When I was a teenage girl, Joan Didion functioned on me as something of a narcotic. As a woman who isn’t sorry she’s smarter than you, Didion’s writing rejected the qualities so many young women are subtly but definitely encouraged in: pleasantry, both-sides-ism, and the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil milquetoastry of political wives and team players. Didion’s voice is famously remote and unsparing as it describes an America of menacing freeways, plasticine politicians, and casual violence. She doesn’t try to sound dumber, or happier, or kinder than she is. The accidental feminism of her prose is that she doesn’t care if it makes you like her, and so you do.
Didion’s contribution to feminism seems like such a tertiary byproduct of her talent that reading the final essay in her new collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, served as something of a shock. Like each essay in the book, “Everywoman.com” has previously been published. It is an overtly feminist manifesto in support of Martha Stewart originally published by The New Yorker in 2000, in which Didion writes both as oracle and advocate—presaging the female founders of the 2010s who were cheered and jeered just like Martha, while explicitly calling her detractors out for misogyny. Or: “Misogynistic in a cartoon way,” she says. “Oddly uncomfortable, a little too intent on marginalizing a rather considerable number of women by making light of their situations and their aspirations.”
Reading Didion’s essay now, it’s easy to connect the pseudo-housewife mogul of the early aughts and the athleisure, lip kit, and jade egg moguls of today; to read Martha as simply the prototypical #girlboss. The term #girlboss was popularized by Sophia Amoruso (sweatshop-priced, Insta-ready, Cali-Goth Nasty Gal clothing mogul) in 2014 to self-describe women capable of wielding corporate power. It is now used to self-describe typically millennial, typically white, typically thin, and typically rich women capable of doing anything at all.
But while today’s #girlbii might claim the mantle for doing everything from taking their companies public to taking out their literal trash, Stewart’s trailblazing power was real. Like her successors, the classically female constituent parts of her empire – cookie tins, carpet cleaner – were simply Trojan horses she used to best the vast majority of men. “This is a billion-dollar company,” Didion marveled. “The only real product of which is Martha Stewart herself.”
And then, the music stopped. In 2004, Stewart was convicted of insider trading on the stock sale of a now defunct biopharma company called ImClone, and went to jail. Her company’s valuation more than halved. “The perils of totally identifying a brand with a single living and therefore vulnerable human,” as Didion warned then, have been proven time and again, most notably in the summer of 2020, when a raft of telegenic women —including the Wing’s Audrey Gelman and Refinery29 editor Christine Barberich—“resigned” from their companies over accusations of workplace toxicity and racism.
The commodification of an individual may be perilous – as much to her soul as to her company’s stock price – but it’s actually something of an upgrade for women. For most of history, a woman’s most reliable asset has been her sexuality, which she could use to become a wife, or a movie star, or a prostitute, depending on her circumstances. The promise of corporate feminism is the alternative asset of a “self”—an amorphous, aspirational, photoshopped hunk of equity formed from sinew and bone. Women can make billions now, so long as her very soul is never an iota less than aspirational. It is an unsustainable standard to which men are not held. Witness Mark Zuckerberg—Facebook will clearly only be pried from his cold, dead hands, because Facebook’s product never had to be him.
Like Didion was in 2000, we remain obsessed with women who try to make themselves by selling themselves in this new, aggressively empowered paradigm. Female founders have become celebrities, with millions of followers and paparazzi waiting to capture their stumbles. “There remains,” Didion writes, “both in the bond [Stewart] makes and in the outrage she provokes, something unaddressed, something pitched, like a dog whistle.” Has the fever abated? Just ask Kim Kardashian West or Gwyneth Paltrow.
Yes, the received wisdom is that we still love to hate women so famously aspirational they could monetize their spit. But I suspect something more primal is at work. Something closer to longing. Because the truly enviable thing about women like Paltrow and Stewart is neither their fame nor fortune, but their self-selected immunity from caring whether you like them. They are the “unlikeable” heroines of fiction and television, but real—unrepentant Olivia Popes and Girl(s) on the Train.
None of this is to excuse IRL insider trading or workplace toxicity, far less any dismantling of misogyny by perpetuating racism. It is rather to isolate the variable that breeds our obsession. Women are encouraged to cultivate personalities-by-committee—to be inspiring while still seeming, however falsely, relatable, while also under no circumstances becoming threatening to men. The freedom to break from these nullifying, stupefying norms is itself a privilege, but one so many don’t take. And so, the outrage, as other women live out our fantasies of unmediated selves.
It’s unsurprising a society rife with rape apologists and slut shamers and dismissive doctors and double standards isn’t exactly teeming with unmediated women. “The dreams and the fears into which Martha Stewart taps are not of ‘feminine’ domesticity but of female power,” Didion writes, while tapping into that power herself—speaking up, in the permanence of ink, on the subject of some controversy.