As part of the final season of her long-running show, Oprah Winfrey has flown 300 of her fans to Australia to tour the country and to film several episodes of the show. They touched down earlier this week and Oprah arrived yesterday. She seems thrilled to be there, and her guests are over the moon. Australians? Not so much. There’s been an awful lot of grousing from Australians, from complaints about the level of security Oprah will be given and the consequent cost to taxpayers, to criticism of the level of local media coverage being devoted to her visit.
But Nina Funnell, a young feminist who writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, cuts through the complaints to remind people why Oprah matters:
Thirty years ago, public media debates were still largely informed by the views of white, middle class, professional men who were in some position of recognised authority. When Oprah hit the scene 25 years ago, she did something considered rather radical: she prioritised the voices of lay individuals, recognising that personal experience is a form of expertise in its own right. This drastically rearranged who had access to public space and the sort of voices that could be heard and valued within that space.
Stories of domestic violence, sexual assault, addiction and mental illness that had previously been discussed in the public sphere only by recognised authorities were now being discussed openly by afflicted individuals who had once been consigned to the private sphere.
Funnell explains the significance of the genre Oprah created, a form of public confessional that allowed ordinary people to tell their own stories. She calls Oprah’s show a “symbolic and liberating platform,” and she’s certainly correct about the symbolic significance of the fact that one of the richest, most recognizable and most influential people in America today is a woman of color who’s also over the age of fifty. I’m not an Oprah fan, and I’m particularly unsettled by her approach to body image and weight loss. And while I don’t particularly enjoy her show, I have enormous respect for what she has achieved in using the show as a springboard to build and empire, and I understand why so many women view her as a role model.
That said, is it excessive for the City of Sydney to put a big “O” on the Harbour Bridge in honour of her visit? Yes. Yes, it is.