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  • Feminism, Postfeminism, Martha, Martha, and Nigella
  • Charlotte Brunsdon (bio)

Before Martha Stewart was sent to prison, she was fascinating—and rich and famous—for her perfect domesticity.1 Making cache-pots from pumpkins for Thanksgiving, sewing button holes into linen napkins, turning staircase balusters into candlesticks, growing and drying herbs, and laying dinner-party tables with individual place cards drawn from the clip art on the Martha Web site, Stewart—cool, blonde, poised, and efficient—offered a vision of a light, bright, spacious [End Page 110] home where there was a place for everything and everything was in its place. Martha's lovely life, in which the homemaker could concentrate on creative and imaginative domestic and garden tasks, while still being an efficient housekeeper, was on display for her many fans through two main platforms: her syndicated television show, Martha Stewart Living, and her magazine of the same name.2

Martha Stewart's greatest success came during the 1990s, a period in Britain also marked by the rise of "lifestyle" programming on the country's four main television channels.3 Suddenly, there were cooking and gardening shows on television nearly every evening. While the United States had Martha Stewart, Britain had Delia Smith, the Two Fat Ladies, and Nigella Lawson, as well as design and home-makeover shows such as Home Front and Changing Rooms. Many of these programs were fronted by women, and I became intrigued by the relationship between this resurgence in the domestic on television and feminism. Where is feminism on television? What relationship is there between being told what to do in your house and kitchen by these women and feminism? Is this postfeminism, when women on television are just so very muchmore authoritative about what they have always been assumed to have known best?

To explore these questions, I want to start by discussing another Martha, the artist Martha Rosler, who in 1975 made a short videotape called The Semiotics of the Kitchen.4 This was the period in which semiotics and structuralism were the height of intellectual fashion and the science of signs was seen as a way of proving the veracity of radical readings of film and popular cultural texts.

The Semiotics of the Kitchen uses the format of a child's alphabet primer to explore the kitchen. Rosler, in medium shot, stands behind a table in front of her stove and refrigerator—the classic TV cooking-show set-up. "A is for apron," she announces, as she struggles into one of those aprons that needs to be buttoned behind your head. "B is bowl," she says, slamming one down on the table, "blender, and broiler. C is for cup"—fairly innocuous—"can opener"—still functional—"cleaver"—a little more threatening—and, finally, "chopper," which she wields with fury. As she proceeds through the alphabet, rendering eggbeaters, forks, hamburger presses, and rolling pins as weapons, it becomes clear, as she finishes in a Zorro gesture with raised knives, that the semiotics of the kitchen signify containment, fury, aggression, resentment, and potential revenge. The semiotics of the kitchen has nothing to do with cooking.

This is a classic second-wave feminist text both in its anger and in Rosler's "au naturel" self-presentation, with her unmade-up face and long hair hanging loose down her shoulders. The video is also very funny, as each piece of equipment is rendered expressive and sometimes threatening. Unusually for a second-wave text, the feminist is actually in the kitchen—however cross she might be.

While thinking about Martha and Martha, and what I was beginning to formulate as an essay about "the feminist in the kitchen," I was also teaching a course on avant-garde and independent film. We looked at two rather difficult 1979 feminist films, Light Reading (Lis Rhodes) and Thriller (Sally Potter). These are significant films that come from the period of "high theoretical" feminist filmmaking, when there was a great deal of concern about the politics of showing a woman's [End Page 111] body on screen. This was also the era when one of the most important debates was over whether a woman could be the subject of her own story...


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