Well before domestic guru Martha Stewart left a federal prison in West Virginia on Friday morning, a team of public relations experts was working to reshape Stewart’s public persona.
They might want to give MU’s Melissa Click a call.
Click, a visiting instructor in the department of communication, started studying the public’s opinion of Stewart in 2001, before the home-and-hearth diva was involved in an insider-trading deal that left her decorating her prison cell instead of dishing out domestic directions through her magazines, TV show and multibillion-dollar empire.
Though she admired Stewart and subscribed to Martha Stewart Living, Click wondered why Stewart was such a polarizing figure in the United States.
“The public either loves her or hates her, and I was not only interested in why people hate her, but also why people love her,” Click said.
What women think
She interviewed groups of women of varying ages, incomes, races and ethnicities. She also interviewed groups of lesbians and gay men. Each group had a distinct view of Stewart, as varied as a belief that she was preserving women’s history to the idea that she was marketing elitist values.
Women who had large incomes viewed Stewart as a peer, as someone who understood how their houses should look. These women saw Stewart as a woman who would live next door to them, but they were afraid she might judge their homes. However, women who made less money viewed Stewart as elitist but also saw her as someone who would judge them negatively if their homes did not look a certain way.
Women in their 20s and 30s saw Stewart as a mother figure, Click said, because the mothers of those women were part of the first generation of women to get jobs outside the home. This weakened the cycle of mothers handing down domestic tips and tricks to their daughters, and Stewart skillfully filled that void.
“As these women came into adulthood and had their own homes, they lacked domestic knowledge they felt they needed,” Click said. “She is perceived as an expert. If you want to know something, she is the one to consult.”
Opinions of Stewart among some nonwhite and minority women were not as positive, Click said. She found many of the women complained that Stewart’s recipes from other cultures were not spicy enough to be authentic and were upset that their culture was changed to fit Stewart’s perception of how it should be.
“Her class level makes her open to other cultures and exploring other cultures, but she ultimately whitewashes them to fit what she wants people to know about them,” Click said.
Can Stewart make a comeback
Click wonders if Stewart’s post-prison image, one that is supposed to make her appear friendlier, is at odds with her pre-prison image as an expert and successful businesswoman. Click said since some people negatively judged Stewart for being a strong businesswoman before she went to jail, changing her persona may result in her losing her power and perceived expertise.
“I don’t know if what [Stewart’s public relations team] is planning for her is going to enable a return to what she was before,” Click said. “I also don’t think U.S. culture has changed while she’s been in jail. We still don’t like strong women. If she returns to that role, she’s probably going to end up right back where she was with people hating her.”
Click initially started studying Stewart for her doctoral dissertation at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst; but the project took off, so she plans for it to eventually become a book. Click expects the project to have a broad appeal because everyone has an opinion on Martha Stewart.
Studying someone who is constantly in the news has proved difficult for Click, who says she is going to focus the rest of her research on everything before Stewart was released from prison.
“When you’re trying to analyze a moving target, it’s really hard. There’s always news on her, so being up-to-date on my subject is very difficult.”