A User’s Guide To Snow

Le brand, c’est moi

In the current issue of the New Yorker, there’s an excellent piece on Martha Stewart by JefferyToobin. It examines the charges she’s facing for insider trading, and concludes that it will be hard for the government to nail her. I’d assumed Stewart was probably guilty; this is the first plausible defense of her I’ve read.

But what’s more interesting are the first 1,000 words of the piece, which constitute a mini-profile of Stewart as she hangs out with Toobin in her house. He asks he about how she’s feeling, having been mocked so viciously in the public eye:

Then Stewart, describing the reaction to her plight, went on, “Well, that’s puzzling to me, O.K., that’s puzzling and also confusing, because my public image has been one of trustworthiness, of being a fine, fine editor, a fine purveyor of historical and contemporary information for the homemaker. My business is about homemaking. And that I have been turned into or vilified openly as something other than what I really am has been really confusing.” She said, “I mean, we’ve produced a lot of good stuff for a lot of good people. And to be maligned for that is kind of weird.”

Read that again: The way that Stewart describes herself is so amazingly weird. She doesn’t say “I have been trustworthy, and a fine, fine editor, etc. etc.” No, she says “my public image has been one of trustworthiness, of being a fine, fine editor, etc.” It’s as if she were describing not herself, but a separate construct — a platonic ideal of Martha Stewartness, floating out there in the ocean of zeitgeist.

Which is, of course, precisely the point: Martha Stewart the icon is far more important than Martha Stewart the person. Stewart knows as well as we do that her appeal is the persona she’s cultivated. Who cares what she’s really like? Consumers buy her stuff based on what she seems to be like.

But the demented thing is that now she, too, seems concerned only for what she seems like. Martha Stewart The Real Person has ceased to be a concern even for, well, Martha Stewart; when she wakes up in the morning and looks in the mirror, she sees a brand, not a human being. It must be very strange to have that sort of life. But you can hardly blame her. Stewart’s success is a direct result of today’s peculiar mix of celebrity culture and incorporation. As with Oprah and Rosie O’Donnell, Stewart’s business is based on nothing but her persona — a feat that is possible only in a world as highly mediated as ourselves. The closest parallel I can think of is Queen Victoria, who was incredibly obsessed both with spreading her image to every corner of her empire, and yet also micromanaging that image with a watchmaker’s precision. Victoria knew that a chief ingredient to her success would be flooding Britain with pictures of herself, the better to instil love and obsession in her mostly-illiterate subjects. So she issued licenses to craftsmen to make zillions and zillions of pictures, baubles, and daguerrotypes in her likeness. But she also imposed the sort of quality-control that you’d normally associate with Fabrege Egg production, and threatened to torture and behead any craftsman who painted her in an unflattering light.

Which, come to think of it, is another interesting parallel with Stewart. As is typical in situations where the press begins teasing the powerful, tabloid papers are running some really ungainly pictures of her:

In an afternoon of conversation, Stewart generally declined to fire back at her tormentors; she has no complaint with the late-night comics, who used to welcome her. “My buddies—Dave, Jay, Conan,” she said with a sigh. “I miss the fun. They have a job to do, they can comment on anybody in a playful way, and I don’t think it’s at all damaging. In other parts of the press, more damaging. In terms of photography, even more damaging.” She’s particularly bothered by the photographs that appear in the Post, which often show her looking haggard and distraught. “The ugliest pictures. And I’m a pretty photogenic person, I mean, and they manage to find the doozies,” she said.

It makes sense, though. Stewart is an incredibly hard-assed businessperson, who can clearly deal with any sort of verbal criticism. But a bad photo? Ah, that cuts to the heart of her brand, and, by inference, to her own heart itself — since there is no real difference even for her. The SEC, the goverment courts, the judges; none can disturb her equanimity. But those who attack her image? Off with their heads!

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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