with her refusal to fit any kind of pop-culture mold. She's inspiring and infuriating, maternal and mean, domestic and corporate. It's part of her allure, what keeps her sheets selling out at Kmart and Stewart dining out at the Four Seasons. But there's no reason to think that just because she's done a tour of incarceration in Billie Holiday's old prison she'll come out any more malleable than she was before.

It's pretty unlikely that her post-prison path will satisfy us in all the ways we want to be satisfied, that she will fulfill its every verdant promise, become the Mother Teresa of the reality television world, and show those boys a thing or two about decent, strong-minded femininity and righteousness. Her company stock may soar, but it may also plummet. Her reality show and risky daily live program may be monster must-see hits, but they could easily suffer from the fact that Stewart has always been wooden on TV. Sure, it's possible she'll have her old inmate pals up to the Bedford estate after they get sprung, but it's just as likely that she'll forget all about them within seconds of her own release. Mostly, it's fair to say that chances are good that Stewart will emerge from prison the same pushy bitch she's always been.

In a way the onus is on us. Can we make room in our cultural imagination for a narrative that does not offer us all the redemptive satisfaction we're craving? Can we accept that a smart, successful businesswoman may not be pleasant, that she may not have "learned from her mistakes"? Can we take her as she is: a 63-year-old woman who has never fit snugly into any of our gender or business expectations? A defiant grown-up whose personality has probably not been fully renovated by a five-month prison stint and who will emerge just as confusing and conflicted a persona as she went in?

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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