Appropriate the Stereotype: Cultural Appropriations and the Queer, Lesbian, and Gay Spectatorships of Madonna and Martha Stewart
Samantha C. Thrift

What do Madonna and Martha Stewart have in common? Outward appearances indicate that the two perform quite distinct femininities: Madonna relies upon woman-as-sexual-object (or slut/whore) stereotype to engender her success and Stewart dons the mantle of the Angel of the House to propagate a lifestyle founded on domestic fecundity. Without a doubt, Madonna has inspired a love/hate relationship with many of her audiences. While parents, neo-conservatives, and religious groups denounce Madonna as a corrupter of youth, certain feminist critics accuse her of performing solely for the male gaze: "there are problems with using the female body for feminist ends. Its pre-existing meanings, as sex object, as object of the male gaze, can always prevail and reappropriate the body, despite the intentions of the woman herself" (Wolff 121). As this viewpoint perseveres, she is simultaneously lauded as a questioning, subversive force for the feminist project. As Sonya Andermahr states, "[o]ne of the major achievements of her ten-year career isto have redefined female sexuality, within mainstream popular culture, as both power and pleasure for women" (29 emphasis original). Whether one articulates concerns for Madonna's 'antifeminism' or celebrates her ultimately empowering strategies for women, it is clear that much of the debate arises from the fact that, during the rise and pinnacle of her career, Madonna consistently used the politics of the female as her primary source of controversy and notoriety and site of transgression.

Meanwhile, the body of criticism inspired by Madonna’s cultural production opened avenues for feminist analysis of a controversial figure who has arrived more recently in contemporary popular culture: Martha Stewart. During a brief historical moment when female identity is dislocated from the home, Stewart’s cultural production unabashedly reasserts the link between domesticity and femininity, resulting in feminist critiques that “view Stewart’s prominence as indicative of an antifeminist backlash that seeks to keep women in their homes” (Gordon 1991; Talbot 1996 in Mason and Meyers 801). Alternatively, she may also be understood as an (unwitting) agent of patriarchal dissent, supportive of certain feminist aims and an unexpected icon for gay communities. Consider that Stewart’s television shows and magazines (for instance) endow the home and homemaking with a prestige and expertise heretofore denied them. Stepping out of the studio, Stewart, as a successful business woman, represents a version of femininity that refuses to be held hostage to the private/public, home/career binaries, which persist in some form or another, in patriarchal society.

The preceding has outlined the predominant feminist discourses that frame the cultural production of Madonna and Martha Stewart, by considering how their respective public personas impact, and are implicated within, long-standing gender hierarchies. Although the diversity within contemporary feminisms necessarily lead to multiple and often contradictory readings of the women, a fundamental kinship exists between them that is undeniable: Stewart and Madonna share a driving need for success in the capitalist marketplace and both make use of, and exceed, conventional paradigms of femininity in the process. What is more, this paper argues that the superficially antithetical paragons of femininity known as Madonna and Martha Stewart inhabit a theoretical locus where issues of appropriation, anti-heteronormativity, performative gender identities, and spectatorship converge. In order to articulate the theoretical ground of this shared intersection, a brief explanation of the relationships between a few critical concepts is required.

To begin, Annamarie Jagose’s (1996) nuanced discussion of queer theory provides useful definitional distinctions between the identity categories of ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ for this study. In a lengthy passage, Jagose articulates the shifting meanings of queer in relation to gay and lesbian identities:

queer is deployed to indicate a critical distance from the identity politics that underpin traditional notions of lesbian and gay community. In this sense, queer marks a suspension of identity as something fixed, coherent and naturalEschewing post-structuralist critiques of identity categories, queer functions here more as a fashionable than a theoretical term. It is used as a way of distinguishing old-style lesbians and gays from the newOr queer may be used to describe an open-ended constituency, whose shared characteristic is not identity itself but an anti-normative positioning with regard to sexuality. In this way, queer may exclude lesbians and gay men whose identification with community and identity marks a relatively recent legitimacy, but include all those whose sexual identifications are not considered normal or sanctioned. (98 emphasis added)

Within this analysis of Madonna and Martha Stewart, I refer to the final description of queer articulated in the above excerpt, in which queer represents a resistive force against normalized sex-based identities. It follows, then, that my use of 'gay' and 'lesbian' constitute specific and stable identity categories that rely on commonsensical, self-evident definitions (and, as such, are very much resistant to Butler-ian identity deconstruction).[1]

Next, the complexities of the developmental relationship between queer theory and feminism also require comment insofar as the following analysis of anti-heteronormative subjectivities is informed by an academic feminist theoretical tradition. This overlapped perspective is well described by Elizabeth Weed: "feminism and queer theory are most easily understood as two branches of the same family tree of knowledge and politics" (vii). However informed by feminism queer theory might be, though, their differences are significant; the most fundamental of which being the split made between sex and gender. Generally, queer theorists argue in favour of feminist analytical models (citing their usefulness in debunking gender hierarchies) and concur that gender and sex are closely interwoven areas of investigation (Rubin 1993; Sedgwick 1990). Nevertheless, gender-based theories remain inadequate to explain issues of sexuality. Gayle Rubin advances this position, stating that, "as issues become less those of gender and more those of sexuality, feminist analysis becomes misleading and often irrelevant. Feminist thought simply lacks angles of vision which can fully encompass the social organization of sexuality" (34). As such, this examination signifies an intersection of queer and feminist theoretical inquiries: Madonna's and Martha Stewart's performances of archetypical femininities are of critical importance to their respective appropriations of (and assimilations by) queer and/or gay and lesbian cultures/cultural practices, given the correlation between their highly performative femininities and the recognized importance of performance and identity within queer and gay or lesbian cultures.[2]

Last, theories of cultural appropriation address a multitude of issues, ranging from issues of authorship, trademarks, and copyrights to the boundaries on community identity, cultural practices specific to a particular group, and relationships of power that affect dominant and subordinate groups (Ziff and Rao 1997; Hall 1997). By focusing on the different patterns of appropriation between these cultural icons and their gay and lesbian audiences, this study engages with the latter group of issues. However, a few disclaimers must be articulated before continuing with the analysis. First, the notion of cultural appropriation assumes a degree of homogeneity and unity of the practices that serve to bind a community.[3] As a rule, I prefer to avoid basing an argument on totalizing assumptions that threaten essentialism; however, in this instance I refer to 'queer culture,' 'gay culture,' or 'lesbian culture' only insofar as they connote a particular community of shared practices (a theoretically necessary evil, if you will). An example may be drawn from Andermahr's description of Madonna's homonormative sensibilities:

Madonna borrows shamelessly from gay male and lesbian subcultural styles; dressing up in our clothes and replicating our constant self-reinvention. She saturates her work with homoeroticism, such as in her use of gay art and porn iconography in her stage shows, videos and her book of erotic fantasies, SEX, and in the latter's references to gay practices such as cruising and cottaging. (31 emphasis added)

Second, although the notion of cultural appropriation bears a rather negative, colonialist resonance for some, I posit that appropriation is not inherently harmful. In her studies of non-dominant groups' uses of mass media texts, Rosemary J. Coombe "engaged in a consideration of cultural agency and subaltern struggle in consumer society, developing a concept of 'cultural appropriation' as progressive cultural politics" (75). For Coombe, the practice of appropriation corresponds to "progressive, subversive forms of cultural politics on behalf of subordinated social groups" (75). This less negative take on cultural appropriation will be useful in my analysis of Martha Stewart's cultural production. The final point concerns the multi-directional aspect of cultural appropriation. Ziff and Rao comment that, "[a]lthough it is perceived primarily as a taking from a subordinate into a dominant culture, this is not the only type of cultural borrowing that occurs[C]ultural appropriation can be construed to have a complementary opposite: cultural assimilation" (5). The two-way directional flow of cultural appropriation as described by Ziff and Rao corresponds with the emergent patterns in the present study of appropriation in the work of Madonna and Martha Stewart: in the first case, Madonna borrows from gay and lesbian subcultures; in the second, Stewart is appropriated by (or assimilated into) gay viewerships.

To recapitulate, this study considers how Madonna's and Martha Stewart's performance of stereotypical femininities are engaged with by queer, gay, and lesbian audiences, who are likely to recognize the value of performed identities. Although the women seem to enact opposing versions of femininity, the two icons actually occupy common ground in their respective roles in the processes of cultural appropriation by gay, lesbian, and queer audiences. These audiences' identifications with Madonna and Stewart have generated an opportunity to evince and compare the ways in which these (basically) mainstream women cultivate (or have been cultivated by) an audience - and untapped market - that remains Othered by dominant media. First, an analysis of Madonna's performance of sexually objectified femininity and its incorporation of gay and lesbian cultures, sets the stage for a double-edged reading of her queer appropriations: how 'appropriate' are her appropriations? Then, an examination of Stewart's performance of domesticated femininity reveals that she is readily appropriated by queer cultures, who welcome her as an Other figure who reinvents rigidly defined social institutions, such as the 'family' and particular holiday occasions.

Madonna: Performing “Slut,” Appropriating Queer

One of two premises determines our understanding of Madonna's cultural production and its implications for female identity. These premises are created by our perception of Madonna's self-awareness. On the one hand, the singer exploits her sexual body and performs for the male gaze, seemingly nave to the oppressive implications of such representation. In this case, we see Madonna as the unwitting accomplice to patriarchal constructions of femininity: the "whore," the prostitute, the ultimate self-made sexual object. On the other hand, she is self-conscious and purposefully troublesome to established notions of femininity and gender. She appropriates different female identities to draw attention to them, to satirize them in full public view, and to drain them of their potency. Some critics consider her to be the "poster girl for postmodern feminism" (Tetzlaff).

However, the entertainer’s reception in the popular news media is not so favourable; Madonna’s cultural production cannot possibly support the feminist aim of women’s liberation from patriarchal domination because of her visual representation and lyrics. For instance, in 1991, a “Nightline” correspondent remarked that, “even Madonna’s ‘serious’ endeavors…were sexually provocative” (Henderson 109). In other words, she transgresses the boundaries of appropriate, playful sexuality. In turn, she is marked as an outsider, a female Other. Schulze, White, and Brown further explicate this characterization by describing the various categories of “low-Other-ness” into which Madonna fits. According to the authors, the term “low-Other” may be understood as “a symbolic and cultural construct, involving the production of a hierarchical order. Something is designated as base, gross, freakish, marginal, abject – pushed down into a ‘low’ place and pushed away as ‘Other’” (Schulze, et al. 16). The figure of the “prostitute” is included as a category of this construct. Many audiences view Madonna as a woman willing to sell her body for money and fame. Her lingerie-as-outerwear costuming and bump ’n’ grind dance style literally display sexuality. Slowly accumulating, these signs ultimately result in the perception of Madonna as “the lowest form of feminine”:

Madonna's most flagrant trespasses involve crossing the established boundaries of appropriate gender roles and sexuality drawn by patriarchy and heterosexism. But [most critics] resort to reducing Madonna to a figure they consider the lowest form of womanhood - the prostitute - perhaps in an effort to discourage other women from emulating her, a warning to women who might follow her lead. (Schulze, et al. 23)

Contemporary culture's identification of Madonna with sexual objectification and/or prostitution derives from her highly sexualized performances and representations. Conveniently forgetting her status as the "'most successful female solo pop performer ever'" (Schulze 15) (and the decidedly feminist implications of that status), anti-Madonna feminist rhetoric uses the simplistic patriarchal understanding of her as prostitute to flesh-out their own interpretation of her as offering a "false freedom, one that ignores 'the material praxis of people's lives, the normalizing power of cultural images, and the sadly continuing social realities of dominance and subordination'" (Schulze, et al. 29). While the video for "Like a Virgin" incorporates only a few potentially subversive images (eg. using the rosary as a necklace), the stage show presents audiences and critics with new, over-the-top images for discussion. Madonna, dressed in the now-famous Gaultier bustier, simulated masturbation center-stage. Two male dancers wear the infamous cone brassieres and try to "dance" their way into bed with the superstar. Madonna represents a sexual anomaly for heterosexual, patriarchal culture. By using a sexualized image to contrast with her name, for example, she problematizes the virgin/whore dichotomy. Obviously, her name invokes specific religious and social meanings for contemporary Western Christian culture. Madonna contrasts the connotations of purity and morality with her physical representation. In the early 1980's, her street-urchin (or "boy-toy") phase conflicted with prevailing standards of moral female identity. One aspect of this juxtaposition was "the deliberately exposed stomach and navel, displaying a body that was out of step with fashion - lush and Rubenesque, rather than slim" (Schulze et. al 24). Also, her none-too-religious dance moves and too-religious accessories enraged critics and fired up the popular imagination. In spite of harsh reviews that stopped just short of calling her "whore," she continued to grow in popularity. For men, she was an easy fantasy. For women, she was a source of empowerment through her transgressions of patriarchal rule.

The song “Papa Don’t Preach,” for example, articulates the story of a single, young, pregnant woman who chooses to keep her baby in spite of heavy opposition from her father. Linda Singer argues that the New Right uses the family unit as “a prophylactic social device” (85), in that the family bond protects against sexual indiscretions. Accordingly, women are thought to be safe within the structure of the family unit because they are protected by a dominant, powerful male figure, whether the father or husband. In “Papa Don’t Preach,” Madonna’s character bucks the head of the nuclear family and disrupts the founding structure of the patriarchy. Little wonder, then, that critics and parents alike denounced the song as promoting immoral values in young women and girls, such as consequence-free sex and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Schulze and others cite a “Madonna-hater,” who vehemently states that “‘[i]n my opinion…Madonna is one of the poorest yet most influential role models for our young people. Many young girls imitate and even worship her. She promotes sexual promiscuity, incest, and rebellion in society…’” (21-22). Of course, Madonna views promiscuity and social rebellion more positively, if not less threatening. She remarks that “you might feel intimidated by a woman who walked around in a pin-striped suit with her tits hanging out, grabbing her crotch - who absolutely doesn’t need you for anything. Except for one thing, but even then, you can leave after that” (Aletti 50). She challenges the assumed “naturalness” of the family unit, as well as the binary categories of female and male. Her identity politics are best disclosed by the image of the artful cone brassieres: the bra “cups” are inherently feminine, yet manifest the masculine signifier of the phallus – two in one, both erotic objects, both irrevocably part of each other. Madonna has come to symbolize “overt sexuality freed from the bonds of marriage or commitment to any single partner, a self-centered sensuality in which the partner actually becomes irrelevant” (Tetzlaff 249). In consequence, Madonna blurs the heterosexist categories of male and female, as well as the binary of virgin and whore.

The critical tangent of discussion regarding postmodernism also supports the view of Madonna as a useful feminist (and queer culture) icon. In “Metatextual Girl,” David Tetzlaff argues that Madonna’s true appeal lies in her “aura of power” (242), not her musical talent or sex appeal. Her power is derived from her vaunted ability to manipulate her own image and because she represents a woman’s successful shift from patriarchal subject to capitalist powerhouse. Her power complicates the easy categorization of Madonna as low-Other “prostitute”:

The true whore is defined by powerlessness, by being herself used and discarded. However much Madonna may grovel in front of the camera, she is anything but powerless; she is the user. She wins. Winning elevates seductiveness up from sluttiness. For men who are economically threatened by the changing status of women, once they catch the Madonna metatext, her come-ons are no longer turn-ons but signs of the guys' declining power. They, too, recognize that she is not a whore, that seductive posture no longer necessarily signifies availability beyond the proliferations of the image, no longer stands as a ratification of the old social order. (251)

Postmodernism fragments the old social order through its revisioning of establishments, of institutions, and of the modernist assumptions of "the way things are." Likewise, Madonna questions the ideological binaries of virgin/whore, powerless/powerful, and hetero-/homosexual. For instance, her career has been indelibly marked by accusations of inauthenticity, due to her chameleon image. She progressively transforms herself from adolescent street urchin in "Borderline;" to Marilyn Monroe look-alike in "Material Girl;" to muscular butch on the "Vogue" tour; to German dominatrix, Dita, in "Erotica;" and to an "earth mother" figure for "Ray of Light." While the media focuses on her different incarnations as a site of negativity, Madonna's appropriation of female identities may be interpreted as social commentary on the performance of female roles and expectations. In an interview with Aperture magazine, Madonna acknowledges that audience response greatly motivates her chameleon-ism:

M: from the dance world to the music world, my social strata was mostly gay men. That's who my audience was, that's who inspired me. For me, it freed me, because I could do whatever I wanted and be whatever I wanted.
V: Knowing that your audience is ready to be fucked with.
M: Totally. Ready to be fucked with and not intimidated by a strong female. So the problem arose when I left that world and went into the mainstream. Suddenly, there was judgment
V: But you certainly fed off the judgment.
M: Well, absolutely. (Aletti 50)

She performs an experiment on the fans, the public, and the media, eliciting and watching reactions all the way to the bank. Her desire to "fuck with" the audience applies to more than a new hairstyle or different make-up. She is driven by the desire to confuse her audience's gender and moral codes - a perspective that forces a different understanding of Madonna. However, that understanding also forces the self-realization that we are all part of her audience and that she has been "fucking with" us, too.

Many of Madonna's projects described earlier appropriate elements of gay culture, blur the edges of strict gender categories and the binary of hetero-/homosexuality, and culminate in a demonstration of queer performativity. In so doing, however, she is simultaneously theorized as selfishly and ambiguously inserting herself into a gay discourse to promote her popularity (or notoriety), and of bringing facets of queer aboveground, thus making herself a visible, positive, gay and lesbian icon (Andermahr 1994; Schwichtenberg 1992; Henderson 1992). Take, for instance, the controversial "Justify My Love" video, which was banned by many music video channels, including MTV who described it as "'not for us'" (Henderson 107). The station's "premier pop star, whose stylistic developments had arguably marked (and marketed) the evolution of music television itself" had put gay and lesbian culture in the limelight and this move engendered censoring (Henderson 107). The performers in her video represent a range of groups marginalized by dominant culture: they are androgynous, of assorted ethnicity, and of varying sexual preferences (including Tony Ward, a gay porn star, who in the video shares a steamy embrace with Madonna). The following passage describes the heady mix of representations:

[o]ther figures enter the scenetheyare androgynous, made up, and euphoricThey recline with MadonnaThe face of one enters the top of the frame, descending slowly to meet Madonna's supine body. Is it male or female? (Henderson 111)

Andermahr argues that this video unequivocally evidences Madonna's commitment to queer politics:

[t]hrough its use of androgyny and drag and its tantalizing sexual indeterminacy, 'Justify My Love' confounds the rigid gender definitions and clear-cut categories of sexual attraction codified in mainstream music culture. This record, whose lyrics signify a disregard to official sanctioning of sexual non-conformism becamea gay anthem (32)

The irony lies in the fact that the queer content is not actually put center-stage in this video; often, the "offensive scenes" are blurry background shots that serve as contextual devices for the true content of the video, which is (of course) Madonna as locus of gay and straight desire. A criticism frequently lobbed at Madonna, is that she herself does not adopt an ambiguously gendered look (Henderson 1992; Schwichtenberg 1992; Andermahr 1996). She "remains the essential female spectacle, made up and laced upto denote her unambiguous feminity [sic] and thus her appeal to heterosexual male fantasy" (Henderson 112). Madonna's look (that of the "pseudo-dyke") remains static and central to the video's scenes. She acts as the nervous, heterosexual viewer's tour guide, in this boundless sexual sideshow.

Madonna's "Open Your Heart" video perhaps best exemplifies the Material Girl's perspective on the inherently performative aspects of gender and sexual identities, as she presents herself as the headliner at a peep show. As she dances aerobically across the sterile stage, the camera captures tableau images of the voyeuristic peepers. Amid conventional representations of heterosexual men sitting solitary in their booths, two sailors intently watch the dancer from a booth, hand-in-hand and cheek-to-cheek. The uniformed sailors are a tongue-in-cheek reference to the hyper-virility of masculinist military discourses. Despite their gay subjectivities, the sailor men gaze unblinkingly at the female spectacle, sustaining heteronormative performance. Masculinity is interrogated as much as femininity in Madonna's strip club - her personal performance hall. Again, Madonna is the locus of the gay male gaze; she fascinates and possibly turns them on. The same may be said of lesbian desire. A woman in drag settles into her booth at the peep show. At the end of the show, she lights a cigarette in a symbolic gesture of post-coital satisfaction.

While Madonna has long claimed to be positively influenced by gay men (as cited earlier in Aletti), she does not articulate the same sense of gratitude to lesbian culture and subsequently maintains an ambiguous distance the ‘reality’ of her lesbian appropriations. In other words, she still flirts with lesbian imagery and lifestyle. Indeed, the woman in drag continues to tease Madonna’s audience – audiences wonder how tuned into lesbian sexuality Madonna remains. Over the course of her career, the debate persevered, especially when life seemed to imitate art. Her relationship with Sandra Bernhard, “Justify My Love,” Truth or Dare, and “Like a Prayer” offer small sexual “tidbits” that intimate a lesbian subjectivity for the ambitious blonde (Lentz 154). In interviews, Madonna refused to conform to a prescribed sexual hierarchy:

'[w]hether I'm gay or not is irrelevant. I'm perfectly willing to have people think that I did [fuck Bernhard]I don't care. If it makes people feel better to think that I slept with her then they can think it. And if it makes them feel safer to think that I didn't, then that's fine too.' (Lentz 153)

Her recent "Music" video has added fuel to this particular fire. Here, Madonna is the patron of the strip club (not the performer). Laughing and flirting with the female stripper, Madonna encourages the dancer's gyrations by stuffing money into her g-string. Is this more evidence of Madonna's lesbian sexuality? No more so than her earlier efforts. Most likely, the clip is a self-referential jab at her own gyrations performed unapologetically on stage, for her fans' cash and their accompanying screams for more. A promotional photograph for Truth or Dare further articulates her standpoint: her nude back and unzipped hot pants make room for the words "All Access" written across her skin (Lentz 154). She refuses to limit her representation to acceptable standards held by conventional society. When she creates a furor (either purposefully or accidentally), people will turn on, tune in, and shell out. For Madonna, being noticed is a crucial factor in her economic success. If lesbian audiences "look upon Madonna's performances as existing, not only (or even primarily) for straight male titillation, but also for the benefit of queer women" (Lentz 155), then so be it: Madonna benefits. She will not deny or confirm anything about her "real" sexual identity and continues to appropriate one of the most central tenets of queer culture.

A counterargument posited by some queer theorists regarding Madonna’s use of homoeroticism and fantasy articulates a less welcoming attitude toward the entertainer. Many queer audiences find “her deployment of fantasy […] a way of distancing herself from the stigma of the queer sexual practices she depicts…” (Lentz 157). For example, Madonna dismissed the lesbian photographs in SEX as sexual fantasies and unreal scenarios. Ultimately, the argument is made that Madonna has only appropriated homosexual and lesbian culture as a means to further her own notoriety. Furthermore, she cannot (and should not) be perceived as either a mouthpiece or an icon for that culture. Images she produces, such as the sailors and woman in drag in “Open Your Heart,” position Madonna as the focus of the gay and lesbian gaze – a queer beacon. Not surprisingly, then, a backlash against her has risen in segments of queer culture. A quotation first published in Henderson’s article fully articulates the frustrated yet insatiable relationship between Madonna and gay culture. Michael Mustro states that,

She shimmies into our fag imagination, spreads her legs for our dyke approbation, grabs us by the pudenda and makes us face things we didn't think it was possible to learn from pop music. After an hour's private session with her, we're aroused but wearing condoms, mad at her for ripping us off, but somehow thanking her for noticing us, legitimizing us, puling us by our bootstraps up out of hiding and into the public pleasuredome of scrutiny and successDeliriously, we imagine we're sitting with her in the arena - not cheering from the bleachers, but laughing alongside her onstage and sharing in the kudos from the throngs who recognize that we're a big part of her triumph - even if any real attempt to get near our lady of the poses would have a bouncer dragging us out by the neck as she sang "keep people together" with her usual sense of irony. (Henderson 122)

The truth of this statement lies in the irony Mustro makes evident: Madonna's success relies on masquerading as Others, not by championing them. In fact, Madonna's success is largely founded on her posing (or "voguing," I suppose) as another persona and, consequently, gay and/or lesbian life la Madonna seems a phase, which needs to be moved through. This perception logically leads to Henderson's question: "How grateful are lesbian and gay people supposed to be?" (123).

Martha: Performing "Happy Sterility," Appropriated Other

Without question, Martha Stewart's image responds to a public desire that is commonly theorized as a cultural nostalgia (Mason and Meyers 2001; Bentley 2001; Leavitt 2001). Idealized elements appropriated from a past era fill the paucity. The financial success derived from Martha's image attests to the strength of the public drive to fill this breach of aesthetic expression. The shares of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, "in the initial public offering, jumped to nearly $35.5 US. That gave the company a market value of $1.7 billion" (Cooperman). Economics aside, the success of Martha Stewart's image poses a threat to specific feminist discourse. Consider Julia Kristeva's notion of "women's time," for instance. In a patriarchy, linear time is masculinized and cyclical time is feminized (Kristeva 63-65). Given this understanding and knowing that Martha's success depends upon the standard domestic incarnation of womanhood, we may see women's production as circling back on itself, re-using typical, familiar stereotypes. As a result, the redundant feminized "cycle of time" is reinforced. There is no breaking of the cycle and no "forward" motion: we revisit and resurrect old standards of femininity, instead of developing new understandings. How does Martha maintain the "backward-looking" Angel of the House persona and thus fulfill a cultural void? First, Martha's show appeals to a pre-industrial era of domestic production. Second, the home becomes the locus of expertise. Third, domestic 'drudge work' is made beautiful. These characteristics, the final two of which will be briefly considered here, resurrect dominant, gendered spheres of influence by reasserting the importance of the home.

The home becomes a locus of domestic expertise under the direction of Martha Stewart, given her encyclopedia knowledge of the domestic arts. Moreover, she instructs her viewers in her knowledge. Any self-respecting homemaker would want to apprentice Martha's domestic wizardry. On the show, her voice-over narration informs the audience of trivia rooted in household tasks. Her modulated voice calmly details the history of tulip bulbs, antique bedposts, or the repair of a Tiffany stained-glass window. A segment called "ask Martha" features a letter written in to the host by a viewer (this is a variation on Martha's original column published in newspapers). A fourteen-year old girl wrote to Martha asking about the type of cloth used on silverware. Not only did Martha identify the cloth (cannized), she added that,

Martha: it is 100% cotton flannel treated with zincthe key ingredient is zinc acetate which is then converted into zinc carbonate in the treating process. These cloths will last about twenty yearsthey act as a natural barrier to keep the silver from tarnishing. It keeps sulfur, salts, and other caustic elements and gases in the air away from sterling or silver plate. (Martha Stewart Living [MSL] 01/00)

Her scientific knowledge seems incongruous with her household concerns. However, this knowledge serves her ability to perform as a better homemaker in two ways. First, she is aware of potential threats to the signifiers of her domestic wealth and success. In this case, the air may tarnish her precious tokens. Second, the science of the cannized cloths is indicative of the efficiency necessary to run a household well. Energy spent on preventative steps is well worthwhile. Using the cloths means less polishing later. A common criticism of the "Martha Stewart lifestyle" is the time and energy required to attain that lifestyle or, more specifically, the energy taken away from outward looking functions, such as a career, and given to the home. The "ask Martha" segment illustrates this point, as it continues with the cannized cloth feature. Martha confesses that,

Martha: I like to line my drawers with cannized cloth. Here you can see what we've donewe've created kind-of loose envelopes, they're really open on three sides and these pull out. You can see how we've made little handles, little tabs - out ofribbon. We've neatly hemmed the edges and this fits just perfectly in a drawer and then you can arrange your silverware just like thisthey never touch, they don't scratch, and they really do stay pretty tarnish free, I must say. But you can also buy things []. (MSL 01/00)

This type of advice requires only two investments from the viewers: money and time. The time necessary to sew the silverware envelope is consuming. Martha attests to that fact when she states that, "you can see what we've donewe've created loose envelopeswe've made little handleswe've neatly hemmed" [italics mine]. She cannot do this project alone, while maintaining the very lifestyle she promotes. Despite this admission, Martha's rhetoric continues to suggest that the home is the best project in which to invest your time. Why? Because the home is a site of virtue, of a simpler, more orderly age.

An important element of the Martha-phenomenon is the re-casting of domestic "drudgework," i.e. the chores, into pleasant activities. She "[takes] quotidian activities that have been tedious for centuries and transform[s] them into opportunities for excellence" (Lippert 28). The making of Martha's homemade oatmeal epitomizes the glamorization of drudgework. A bowl of oatmeal becomes a sensual experience by taking the familiar, wholesome breakfast and incorporating luxurious extras. What is "more comforting than a bowl of hot piping cereal, topped with spoons full of brown sugar and drizzled with honey and cream?" (MSL 01/00) Obviously, this oatmeal is not the same old stuff. Martha intersperses sumptuous details in her dialogue, so that the oatmeal seems attractive; for instance, the Irish unrolled oats, the homemade fragrant honey, the perfect bowland the unlikely assertion that Martha eats this every morning.

MARTHA: Try this kind of oatmeal - Irish oatmeal. This is the kind that I like to have every single morning [] You can see, if you look at it, that this is not rolled oats [] that's the difference between this and the Quaker oats. This is nice, crunchy, round oats, unrolled. And now to make the fragrant honey [] add four cinnamon sticks and four star anise [].
[Martha pours honey into a saucepan and simmers it with the spices] This honey right out of my beehivesyou can drizzle your oatmeal with a little bit of this fragrant honey []. Now this is how we serve our oatmeal in nice bowls like this...
[Spoons oatmeal into cream-coloured bowl with small pedestal base.] This footed bowl is so pretty for oatmeal. And, of course, have as much as you can consume. And drizzle with a little bit of fragrant honey. If you have some stewed fruit, you can have that on the side, or on top.
[Starts drizzling honey over the oatmeal] My bees were so good to me this year. They gave me such a thick and really delicious flower honey. It's so thick it won't even fall off the honey drizzler. Here's some raisons, golden raisons, apricots and prunes. What a delicious breakfast, with fresh-squeezed pink grapefruit juice and a cup of excellent smoky tea, you have a great luxury. All you need is someone to serve it to you. (MSL 01/00)

The visual image accompanying this description gives the viewer a chance to fully appreciate the sensuous beauty of the standard oatmeal breakfast. Prepared as a breakfast in bed for two, the bowls of oatmeal are surrounded by images of perfection. The breakfast includes all the necessary food groups, the dishes are a soothing beige tone, the grapefruit juice is a happy pink, and the gray newspaper rests gently on the back edge of the tray. As the host said, "we have a great luxury" here.

Whereas Madonna's cultural appropriation of queer, gay and lesbian audiences conforms to the typical pattern of borrowing (dominant borrowing from subordinate groups) and is readily identifiable in her cultural texts, Martha Stewart's engagement with queer, gay and lesbian audiences travels the inverse direction. Stewart and her products (which are easily conflated, as Wajda 2001 and Smith 2000 argue) are appropriated by gay culture, given her symbolic meaning as a popular figure of success, who finds personal happiness and wealth without suffering the trappings of traditional, nuclear life (i.e. without visual/textual references to either heterosexual partner or children). Indeed, she embodies a "happy sterility" (Spy 57).

Martha's look, her lifestyle, and the specifics of her job are rife with queer sensibilities and perfectly suited for an "oppositional reading".[4] To begin, Martha's physical representation has undergone a transformative process, akin to the shedding of a hyper-feminized skin.[5] Martha's early look articulates the quintessential, patriarchically constructed maternal figure, replete with long, blonde hair and lacy necklines. On the cover of Martha Stewart's Hors d'Oeuvres (1984), the demurely smiling hostess presents a basket of bounty to the reader. She wears a full-skirted dress with puffed sleeves and a sash. The high neckline is complimented with a double-strand of pearls and her exposed ear displays the single, matching pearl stud. The tall arrangement of flowers to her right signifies her chaste fecundity (an image that is highly reminiscent of religious iconography, wherein the lily, which is featured in the arrangement, symbolizes the moment of immaculate conception - a detail that Martha, with her incomparable knowledge of flora, would be aware of). The trinity of wineglasses and arrangement of silver platters emphasize both the rewards and quasi-religious perfection of Martha lifestyle circa 1984.

In stark contrast, the new Martha has short hair, unisex clothes, and enough tenacity to build a barnyard pen for her chickens (the infamous "Palais des Poulet"). Her appearance is markedly less conventionally feminine and communicates a butch sensibility. The post-make over years saw her achieve her greatest success: "'She got rid of the husband. She cut her hair. Now she's a self-complete man/woman on her estate'" (Lippert 31). Covers of recent Martha Stewart Living publications reflect this shift in representation. The Best of Martha Stewart Living: Holidays (1993) edition depicts a candid shot of Martha in front of a snow-topped, ivy-encased domicile. This shot shows a tougher Martha, wandering outside of the protective warmth of the home. She wears black pants, a utilitarian winter jacket and thick gloves. Her feet are bound in heavy-duty, two-toned snow boots, which are clearly intended for function, not fashion. Martha stands with calm self-assurance - feet planted, legs apart - and awkwardly clutching a bundle of sticks. At once, she is cute and capable, perhaps a little bit of femme to stabilize the butch-ness.

Dominant culture explains Martha's new appearance in unsurprising ways: Martha has sacrificed her femininity for masculinity. This explanation unthinkingly furthers the opposition between male and female. In a patriarchal framework, if she becomes less than the ideal woman, she must be attempting to integrate masculine qualities, to become more manly. The threat this transition poses is quelled by her business: the promulgation of domesticity. Martha altered her physical representation in accordance with a (culturally constructed) masculine sensibility, which in itself coincided with aggressive business strategy. A Martha Stewart Living editor draws a comparison between Martha and stereotypically masculine business acumen:

[t]o me, she is Arnold [Schwarzenegger] He said, 'I am going to make $1 million a movie. I am going to be a Hollywood star.' Meanwhile, he went to business school and bought up half of Santa Monica and did it. They're both so clear-minded. They were born with that passion. They came out of the womb focused. (Lippert 31)

However, queer audiences have located different reasons for Martha's appeal, such as the glamour of the lifestyle she promulgates. Writers have theorized that,

Gay men primarily adore Martha for the kitschy camp appeal of a woman who has made a multi-million dollar career out of a vaunted ability to distinguish between different floral patterns. But a small subsection of the gay community - and her female fans, for that matter - seem to have bought into the idea of Martha Stewart as an icon of happy sterility. (Spy 57)

"Buying into" Martha Stewart aptly describes their expressions of loyalty. Her image of over-the-top perfection has generated a loyal following of economically salient gay populations who wish to partake in Martha-brand lifestyle - dressing up, disguising, or recreating the displeasing bits of life that plague us.

How does her representation communicate a "happy sterility," though? Martha's personal life has attracted attention and approval from segments of her gay audience. She rejects the idea that one requires a husband (heterosexual coupling) or children to be productive and happy. This ideology is reflected in subtle aspects of her representation. She has her mother, Martha Sr., on the show only occasionally and her daughter's presence is extremely rare. On the holiday television specials aired in December, 1999 and 2000, her niece, Sophie, made crafts and chatted with "Aunt Martha," whose own daughter remained conspicuously absent. The sensational and mean spirited Oppenheimer biography on Stewart reinforces the image of the domestic diva as a woman oriented away from family, children, and femininity in general. For instance, wild speculation regarding her hysterectomy included a comment from one of Martha's cooks, who felt that, "'[s]he just didn't want to be a woman anymoreShe felt [a menstrual period] was an intrusion of nature, and so, when she had the operation, she felt she now had command over nature'" (Oppenheimer 252). Whatever the reason, the operation precluded Martha from bearing more children (fulfilling that maternal role once more) and, ironically enough, allowed her to continue in her quest to be known as a figure of domestic fecundity. As such, she gives permission to those women and men living alternative lifestyles - those who do not conform to the dominant idea(l) of how one "should" live. Martha succeeds in both business and at home sans husband and doting children. Queer audiences, who resist normalized identity categories, and gay and lesbian audiences, for whom the traditional notion of family itself must be reinvented, appreciate Martha's "alternative" lifestyle.

Clearly, the appeal Martha has for those living Other lives extends beyond her appearance and ability to fulfill the maternal function. Gay men have offered explanations for their interest in a white, upper class, heterosexual woman who seems to promote W.A.S.P.-ish values. Steven Overman (an assistant at Wired magazine) comments that "'[a]s a gay person, you are re-creating and reinventing institutions like marriage and family holidaysYou see through institutions, and tweak them, and co-opt them and use them for what you want. That's what Martha Stewart Living does'" (Lippert 32). As a marginalized group, gays and lesbians must reinvent holidays. However, more everyday things, such as the notion of "family" and "community," are also transformed for gay and lesbian people. Martha's focus on the home evokes a nostalgia for tradition and the familiar, the works in conjunction with a non-traditional lifestyle. Is Martha an unknowing kindred spirit of sorts? Early in her career, Martha illustrated her glossy books with photographs of crewmembers who filled in for her family and friends - furthering the rumors of estrangement from her family, yet highlighting a common experience for queer individuals who are shunned by family.

Moreover, Martha recreates her own family history to portray an enviable childhood. She uses homespun stories of her happy childhood to engage her audience. Citing Martha's blissful "Remembering" column, one author notes that, "[i]n Martha Stewart's Gardeningshe acknowledges her father 'for being my first teacher of gardening. His love of growing things was transferred to me through our gardening together. I will remember what he taught me forever'" (Oppenheimer 31). Yet in a separate interview, she remarks that, "[m]y father took me under his wing, and I learned everythinghe taught by 'I'll beat it into you'" (Kasindorf 24). This harsh reference never surfaces in her publications, since it would inarguably shatter her "tweaked" and "co-opted" childhood. Overall, a pleasant tinge shades her childhood "memories," evoking an illusory nostalgia. As Overman remarks, "[y]ou see through institutions, and tweak them, and co-opt them and use them for what you want," and Martha co-opted specific events of her life, to articulate a specific identity of calm happiness. When less than perfect events from Martha's "life" emerge, they are humourous and sympathetic; as a result, an implicit message suggests that the imperfect viewer may also strive for Martha-standards of perfection no matter the personal circumstances.


At the intersection of feminism and queer theory, there exists a shared interest in the performative aspects of identity categories. On first blush, Martha Stewart performs a highly domesticated version of femininity that poses little threat to the heteronormative standards of mainstream North American culture. However, as the preceding discussion evinced, when placed within the context of her commercial development, Stewart's made-over appearance engages a specific, butch femininity that may be considered queer (especially in its resistance to normalized depictions of domestic femininity). In addition, the domestic doyenne's efforts to 'tweak' her own life stories and "do" holidays in a way that reinvents tradition resonates with the life experiences of her queer audiences. Gay men, for instance, must necessarily reformulate the narrowly defined, socially constituted notions of 'family' and tradition. Moreover, compared with other queer populations, such as lesbian couples, gay men tend to have the financial means to access Martha Stewart lifestyle. Identifying with the reinvention of traditional notions of 'family,' the gay community can appropriate an unlikely figure who performs on television, what some must do in life. Clearly Stewart can be theorized through the queer paradigm and her desirability as a gay culture icon is quite comprehensible. Perhaps the next step, then, is to determine how successful the gay culture's appropriation of Martha Stewart has been through qualitative analysis of her viewerships.

Madonna's cultural appropriation of gay and lesbian culture remains a double-edged sword of sorts. She has brought subcultural practices into the mainstream, making them visible and acting as mediator between the heteronormative and the queer. Such 'advantageous' exposure, however, bestows a freakishness on the subordinate groups - they are the sideshows at which the dominant culture can gawk. In this reading, Madonna becomes invaluable; her relatively conventional representation of woman-as-sexual-object is much more stable and comforting than those Other sexual subjectivities she brings up from the underground. As an earlier interview made clear, Madonna's personal goals never included the raising of feminist consciousness, the championing of queer culture, or any other altruistic purpose. Instead, she simply wants to "rule the world." Madonna's form(s) of entertainment aided this end. However, in the late 1990's, Madonna had seemed to settle down. Now married with children, she seems self-reflective, somewhat repentant, and occupies a Magdalene-esque space in our pop culture consciousness. Once reviled as a type of prostitute, a social disease, and a generally "bad influence" all around, this performer now graces the cover of Good Housekeeping along side captions which read, "Blast Off The Last 10 LBS." and "Inside Katie Couric's Country Home" (04/00). How this transition will affect Madonna's gay and lesbian cultural appropriations in the future remains to be seen.


1 Jagose notes the inherent ambiguity in the term 'queer' as well as its opposition to normalized identities:

Clearly, there is no generally acceptable definition of queer; indeed, many of the common understandings of the term contradict each other irresolvably. Nevertheless, the inflection of queer that has proved most disruptive to received understandings of identity, community and politics is the one that problematises normative consolidations of sex, gender and sexuality - and that, consequently, is critical of versions of identity, community and politics that are believed to evolve 'naturally' from such consolidations. By refusing to crystallise in any specific form, queer maintains a relation of resistance to whatever constitutes the normal. (99)

Not only does 'queer' resist normalized identities of (either) female (or) male, it also denaturalizes and rejects the liberationist categories of 'gay' and 'lesbian' as falsely unified and even heterosexist. Jagose cites David Halperin, who elaborates this position:

Ultimately, I think, what the shift away from a liberation model of gay politics reflects is a deepened understanding of the discursive structures and representational systems that determine the production of sexual meanings, and that micromanage individual perceptions, in such a way as to maintain and reproduce the underpinnings of heterosexist privilege. (92)

Those speaking in defense of the utility of 'gay' and 'lesbian' focus on the sheer political necessity for unambiguous identity categories: 'Can feminist, gay, or lesbian subjects afford to dispense with the notion of unified, stable identities or must we begin to base our politics on something other than identity?' (Fuss in Jagose 93). On this exact point, 'queer' has been critiqued for its lack of specificity and totalizing tendencies, that is, what counts as queer and what does not? back

2 Judith Butler's key text, Gender Trouble, exemplifies how feminist and queer theories intersect at the point of performance and identity: "[a]lthough Gender Trouble is framed most prominently in terms of feminism, one of its most influential achievements is to specify how gender operates as a regulatory construct that privileges heterosexuality andhow the deconstruction of normative models of gender legitimates lesbian and gay subject-positions" (Jagose 83). back

3 Ziff and Rao remark that, "[j]ust as defining the parameters of a cultural group is difficult, so , too is establishing a theoretical basis for connecting a particular cultural practice to that group" (3). back

4 The practice of 'oppositional reading' may be understood as a subordinate group's interpretation of a dominant culture text. The interpretation opposes dominant readings of that text. For instance, Henderson relates an anecdote where a lesbian friend acknowledged that she could be aroused by "straight sex scenes in popular filmHer comment is a reminder that however gratifying even a glimpse of lesbian eroticism may be, lesbian viewers hardly need to await pop culture's nervous forays into homosexuality in order to produce their own erotic identifications" (Henderson 116). back

5 Analysis of Stewart's physical appearance - the corporeal manifestations of her femininity - signify a theoretical convergence of feminist and queer theories of representation (when the performance of gender connotes a shift in sexuality). For further reading, refer to em>The Good, The Bad and The Gorgeous: Popular Culture's Romance with Lesbianism, edited by Diane Hamer and Belinda Budge (1994). back

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