The triumphs and failures of Ms. Oprah Winfrey

I remember snuggling into the big, ratty L-shaped couch in my childhood home with my mom, and by junior high, my girlfriends, and watching the patron saint of suburban living rooms: Oprah Winfrey. She didn’t just get celebrities to cry about their childhoods or make us laugh with her bestie antics with Gail. She also taught us about so many things that were otherwise forbidden topics among most families in Colorado Springs: incest, infidelity, eating disorders, mental illness, among so many others.

In this regard, losing O is, without a doubt, to lose a great bridge builder and teacher. As O, herself, said in her last show yesterday: “It is no coincidence that I always wanted to be a teacher. I ended up with the greatest classroom in the world.”

In many ways, we have lost a great, truly populist laboratory for learning and a rare instructor. Rebecca Traister wrote: “When we lose Oprah from daytime network TV, we lose a figure who has been bringing issues of race, gender, body image, power and class to the American people daily for 25 years. And I wish that that were more commonplace, but it just isn’t.”

Traister goes on to write, and rightly so, that television is still alarmingly white and male without any sign of diversifying. Losing Oprah is to lose, not just a legendary figure, but one of the few people, much less women, of color who are shaping the narratives and speaking out on mainstream television platforms today. But Traister is too smart to overstate the sophistication of the Oprah Show’s race analysis:

Which is not to say that Winfrey’s relationship to race and representation has been perfect. As with any individual, she has been unable to be all things that all people need her to be. Critics can jaw for another 25 years about how she did and did not serve the black community. What is indisputable is that Winfrey is a testament to what kind of an effect it has when people who are usually not offered a seat at the table finally gain a perch there.

I’m less concerned with whether she “served the black community”–a charge I always find overly simplistic–and more interested in the ways in which she consistently denied the systemic roots of racism, sexism, classism etc. To my mind, the most damaging thing Oprah ever did was steer clear of systemic analyses in favor of self-help narratives. Time and time again, those who suffered were positioned as “unlucky” rather than oppressed. They were pitied rather than truly empowered. They became profiles in charity rather than profiles in continuing injustice in this too often self-congratulatory country. Even in her last show, rather than zeroing in on the ways in which the world, itself, is broken and needs healing, she urged her readers to focus on their individual failings and successes: “Nobody but you is responsible for your life.”

Whether it is in her magazine, on her show, or no doubt–on her new network–people are armed with cognitive behavioral interventions (thoughts become words, words become actions), new agey platitudes (power of attraction), and the ever-ready answer of consuming more things (for a great diatribe on O’s consumerism, see Jenn Pozner). Listen, sometimes these things can get people through the day. Trust me, I’ve been there–when all I want to hear is some inspiring quotation from Martha Beck (not Burk, mind you) to make me feel like my lack of control is actually a source of creativity and a sign of good things to come. But the truth is that Oprah has always had, and will continue to have, a massive platform from which she has the power to couple these more personal messages with political action. She could teach suburban teenagers, like I once was, about incest and toxic masculinity, or bipolar disorder and deferential treatment in private versus public mental health hospitals. She urged us all to live our best lives, but rarely challenged us to truly transform our unjust society.

She could and she didn’t, and my guess is that she won’t. And that’s why I love her for what she has done (and again, she has done SO MUCH) and I challenge her to do more now that she’s evolving. What has she got to lose?

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