Martha X: The Radicalization of Martha
January 19, 2005
By Max Gordon
is January 19, 2005 and Martha Stewart has spent 103 nights in a
Federal prison camp called Alderson. Her prison number is 55170-054.
In our country of African-American communities bathed in swirling
red and blue lights, police radios waking sleeping neighbors and
handcuffed black men lowered into the backs of squad cars, the idea
of Martha Stewart, our doyenne of lavender-scented linens and homemade
pumpkin cookies at Thanksgiving, being thrown in the slammer like
a black ex-con who has violated his parole, seems like someone's
idea of a nasty political joke.
White women like Martha Stewart don't go to prison in America;
they don't even know what a prison looks like from the outside.
Yet Martha Stewart is very much a woman, very much white, and she
is, at the time of this writing, very much in prison. How did it
Reading about someone in jail brings many of us a perverse delight.
Our freedom, however much unappreciated every other day of the year,
tastes a little sweeter when accompanied by the refrain, "Well at
least I'm not in prison like her". It's the reason the newspaper
ultimately satisfies; unable to gather any real enthusiasm about
our own bleak existences, our lives have a momentary gleam when
contrasted with the starkness of someone else's misfortune.
A divorce, imprisonment or murder adds a bounce to our step - we
may not have it good, but thank God we don't have it "that bad."
Our desperate comparison is even yummier when the person suffering
is a celebrity like Martha; superior and distinctly separate from
us, we've been waiting to see her brought to her knees.
When I left my apartment this morning, there was a police car
in front of my building. The training I received as a child about
the police will last my lifetime. I gather myself, make my face
expressionless and stare straight ahead.
I was taught if I ever saw the police to keep moving, not to make
eye-contact, never to be belligerent or antagonistic in any way,
and if stopped, to answer all their questions and cooperate fully,
always remembering that an unannounced hand in a pocket to retrieve
identification could result in death. I was made to understand that
the police can do whatever they want to you if you are black, and
you have absolutely no protection whatsoever; the courts will always
stand behind the officer.
I am an American as is Martha Stewart, but she is an American white
woman with wealth and I am a black man in my mid-thirties, who,
statistically, might have been shot or incarcerated by my age: our
having been born in the same country may be all that we share. Women
like Martha Stewart see the police and think protection by. I see
the police and think protection from.
I haven't done anything that would warrant interrogation, but
that doesn't change the fact that I feel hot with guilt - someone
who looks like me, who is black and male, is doing something, somewhere,
and that is enough for me to be guilty in America. I know intuitively
the police can call me over or fuck with me if they feel like it,
if they are interested or bored enough. It is the reason I am always
aware of a police car passing by as I walk alone on an empty street,
why I always record how many officers are inside the car.
I tell myself that reports of police brutality are exaggerated
and I'm overreacting to my parent's pre-civil-rights paranoia; the
country has changed since then. But it is there again, on the way
to work, a story in the paper. There will be another in a couple
of months. A black suspect was shot off a roof by an officer, a
psychotic black man ran towards the police with a hammer and was
shot to death, a black man pulled out a toy pistol and was blown
I blame the black men for being shot because it's easier than feeling
powerless. Why the hell was he on that roof anyway, didn't he know
he was in New York, it was late at night and he was black? Didn't
that man know better than to be black and psychotic?
We tell ourselves that if someone is in prison it is because they
deserve to be there. If there are human rights violations we say,
"Prison isn't supposed to be a picnic." If rehabilitation is requested
and denied we say, "You should have thought about that before you
got arrested." Like the fabled Bermuda Triangle, people go to prison
and disappear from the face of the earth.
It will be easier to go to work this morning if I believe that
everyone who is in prison belongs behind bars because he is a bad
person who needs to be punished. I don't have to consider the lack
of education and training, substance abuse, heartbreak and rage
that all contribute to crime, that prison construction is a lucrative
business venture, and some states have built prisons to revitalize
their economies. That it costs the same amount of money a year to
maintain an inmate as it would to pay for a year's college tuition.
It's hard to enjoy a Saturday picnic with your kids if you know
that an imprisoned mother will have to wait years to have the same
picnic with her own; convicted for the bad checks she wrote trying
to feed them or for defending herself or the children from an abuser.
For black men who want to experience the American dream but, exasperated
with the limited opportunities racism affords, only see the possibility
of success realized through crime, prison exists as an inevitability.
And contrary to the hardened criminal image that most of us have,
there are "regular" people who are truly bewildered about how they
ended up in prison, having gone from too few schools, to even fewer
options, a direct route laid from their birth to their jail cell
with the precision of Amtrak.
When one considers the number of people who are currently in jail,
on their way, who have family members who are incarcerated or who
work in correction facilities, it could cynically be argued that
half the United States is in prison. It's the "other" America, like
the commercials that advertise pork as the other white meat.
If you are not in jail or love someone who is, you have no reason
to know or care about the overcrowding, the gangs, the possibilities
of rape or murder behind bars by other inmates or guards; the suicide,
substance abuse and exposure to HIV/AIDS without condoms, treatment
or access to medications; the inmate labor used to manufacture goods
for private firms, the long-distance service providers who take
advantage of prisoners' isolation and charge exponentially even
for collect calls, the visitors turned away because of a technicality
or suspended indefinitely; the unnecessary strip-searches, withholding
of food as punishment, the extortion, bribes and state-sanctioned
executions; the loss in some states, for the remainder of one's
life, of the right to vote in any state or national election.
I never believed Martha Stewart would really see the inside of
a jail cell. She'll get a slap on the hand and a stern warning from
the judge, I thought. A fine, community service. I envisioned her
grumbling bitterly, a kerchief covering her hair as she raked leaves
beside some highway or spooned mashed potatoes onto the plate of
an older black man in a homeless shelter. Or, most likely, she'd
never be convicted at all.
As the trial began to stumble toward its close, the possibility
increased that Martha might indeed be found guilty and that charm,
celebrity status, letters from powerful famous friends, expensive
lawyers, tears, and Rosie O'Donnell offering Martha's prosecutor
M&M's wasn't going to influence the outcome. Friends' reassurances
at the beginning of the trial that "You're not going to jail, for
God's sake," must have diminished, and Martha had to be very scared,
no matter how fabulous the handbags were that she carried every
day to court.
After all the damning testimony, after Douglas "baby put Miss Martha
in her place" Faneuil's triumph as the underling who was not going
to go down for his bosses, and Martha's vacation friend who couldn't
remember whether she or Martha said, "Isn't it nice to have a broker
who tells you those things," the final verdict was guilty, and for
the first time, being white, or blonde, or rich wasn't going to
make a difference. Martha Stewart was definitely going to jail.
From the first headline that suggested wrongdoing, America couldn't
wait to laugh at Miss Perfect getting her comeuppance. Jokes at
her expense were made nightly on the The Tonight Show and Letterman,
comedy shows parodied her. There was daily commentary on the morning
news weighing her guilt, headlines in every newspaper and moment-to-moment
coverage on the Internet.
Fresh revelations reported that bit by bit Martha was losing everything;
money, power, friends. Then there was the merchandizing; the "Free
Martha" mugs, tee-shirts and buttons; the websites, the dinner-party
conversations, the speculation and assumption of guilt debated by
"experts" on CNN, the condemnation before any evidence was even
presented in a courtroom.
Demonized, ridiculed and humiliated before the American public,
Martha may have achieved the dubious distinction of being the first
rich white woman to be lynched in the United States. It's a princess
lynching, of course - she's out in five months and then can look
forward to house arrest; a 63-year-old teenager who's been grounded.
Where does the delicious satisfaction come from, watching Martha
go to jail? Innumerable places, although I can only account for
my own. As a black man with an unavenged history, Martha's sentence
atones for all the "Miss Anns" of slavery who accused a black man
of rape and got him killed. By putting America's whitest white woman
in prison, even if it is only for ten minutes, the revenge begins
for all the black men murdered or mutilated for "disrespecting"
a white woman in the South, for "assaulting" her by saying good
Although I consciously know it's not fair to make Martha pay for
America's history of racial insanity, and that white women were
victimized in a different way by whiffs of magnolia from the plantation
house porch, when you make your money as the poster child for white
womanhood, you inherit all the projections and mythology, not just
the ones that make you rich.
Like Mary Tyler Moore, Doris Day, Betsy Ross, and Hazel, Martha
is the leading member of the white-women-we-aspire-to-be club, white
women who always have a freshly baked cake in the kitchen and a
pot of coffee on no matter when someone drops by. Who can throw
a meal together in an hour even when their husbands tell them at
the last minute that the boss is coming over, who never get angry
or lose their patience, who never burn dinner or have orgasms, or
want anything other than what their families want.
In her private life, Martha may have been something else, but Martha
Stewart Incorporated is another TV-commercial-white-woman brandished
at us with blonde hair and an apron, smiling and holding a meatloaf,
smiling and holding a bottle of disinfectant, smiling and holding
a mop, an iron, a toothbrush, a bowl of pet food, a jar of mayonnaise,
a box of laundry detergent; a white woman of perfect lawns, fresh
air, polished chrome, and a backyard with all the world's sunshine.
A woman to shame and embarrass the rest of us as we vicariously
get off on her order, perfection and starchy whiteness, watching
her through a lens of disappointment at our own failed, squalid
Martha is the smart-ass student who always does her homework when
everyone else blows off theirs; the one who gets an A on the test
and ruins the curve, and who when confronted in the hallway snaps,
"It's not my fault you people didn't study." In my fantasy, Martha
gets caught cheating on the final exam, not because she isn't smart
enough to pass, but because she has to have the best grade, she
has to be better than everyone else, and she can't risk the possibility
of failure. As she is escorted to the principal's office crying,
all suspicions are confirmed, all heads nod knowingly. "See, I told
you she cheats. I knew she couldn't be that smart."
Martha is all the bosses I've worked for as a secretary. She comes
in all shapes and sizes, male and female, black and white. She is
the executive outraged with you because the copier isn't working,
even though you have no control over whether a copy machine decides
to work or not. She bangs the phone down on you with disgust because
you have not finished typing something she needs right now, even
though she gave it to you only twenty minutes ago, and she'll need
a conference room for six people at two o'clock, and did you order
her lunch yet?
She is not concerned that the other secretary called in sick and
you are the only one answering the phones today; she demands to
know why you have to leave early, even though you've explained three
times your child has an ear infection and you have to take her to
the doctor. At least once a week someone walks out of her office
and back to their desk in tears. She is not specifically outraged
at you because of the malfunctions of the day, she is angry because
you are an assistant, and it is your job to make sure she never
feels pain, experiences inconvenience or discomfort of any kind.
That is what you are paid to do. It is what all the secretaries,
the nannies, the doormen, the taxi-drivers, the bathroom attendants,
the hotel maids, and the clerks are paid to do. There is no delicate
way to put it: Rich people wipe their asses with poor people. When
you have a certain amount of money in America, you don't even have
to focus your eyes on individual poor people anymore - they are
a blur if they exist at all.
A disembodied "hand" extends a towel in the restaurant washroom,
"little fairies" (illegal immigrants paid less than minimum wage)
cook your food and clean your hotel room, "pixies and sprites" (black
and Latino mothers working two jobs) clean your toilet bowl and
raise your kids.
You aren't required to see anyone you don't want to see, because
you have earned your money and you have paid for a service and that
makes it fair. One day, perhaps, if they are so fortunate, they
may earn enough money to have a poor person to wipe their ass with
too. And that is how America works. Land of the free, home of the
Secretaries sit and wonder about their Marthas; "What will ever
make her stop and consider anyone else besides herself? What will
ever penetrate through this selfishness? When will she learn to
share?" For the companies that settle one sexual harassment lawsuit
after another because the same male supervisor can't stop himself
from pinching his secretary's ass or telling the receptionist cock-sucking
jokes during her coffeebreak (the golden boy who will never be fired
because he earns the company a ton of money), the answers are nothing
will, and never.
No one will talk about the fact that there were survivors of 9/11
who said that they left the towers warning co-workers of the danger,
but that some refused to leave their desks right away, as they made
"one more call" or completed a final financial trade.
It is too ugly and painful to look at our attachment to money even
in the face of imminent death. And so we say that someone drove
planes through our twin monuments to financial power because they
hate our "freedom."
It might be worth asking, in our own self-interest, was it really
freedom they were trying to smash? How do we talk about fruit, and
coffee, and chocolate, designer jeans, shoes, and watches that "magically"
appear in our stores from "exotic lands" where the products
are exported for our use, but arrive free of the pain, torture,
and sickness that are required so that we may enjoy them so cheaply?
How do we deal with a world of people who watch our movies and
know how rich and healthy we are, as they work themselves to an
early death in sweatshops, making us healthy and richer? Shops like
Global Fashions, a Honduran factory exposed by Charles Karneghan
in 1996, where 10 year old girls earned 31 cents an hour and worked
75 hour weeks making Kathie Lee Gifford sportswear for Wal-Mart.
Almost a decade later, most sweatshop conditions are still the
same. How do we face a "Third World" that refuses to be a munchkinland
for American comfort any longer? No wonder the idea of Santa's elves
is so appealing. If the North Pole weren't so far, I’d assume they
were from Honduras too.
It seems obvious that Martha made a wrong choice somewhere, and
that what she did had to be addressed. But something else snags
when one considers her plight. Despite myself, I feel protective
of her as I watch the merciless glee with which she is excoriated
in the press.
Perhaps Martha and I have something more than our national origin
in common after all. For a black man and a white woman, the American
dream, in its purest form, is not really intended to work. Martha
and I can definitely aspire to having a piece of the American pie,
but ultimately, as a woman she is supposed to bake it, and as a
black man I'm meant to serve it.
There is an extra bit of contempt reserved for her, guilty or not,
as there is for an O.J., Michael Jackson, Clarence Thomas, Kobe
Bryant, Ethel Rosenberg, Mike Tyson, Bill Clinton (yes, Clinton:
though not "oppressed" in the same way, Clinton falls in this category
as a white man too sympathetic to black people). Bigger than our
country's fascination with power or cruel gossip is our need for
retribution for a crime that extends beyond the transgression in
This gathered storm, this surge of hatred, is absent from the scandals
of Ollie North, Dennis Tyco, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly. These
white men are in the papers too and we lick our fingers over their
scandals, but the thrust towards them, the conviction to bring them
down is never quite the same - there is an absence of malevolence,
the spiteful "get 'em" as the violent mob makes its advance.
Despite the fact that some families lost everything they had because
of Enron or that we as a nation are currently on trial in the world's
"criminal court" for torture violations, there are some Americans
who will never see the machinations of a Kenneth Lay or George Bush
as anything more than good guys who've been "a little naughty."
The response to their white-boy debacles lacks the bloodthirstiness
of an America wanting to prove to an uppity nigger that in spite
of the fact that he's got money, he can still go to jail, or to
a powerful woman who runs her own company that she is really just
a bitch who is finally going to get what's coming to her.
The sinister surprise is that this mob is not only made up of
bitter rednecks and competitive corporate white men anxiously waiting
for Martha to bite the dust. It's a crowd of the oppressed: other
women, blacks, gays. There is a sense of the inevitable in her downfall
and an awful tension released. We wondered how long she could maintain
herself at such a great height, how long "they" would let her have
When she failed, there was the satisfaction in knowing that even
if she reached the top, a Martha Stewart can't really last in America.
Our indignation and jealousy come from our deep self-hatred and
our pain at having always to compete against other oppressed people
for scraps: we tried to be "Martha Stewart" too (i.e. loved, rich,
powerful), and America only had room for one: the good news about
someone else's failure is that there is always a job opening.
Martha might have to count herself in her own mob - as she unconsciously
metes out and attracts the punishment that she feels she deserves
for being a woman who has too much power. The challenge becomes
a balancing act of not self-destructing while maintaining oneself
against a cultural imagination that wants to believe it accepts
strong women, but itches to destroy them.
Oprah lives at this altitude, and the tension must work on her.
She succeeds greatly, but there are the ingratiating games that
she must play with her white audience. Her struggle with weight
may have more to do with the razor at the throat of the richest
black woman in America who may choose no longer to be fat and jolly
for us, who, when she stops driving her Miss Daisies (co-dependent
white women who "can't live without her") and allows herself a more
compelling sexuality and relationship, may actually threaten the
people who support her the most. (For anyone who just said, "But
she's got Steadman" - that's another essay.)
They may allow her to make money as a personality who reassures
their perceptions, but will they identify with her rich experience
and history as a woman of African descent who also happens to be
thin, wealthy, powerful and loved - without punishing her? (They
have their ways: no one saw "Beloved.")
Martha's greatest failure wasn't insider trading or lying, but
what she became; a great capitalist, a company woman. At the center
of the American dream is the nightmare of what oppressed people
must become to prove themselves, that no matter how much we "succeed"
at the dream we can never truly realize its promise - a woman or
a black man who has the societal power of a white man.
In our efforts to conquer, we become unrecognizable and grotesque,
(which, at times, Martha was) but what we will never become, no
matter how many secretaries we abuse, is a white man. Some aspect
of patriarchal power will always elude us. We may be feared and
hated by the same oppressed people as white men and have the same
American Express cards, but we can never be more than the gatekeepers
of patriarchy. The American dream is to have a white penis; and
biology, regrettably, prevents us from that achievement, even those
of us with the greatest determination.
Martha's mistake was that she thought her money and power made
her unassailable, that she could do anything and get away with it,
which is what it means to be male and white in the world. The failure
is not that she lost money or status, it's the unexamined assumption
that patriarchal power is something to aspire to, a worthy achievement.
Instead of our being allowed just to acknowledge the talent of
the remarkable woman Martha is, her gifts and accomplishments are
used by an oppressive society as signs of equality, and as tools
to bury the rest of us alive. She is proof, despite the obvious
evidence to the contrary in most American lives, that the system
works. Instead of raising the minimum wage, or creating job programs
and training, we point to her success and say to the welfare mother,
the underpaid factory worker, the high-school dropout who supports
her family: Oprah did it. Martha did it. Anyone who desires it enough
can make it in America, regardless. What is wrong with you?
When Diana, Princess of Wales died, a friend remarked that the
overwhelming grief around the world about her passing was more than
just for Diana herself. Something archetypal had been lost. It was
the end for princesses everywhere, for anyone, woman (or man) who
felt they would one day find someone in the world to sweep them
from a dismal and dreary life into wealth, power and protection.
It was the end of happily ever afters. Diana, with her eating disorder,
her despair over her husband's affair, her hateful mother-in-law,
and her eventual "black" boyfriend, revealed through her life that
an era had definitely ended, and that a princess could wait all
night for her husband to come home just as any lawyer, schoolteacher
or homemaker could.
In the end, however tragically, Diana did us a great favor. She
discovered something in herself more worthy than having a royal
title to drape lovely things on, or a living fairy-tale myth endlessly
waiting to be rescued from a high tower by her adoring prince. She
was the funkiest, saddest and most handsome princess one could be;
a princess who might say, "Fuck the carriage, I feel like walking
It has been said that the Fifties ended with the death of JFK,
the introduction of the Beatles, hippie culture and "free love."
Actually, the Fifties were only put on pause, their conservatism
and isolationism returning through the Eighties and the Reagan years.
The Fifties officially ended October 8, 2004, the first night Martha's
cell door clanked shut and a guard shouted, "Lights out." The American
fantasy of white-womanhood is now over.
Martha did us a favor, too. She helped us to see that nice white
ladies were never "nice", "ladies", or "white." It takes more than
a little courage to run a company; you can't faint at the first
sign of trouble and you have to be willing to get dirt on your hands.
Martha's vicious power, her anger, and her ruthlessness may have
blown her life apart, but they have also helped blow apart an enduring
myth, encouraging the end of white patriarchal racism and violence
perpetrated through the archetype of a white female "sweetie-pie."
Laura Bush take note.
I read in the paper this week that Martha has been a support to
troubled younger inmates - one woman who was particularly distraught
was given a pep-talk by Martha: "If I can do it, you can do it."
Martha catches the "spirit" at a Thanksgiving gospel performance,
Martha says in an open letter on her site MarthaTalks, written during
the Christmas holiday, "I beseech you all to think about these women
- to encourage the American people to ask for reforms, both in sentencing
guidelines, in length of incarceration for nonviolent first-time
offenders, and for those involved in drug-taking. They would be
much better served in a true rehabilitation center than in prison
where there is no real help, no real programs to rehabilitate, no
programs to educate, no way to be prepared for life 'out there'
where each person will ultimately find herself, many with no skills
and no preparation for living."
An arrogant, smug, self-centered, obnoxious white woman, convicted
of a crime, having lost millions of dollars, power within the corporate
world and most of her reputation, goes to prison. Sullen and withdrawn
at first, she is affected by the pain and horror of the working-class
women and women of color she encounters, and after listening to
their stories and courage, has a major transformation. She becomes
a person of moral conviction and great valor; a true leader of the
people. Private Benjamin meets the Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Maybe Martha will get out of prison and go back to her same old
tricks, or her "changes" will be of the patronizing socialite kind;
a once-a-year fundraiser for women in prison as a token gesture,
or checks she never sees, written by her secretary and mailed to
faraway charities or foundations. Maybe Martha's kindness is just
more manipulative press; fodder for the ongoing reality shows all
our lives have become.
However, I believe that real change is possible in Martha, because
I know the effect of pain in my own life, how it can shatter and
redeem. It's strange in this world of money we live in; Martha Stewart
had to go to prison to find out how to have compassion for poor
women again. A rich successful boss lady who wasn't always a Miss
Ann or a fairy-tale princess, but was once working-class herself
in Nutley, New Jersey - once upon a time.
Visit Max Gordon's blog at maxgordonworks.blogspot.com.