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ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: If you’ve been to your local newsstand over the last couple of months, you’ve no doubt seen any number of ad-fat, lifestyle/home magazines. The holidays are the pinnacle of their year, their glowing annual moment– so much to show, so much to sell. Of course, the grand master or mistress of the genre is Martha Stewart’s Living, the ultimate how-to guide for the would-be gracious liver. In this particular issue, in addition to the turkey business, she instructs on beading a lamp shade, making a wine coaster out of twigs, making a leather tabletop, tufting a chair cushion, and making turkey finger puppets for your kids.
With her TV appearances, Web site, product lines, and magazine, the easy-to-parody Ms. Stewart is the ultimate lifestyle evangelist, instructing her ever-growing flock on the pleasures of hands-on, hard-core domesticity with a capital "D", getting rich in the bargain. So what’s behind all this? We’re a nation of fast food junkies, speed freaks with cell phones who eat out more than we eat in. So what are we doing succumbing to Martha Stewart’s fantasia of the labor-intensive good life? Just that in part, succumbing to a fantasy of the way we think it should be, think it might once have been in a sweeter, slower age when family meals were family meals and the mom had time to bake cookies and sew curtains.
In a hard-core, two-income world, there is a vein of nostalgia for the sweet smell of home-baked food and handmade stuffs, a nostalgia often apparent– dare I admit it– even in the most liberated female heart. But there’s something else about this magazine and the ones like it, all the so-called shelter and food magazines, even the ever-ubiquitous name-brand catalogues which arrive by mail during this season practically every other day. What they’re all offering is a vision of grace, a way to live: Surround yourself with this, buy that, use this cookie cutter, that caterer and you will ascend into the ranks of the trendy and tasteful, immediately identifiable by the rest of the chosen. You will be blessed, saved, exalted, your home a showplace. It almost has a spiritual edge: Redemption through lifestyle, with Stewart-like gurus to help you along the path of an enlightened expenditure.
The bottom line is: How you live is who you are; lifestyle is an index of character. What you wear, where you eat, what you buy, what sofas you have– these are now the measures of your soul. It’s not what’s inside, but outside; not the deeds you do, but the duds you sport and the sofas you own. In recent years, the hip clothes designers have all gotten into the home and houseware business designing tableware and sheets so you can bed down on their labels in their labels. You need never be naked, label- less. Our kids have clearly got the message, agitating for name-brand items when barely out of the crib. Flashing labels is a way in a booming but volatile economy, an economy where the haves and have-nots grow farther apart, of signaling that you, in fact, are a have.
MARTHA STEWART: Today we’re talking about family– family trees, family hair loom recipes…
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: What’s clear is that Martha Stewart has been the smartest lifestyle guru of them all by wrapping up-to-date binge consumerism in old-fashioned values and by skillfully packaging a form of homey mass market elitism. Her colossal success says far more about us– about our end- of-century values and insecurities– than it says about her.
MARTHA STEWART: And comforting chicken pot pie.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.