Apart from their plainest similarities—you can count the living women’s-media tycoons who are also lifestyle icons on two fingers—Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey would seem to come from different planets. One is blonde, thin, tall, chilly, exacting. The other is brown, sometimes plump, warm, accepting. In the hypothetical event that your piecrust failed to cohere, Martha might scold, instructing you to use colder butter next time. Oprah would hand you a Kleenex, tell you about her own piecrust catastrophes, and lay a soothing arm around you.
With layoffs and other contractions at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and turbulence at Oprah’s OWN network and O magazine, both moguls now face diminishing profiles. And as Martha (at 71 years old) and Oprah (approaching 60) fight off involuntary retirement to one of their many mansions, it’s worth noting the key thing they had in common at their peaks. The products of a white Polish-Catholic family and a poor black one, respectively, the two shared an outsider’s clear view of the twentieth-century American woman’s obsession with feminine and domestic perfection. Way back in the eighties, they understood that goal for the fantasy that it is. Martha and Oprah built dynasties on the insight that millions of women like them had their noses pressed up against the dream of the domestic goddess; their genius was to dismantle the myth.
Martha and Oprah attacked their target from opposite flanks. Martha assaulted perfection by giving every woman a guidebook on how to attain it. Unsentimental, unembellished, her instructions were lab manuals leading step-by-step from sugar and cocoa powder to bûche de Noël. Oprah, in contrast, simply said to hell with it. Life is a mess. The goddess is within; embrace her and get on with it.
It may be that American women don’t need Oprah and Martha anymore only because they’ve absorbed their lessons so well. On mommy blogs and Facebook walls, today’s home-front strivers pursue their individual domestic obsessions, each crocheted baby hat and Thanksgiving-leftovers sandwich a monument to familial love and self-expression. At the same time, there’s a new liberty to leave other chores half-done. “It’s getting easier and easier not to be perfect,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton and not-having-it-all fame. (She’s now working on a book expanding on her widely read Atlantic essay.) “Walk into my house, you will see in three seconds that I am not perfect. How am I supposed to do all this and have a perfect house?”
In the new ethos, the ideal is to be at once a little Martha and a little Oprah, aiming for ever-higher domestic prowess but always with a dose of self-deprecating self-forgiveness. On her blog, Dinner: A Love Story, Jenny Rosenstrach posts photos of her adorable kitchen and her perfect three-layer cake, then confesses that it can take her weeks to change a lightbulb and that preparing breakfast for her children threatens to make her weep. “From a food perspective, ‘perfect’—a word I associate with white linens and the word ‘fussy’—is not what it’s about anymore,” she said in an e-mail. “Now it seems like everyone is just entertaining in their kitchens. This trend is great, because it’s so simple.” There is a catch, though: Without a darling centerpiece to deflect attention, your cooking better be good. “It introduces a whole new pressure to deliver,” Rosenstrach says. The perfection imperative is not dead. It’s just been precisely chopped and amiably bear-hugged down to a more manageable size.
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