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?

Join the Conversation

  • 43t9 fisl

    Oprah serves minorities in the same was Obama serves minorities — which is to say, not at all. In fact, they’re active agents of racism and sexism, in that they’ve been tapped by white power brokers to create an illusion of equality and opportunity. Obama has been called a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs. If that’s true, Oprah is a black mascot of media conglomerates and a purveyor of wanton consumption. And not only does she extol new age-y schlock, celebrity gossip, a cult of self (remember the 50th birthday party she threw herself?), (mostly) mediocre literature, commercials poorly disguised as boutique activism, but she has spawned imitators like Tyra Banks who don’t even bother with a noble pretense — they just jump straight into Maury-esque shock and exploitation. This isn’t even to mention the horror industry of pop medicine she has enabled, with frauds like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, who focus on all things lurid, strange, and sexy, anything profitable, of which genuinely helping people isn’t.

    Anybody who hoards money like Oprah is no advocate. You don’t sit on $800 million without stomping on a huge number of throats, mainly those of the poor and vulnerable. She is allowed such a huge platform because she is no threat. To say “Nobody but you is responsible for your life” is a perfect sign off because one, it’s a cliche and she communicates in the worthless language of cliches, and two, it encourages others to internalize their own failures, to see Oprah and say — that could be me. That could be me but I’m too fat, I’m too stupid, I’m too lazy, and my perspective is all wrong. My life is in tatters not because I live in a brutal society that celebrates psychopathy, but because there is something wrong with me. I am a victim because I choose to be a victim. Which is an atrocious message to send to anybody, and perfectly in step with what she is all about and what capitalism and America is all about. Angela Davis she isn’t.

  • Casimir

    She’s also helped launch the careers of some of the most dangerous charlatans and purveyors of new-age woo in pop culture: Rhonda Byrne (of The Secret) and Dr. Oz. Their continued efforts to position completely untenable “theories” as being on par with empirical scientific theories is simply indefensible, and does much to poison and diminish scientific literacy in this culture.

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      In addition to “The Secret” not being valid scientifically, it’s a PRIME example of what I was talking about regarding the “cold heartedness” at the core of a lot of this stuff. If you read it, she blames victims of everything from uncontrollable natural disasters to oppressive governmental regimes for bringing this on themselves with their negative thoughts and worries. Why is this even popular?!

      There’s also a whole passage about how if you don’t want to gain weight you must shun all fat people from your life, and not even so much as look at them if you see them walking up the street. She literally says to look away. It’s both absurd and mean-spirited.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I suppose, as you pointed out, Oprah has done a number of charitable things and has brought to light a lot of issues, mentioned in this post, that were seldom talked about in mainstream society. However, I am in general a critic of the sort of new-age “positive” thinking pop psychology approach she espouses. The sad truth is that a lot of that stuff is soft, comforting and good sounding, but on closer examination can be very cold-hearted. “Nobody but you is responsible for your life” sounds empowering, but it’s underbelly is that it’s also victim-blaming, and ignores the fact that we don’t exist in a vacuum but in a society where not everyone starts out on equal ground to begin with, but furthermore (without trying to sound overly paranoid) there are individuals who may have a vested interest in keeping it that way for any number of reasons.

    I also gotta say, my mother got me a subscription to O magazine (I’m not sure why, since I never asked for one, or even talked about Oprah at all, but ok.) I was flipping through it trying to decide whether to make a collage or a situationist type defacement of some of the pages and pull-quotes, and I have to say, I noticed a helluva a lot of ads for anti-psychotic medications. And maybe I’m biased because they were all ones I’ve decided I hate, but I was bothered that the ads were worded like they were selling feel-good pills rather than what those kinds are REALLY used to treat. Anti-depressants and anti-psychotics are not the same thing, so it was really weirding me out and I don’t understand.

    I guess in light of that, I should go with situationist defacement.

  • Robert Johnston

    There is no amount of good that Oprah could ever do that would make up for her pushing Jenny McCarthy and her antivax hysteria. Oprah is responsible for killing a whole lot of children, and that’s always going to be unforgivable.

  • Amanda

    I do think “O” magazine is a whole different animal, but I have conflicted feelings about it that are similar to yours about Oprah’s show. I picked up an issue of the magazine when I was bored at the hair salon and actually found it much more substantial than most women’s magazines. I was most impressed when Oprah did a book lover’s issue of the magazine not long ago and ended up subscribing. There are so few book reviews in women’s magazines! And while many of the books Oprah promotes are overrated (in my opinion), I think many of them are pretty good. I also love that the magazine interviews a different celebrity each month about the books that have made a difference to him/her.

    I’ve also been impressed with the quality of some of the articles in the magazine. There was a pretty in-depth piece on the BP oil spill after the fact, and there was a profile on Lisa Jackson, head of the DEP, this month.
    But it does seem like a huge chunk of the magazine is dedicated to promoting all things Oprah. If I’m not mistaken, she’s been on every single cover. There’s always a generic take-away from her on the last page and a page of her “favorite things” that month, with price tags and order info.
    Plus Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz have their own page or column, which is annoying. On the other hand, Suze Orman gets her own column, and she often has great financial advice for women. There’s also usually some great words of advice from Donna Brazile.
    Another positive impact of the magazine is that it features more women of color than other women’s magazines (at least from my perspective; I haven’t done an actual study, and have no data to back this up, it’s just something I’ve noticed.) When there’s an article on makeup or hair care, it doesn’t feaure a bunch of photos of white women with blond, stick-straight hair.
    So I guess my opinion is that it’s better than most women’s magazines, but could improve- a lot. And that’s pretty much the way I feel about Oprah in general. She may get some issues out there that normally wouldn’t be discussed and she may help lots of people, but at the same time I think she could do a lot more of it wasn’t OPRAH OPRAH OPRAH all the time.