Guest Commentary: Stewart’s Woes Don’t Diminish Her Strengths

Mar 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Remember that girl in school who won the city science trophy with the volcano that spewed lava perfectly on cue? Who landed the cookie-sales prize for your scout troop by parking herself and her Thin Mints at the train station or someplace else no one considered? Who always read one more book, wrote four more pages and correctly spelled one more word than you?
And remember your pleasure when she fell flat on her face in the school cafeteria, nose-first into her meatloaf and Jell-O special?
Make the cafeteria a studio commissary, and that’s the Martha Stewart situation. Being neither an attorney nor a stockbroker, I won’t weigh in on the case. As a longtime TV public relations executive who worked with Martha on “Martha Stewart Living,” I’m qualified to opine about its surrounding circus and what we learned.
And it’s not a good thing.
I don’t recall one media expert analyzing what John Rigas wears to court these days. Or whether Peter Bacanovic’s briefcase was a designer model and what that told the jury. While few notice Martha’s series wardrobe (low-key slacks and shirts), the airtime devoted to the price of her handbag and cut of her hair was amazing.
And let’s hope the epidemic of cloying wordplay and numbing alliteration is over. “Domestic diva.” “Homemaking maven.” Yet I haven’t seen the media call Brian Roberts “Comcast’s corporate gladiator” or Michael Eisner “Pirate of the Caribburbank.”
So let’s finally acknowledge the elephant in the room, staring us all in the face. Martha achieved success because she had a brilliant business vision and worked endlessly to make it reality. But that vision revolved around what’s traditionally dismissed as women’s work, and her style seemed more Barry Diller than Betty Crocker. While many industries-including ours-happily reaped the results of her talents, there’s tremendous satisfaction with her current Jell-O-faced position.
America chants the “land of opportunity” mantra, but we prefer that our success stories humbly rise up by bootstraps, win by dumb luck or be crass but engaging outsized characters; just ask Donald Trump.
Martha was none of that. She represented a rare kind of accomplished woman: never downplaying achievements, apologizing for success nor seeking identity through a more-powerful man. She applied that same matter-of-factness-and encouraged it from others-to every project tackled on-air. And off. When I was caught in homemaking hell-seated beside her at a cookie-decorating event, having never squeezed an icing tube in my life-she prodded me to try and then, looking at my dismal result, said, “See! You did a good job!” Which hits on a Martha misperception that she is exacting and hypercritical: Knowing her mother was a teacher is key to understanding her approach. She offers guidance in a you-can-do-it way … and you walk off convinced and willing to try. It’s a very empowering message.
As senior VP of communications at CBS Enterprises and Eyemark Entertainment, I worked with Martha and her company on “Living” for five years. Throughout that association and since I’ve repeatedly encountered two other misperceptions. To those charging, “She doesn’t make all those things herself!” I ask whether they believe that elves inside trees actually bake Keebler cookies. The beauty of the Martha Stewart Living brand is that Martha created and nurtured a vision and it’s been translated, with impeccable quality control, in countless ways.
The other misperception? “Isn’t she just a [derogatory misogynist term]?” I’d ask why that mattered; what Bill Gates or Sumner Redstone is like privately wouldn’t affect my respect for his accomplishments. But what I didn’t say often enough was: Martha was great. Smart. Direct. Challenging. And funny.
As a woman professional, I also learned from Martha that quality is paramount. She taught dignity and poise under pressure: first at our 1997 series launch press conference, facing 100 journalists only days after the publication of a scathing biography of her, and again recently. And she proved that as a woman you needn’t bat your eyes, withhold opinions or be a doormat to make it in the business world.
Or do you?
HBO’s telefilm “Iron-Jawed Angels” reminds us that the term “suffragette” was used to diminish the efforts of women suffragists who fought for the vote. Martha’s situation has sparked similar devaluation. Of course she was masterful enough to build an empire, the spin now goes, but it was only housekeeping. The distinctive manner and tone we praised for launching a genre spawning series and entire networks are now character flaws. If a Jewish or African American corporate leader were the target of stereotypes and trivialization the outcry would rightfully resonate.
Yet professional women have been noticeably silent. Belated jealousy for that overachieving classmate? Possibly. My guess is that Martha offers a cautionary tale to everyone believing the glass ceiling has broken through or holey enough to be irrelevant. So I’m still learning from Martha: that even nowadays, you’re only one of the boys until you’re not. Let’s hope that doesn’t mean pink power suits are returning from the closet’s depths, while visionary leadership, passionate opinions and strong personalities are going back in.
Andi Sporkin manages strategic communications for television and media companies and can be reached at andisporkin@aol.com.