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Martha Stewart's Recipe for Failure

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

By Lia Carson, SKIRTING CONVENTION

Martha Stewart was one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in history—and some people loved to hate her for it. Last Friday, her critics had their hey-day. While few fully understand the actual charges brought against her, Americans were all too eager to pipe in on her more egregious offenses. As Daily News columnist Lenore Skenazy asserted, “She is too confident. Too competent. Too rich. She’s even too pretty.” If there is anything to be taken away from this scandal, it’s that in the courtroom of the American consciousness, it was Martha Stewart’s personality—and not her actions—which were being put on trial.

Stewart did break the law; she was found guilty of conspiring with her former Merrill Lynch stockbroker, Peter Bacanovic, for hiding the reason behind her Dec. 27, 2001 sale of shares in the biotech company ImClone Systems. The judge threw out the most serious charge against her—securities fraud, and prosecutors did not have evidence of insider trading and could not bring that charge against her. Stewart’s savings on the ImClone shares, sold the day before an announcement that sent the stock tumbling, was relatively small by corporate scandal standards, amounting to approximately $45,000.

The crime, while wrong, is a small hiccup compared to the appalling corporate scandals that have plagued the business world during the past several years. Yet to many Americans, this trial was more about reprimanding this cunning businesswoman for her personality than about punishing her actual criminal offense.

Martha Stewart’s powerful, shrewd character could not be forgiven. Critics called her confidence “arrogance,” her assertiveness “bossiness.” One article called her “a steely-eyed, tart-tongued control-freak executive brought low by hubris.” Another described her as “an uppity, pain-in-the-neck genius.” A letter to the editor in USA Today summed up this attitude perfectly: “It is that smug, arrogant, ‘I’m-above-all-of-you’ attitude that would make a jail sentence all the sweeter for us, the little people.”

And so a case involving a relatively minor offense prompted the prosecution of a bitch who needed to know her place. And when she fell, the public eagerly switched on their televisions to catch a glimpse of her tumble. Nearly 3 million viewers were watching the broadcast of her verdict last Friday afternoon.

But while the public was consumed with dissecting the intricacies of her personality, personal attacks on the real corporate criminals have been scarce at best. Kenneth Lay is greatly responsible for Enron’s collapse—a corporate scandal that caused 5,000 people to lose their jobs and the lifetime savings of some 20,000 retirees to dwindle as Enron’s stock value shrank to almost nothing. Yet the American public has not criticized him for being too bossy.

Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling was accused of insider trading that helped net him $89 million in profits. Yet there is no chorus of voices charging him for talking down to people.

Ex-Tyco Chief Executive L. Dennis Kozlowski allegedly threw his wife a $2-million, Roman-themed birthday party on the island of Sardinia, charging half the cost to the company. He is also charged with billing a variety of personal items ranging from expensive homes to a $6,000 shower curtain to Tyco. Yet the public has not put forth a critical assessment of his arrogance.

These devious corporate criminals have certainly lost professional credibility, but we know little—and seem to care little—about the actual people behind the actions. While these perpetrators have all successfully avoided a personality analysis, the vast majority of the public criticism against our domestic diva has been about nothing but her personality.

And while it is still unclear to many what she was actually charged with, everyone seems to know about her character flaws. She has been condemned as a domineering executive who is overly bold in the business world and lacks personal warmth. Stewart is an incredibly impressive self-made woman who has earned more than a billion dollars teaching a sophisticated version of home ec. Can we blame her for being aggressive?

For a culture that still feels slightly uncomfortable with the idea of an assertive, powerful woman, Martha Stewart was a perfect scapegoat. This is not to imply that what Stewart did was excusable—it certainly is not. But the public reaction to her case suggests that this scandal was much more a product of who she was than what she did. Her boldness was a bit too threatening and it is certainly part of the reason that the public was all too eager to see this ambitious female icon crumble.

Americans can sleep a little more soundly now that this all-too-perfect woman has been kicked off her pedestal. But as people continue to take secret satisfaction in her downfall, her story is sending a powerful message. Stewart may have devoted her entire career to teaching young women how to cook and decorate, but her most enduring lesson will likely result from her demise: a lady ought to know her place.

Lia C. Larson ’05 is an economics concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alernate Fridays.

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