Last December, Jezebel ran a post about bloggers who seem to have perfect, immaculately stylish lives – the “Marthettes” of the blogging world. Sal at Already Pretty shared her thoughts on the subject, refuting the idea that these picture-perfect images tell the whole story of the blogger. While I don’t disagree with Sal’s main point, I don’t think the story ends there.
It’s true that blogging, like any other single source of documentation, is by nature curated and edited, and what we on the other side of the computer screen see as a cohesive image is by no means a complete picture. However, “Marthette” bloggers, and the response to them, can tell us a lot about a dominant construction of femininity, and that is a point I see absent from this discussion.
These “Martha Blogs” (I don’t see the point is using the term “Marthette” – “Martha” is already a feminine term, so adding the diminutive “ette” on the ends seems unnecessary and somewhat condescending) cultivate very tidy, effortlessly sophisticated, complete lifestyles illustrated by soft focus, perfectly lit photographs with nary a hair out of place. Prettiness is central: a pretty woman wearing pretty clothing in a pretty house (or pretty outdoor location) documented by lots of very pretty pictures, handfuls at a time. The bloggers thrift extensively, sew/knit/craft/decorate/cook, never breaking this cultivated image. A crude and generalized definition, perhaps, but you know the type.
On one level, there’s not anything wrong with being a Martha blogger. If that’s your thing, go for it. My goal isn’t to accuse or judge, but to rather think about how the popularity of these blogs and the positive and negative reactions they elicity fits into a narrative of what it means to be a (predominantly) Western woman.
Martha blogs, like many other blogs, often run on unpaid women’s labour, and talk about traditionally feminine-coded topics to a strongly female audience. On the surface, they strongly reinforce a very traditional model of femininity, generated with others’ enjoyment at the expensive of the woman and distinct definitions of what is “pretty.” Overwhelming prettiness is not, at first glance, subversive, but there’s a strong and potentially destructive tension at play. “Prettiness” is often read as implying shallowness and empty headed-ness, and while we know that’s a false correlation, many women are uncomfortable claiming the title as their own.
But while the surfaces of these blogs are achingly pretty and run parallel to an idea of traditional femininity, there is also content that runs perpendicular to those same ideas. Lots of Martha blogs are snappily written by smart, independent women, existing against the trope of traditional feminity. Many women have turned their blogs into businesses. Martha blogs document how women are finding ways to reject consumer culture, running strongly counter to modern feminity. And the fact that this corner of the internet is so overwhelmingly populated by women means that this is very much a conversation between women about how craft an image and a lifestyle of their own. It’s not “I made this home for my family” so much as it is “I made this for myself, and I will share it with my family and my readers.” This act alone re-centers traditional feminine identities, giving the idea of the woman dominance rather than subservience.
Part of that result, I think, is due to the reflexive nature of blogging itself. At heart, blogging is about the blogger, and no matter how she tries to focus on the external object, the act is by nature an extension of herself. It’s difficult to erase the self in blogging, and by taking to the blogs to talk about clothing and cooking and decorating, we are all still talking about ourselves. It’s easy to point out and poke fun at the self-involved nature of blogging, but men’s self-involved actions have been an accepted part of the public sphere for centuries. It’s time to do more acknowledging and validating of this female introspection, and reclaiming traditional feminity on your own terms is a way to work towards that.
However, how much can traditional femininity be reclaimed on your own terms? How much of the image you curate for public consumption is informed by cultural standard versus your own authenticity? How much of blogging (like any public image) is pure performance? And when that performance lines up tidily with a traditional gender role, can it still be subversive?
I think it can, but I think it takes conscious effort on the part of the blogger. It’s easy to edit out all the flaws and all the subversion and present those polished images that conform to a cultural standard of femininity that will, in general, be more accepted and understood than images which challenge the standard of femininity. The Martha blogs tread a fine line here, since they conform closely to a standard femininity, even if on closer inspection they are challenging traditional gender roles.
The subtitle of this post is “and what they tell us about modern femininity.” My discussion so far has expressed this idea in terms of traditional feminity, and that is not an oversight. I think the popularity of Martha blogs is the example of traditional femininity in a modern setting they present: the blogs have their (perfectly baked and iced) cake and eat it too. They have all the soft focus prettiness of traditional femininity, without all the enforced housewifery and extremely limited social, political and gender roles. Martha blogs show a model of femininity where nothing (and therefore no one) has to be rejected.
Publicly going against social norms is difficult, and as much progress as we’ve made in expanding women’s social roles in the past decades, we’re nowhere near gender parity in terms of defining “women’s work” and “men’s work.” The Martha blogs are aspirational, especially to a generation of women who, as Courtney Martin succinctly put it (I paraphrase) “were told ‘you can do anything’ and heard ‘you have to do everything.’” Martha blogs show women who have everything in order, including fulfilling careers, meaningful social lives, and an immaculate image of femininity, and I think their popularity (and the polarizing response that they sometimes get, especially from women who feel overwhelmed by the completeness of the image) says a lot about how closely modern Western femininity hews to traditional Western femininity.
Before I finish this off, I need to talk about how inaccessible the ideal image of the Martha blogs is to many women. The traditional image of femininity is very much a white, middle- to upper-class femininity, and it’s enduring popularity is alienating to all of women for whom this immaculate life is out of reach. Someone in the Jezebel thread mentioned how these women shop in thrift stores because they can, not because they have to, and that dramatically alters their relationship to that sphere and the others who inhabit it. It’s not that Martha bloggers uniformly have immense resources — lots of them are forthright about frugality and working within their means, and thrifting provides a way to acquires non-necessities without breaking the bank. But it’s unsurprising that the majority of Martha bloggers I’ve come across (and I spent an afternoon blogroll hopping to get a sense of this) are white and seemingly reasonably well off. Choosing to make goods takes time and resources that working class women often don’t have, and making goods for idle consumption (as opposed to sheer practicality) without pay is a solidly middle class luxury. It’s difficult to dovetail with an image of femininity when the cultural image of femininity excludes you, and working class women and women of colour are not usually a part of the Western image of traditional femininity so stuck in the 1950′s.
I’m hoping that blogging, and by extension the publication of images of individuals, continues to bend the perception of femininity. Martha blogs, and other blogs centred on traditionally feminine topics, walk a fine line between subversion and submission, and their continued existence and increasing popularity means that there’s lots of material to keep talking about. Blogs are snapshots of individuals, and are a great lens through which to analyze what it means to be a woman today.