The Cult of Oprah


This week saw the end of an era as Oprah Winfrey’s show aired its final episodes. As Oprah finally retires her soft-focus lens for the last time, around the world, devoted Oprah-ites will have to figure out on their own what books to read, what products to buy, and how to live their own best lives as we enter a new leaderless era of confusion and uncertainty. Those who love her, those who hate her, and those who stood off to the side confused by the whole thing will have to find someone new to follow, to scorn, or to side-eye. No matter what your opinion of The Oprah Machine, her influence is undeniable.

An op-ed in The New York Times argues that Oprah’s power and influence is not only undeniable, it’s downright religious, and that her fans follow her because she presents herself as a spiritual leader. This often ends up harming, rather than helping devotees.

While respecting Ms. Winfrey’s use of her Christian heritage, Dr. Illouz ultimately concluded that the talk-show host might be something of a false prophet. That is because, she said, Ms. Winfrey and her cadre of self-help experts treated suffering as something beneficial. Ms. Winfrey turned the black church’s ethos of self-reliance in the face of suffering into an exaltation of suffering itself.

Of course Oprah Winfrey is going to emphasize suffering as a way to become stronger; Oprah’s own story is fraught with suffering and it’s a natural psychological response to rationalize past trauma by claiming you ended up better off for it. Oprah may not be correct in assuming that her history of poverty and victimization led to her being better off, but one can hardly blame her for wanting to think that. It’s not her fault if her fans interpret her message incorrectly, or from her story of suffering and redemption glean that morality is accessible only to those who suffer.

The piece further argues that Oprah, religious leader, has employed others to lead her followers astray on more than one occasion.

In her earnest spiritual seeking, Ms. Winfrey gave platforms to some rather questionable types. She hosted the self-help author Louise Hay, who once said Holocaust victims may have been paying for sins in a previous life. She championed the “medical intuitive” Caroline Myss, who claims emotional distress causes cancer. She helped launch Rhonda Byrne, creator of the DVD and book “The Secret,” who teaches that just thinking about wealth can make you rich. She invited the “psychic medium” John Edward to help mourners in her audience talk to their dead relatives.

I was never a particularly big fan of Oprah because when her show airs, I’m usually at work and when I was young enough to be home from school when her show was on, I spent my time on other pursuits, like watching Wishbone and Animaniacs until I was way too old to be watching children’s shows about a dog who dresses up like characters from classic literature or three musically inclined cartoon characters who escaped from the Warner Brothers vault. I’ve also never bought into the whole soft focus Fill Your Soul With Positivity approach to solving problems; I was more of the Midwestern “just ignore it until it goes away, and if it doesn’t go away, make jokes about it” school of thought. Different strokes, different folks. Just because Oprah’s show wasn’t important to me doesn’t mean that it wasn’t very important to other people, and far be it from me to condemn a doctrine that helped others change their lives for the better, or that brings people comfort.

If what the NYT piece claims is true and Oprah fans the world over are actually subscribing to an Oprahdoxy type religion at their own expense, we’re lucky that she’s mostly chosen to use her powers for good or for zero-sum endeavors. Even though she unleashed Dr. Phil onto the masses, at least she never told her viewers that gingers needed to be banished to the sewers and that puppy blood makes an excellent anti-aging serum. On one hand, she made a bunch of people read Anna Karenina, but at least she didn’t start a Lil’ Roarke Ayn Rand Kidz’ Club.

The Church of Oprah Winfrey and the Theology of Suffering

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