The Trouble With Oprah


We’ve already established that Kitty Kelley has nothing new to say about Oprah. But a reviewer of her book does! Specifically, about Oprah’s creation of the depoliticized, internally-reliant self.

Writing in Slate, Stephen Metcalf sees Oprah’s fateful moment as the time in the 80s she beat Phil Donahue in the talk show race. “Why did a black woman with a hard-bitten back story triumph in the ’80s when an earnest New Feminine Man with grad-seminar airs did not? What social need was served?” He argues it’s because while Donahue was earnestly interviewing Ralph Nader over and over again, Oprah had figured out what women really want. And that was to find salvation in themselves in the face of a society that had failed them. Oprah learned this from her own biography:

From an early age, along the way to pleasing white audiences who wanted the uplift without the guilt, Winfrey learned to make her blackness both integral and incidental to who she was-quite a deft maneuver. “I grew up a little Negro child who felt so unloved and so isolated,” said Winfrey. “The emotion I felt most as a child was loneliness.” This is classic Winfrey. Racism is invoked, if as a picturesque antique (“little Negro child”), only to be abstracted into an emotion, an affect. (Or worse, a self-help bromide: “We got it all wrong,” she has assured us. “For years we’ve talked about the physicality of slavery-who did what and who invented that. But the real legacy lies in the strength and courage to survive.”) The Oprah Winfrey Show repurposes everything-up to and including the Holocaust-as an individual struggle, the most proper response to which is the engagement of an internal coping mechanism, and finally, self-discipline that, if executed properly, culminates in personal triumph.

And this, in fact, is what Oprah offers all of her acolytes: the promise of personal triumph through looking within, not without. Metcalf argues that Oprah took a particular self-reliance that black women have needed to adopt in the face of systemic oppression — he cites literature like The Color Purple and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings — and made it into a purely self-directed project.

“The genius of Winfrey was to take this, strip it of its historical specificity, recast it and standardize it, and offer it up as a template for mass self-understanding… The women in Oprah’s audience are not addressed as mothers, wives, citizens, employees, or (god forbid) activists. They are addressed as selves.

And this was well-timed. Metcalf argues the breakdown of “the conjugal family” in both black and white communities (the white one being more recent, he says) primed women to accept this message in the absence of something more systemic. I’m not convinced; while unstable social roles matter, there are plenty of other reasons why one would lose faith in anything but one’s inner strength. Being promised social progress and still facing entrenched discrimination and structural roadblocks, to name a big one. The failure of institutions — the government, employers, the church, name yours. But in any case, Metcalf says,

Winfrey had a readymade language. a survivor’s language of ennoblement through adversity in which the self is a final asylum in a world where nothing else can be trusted. Into that final asylum Winfrey chaperoned a generation of American women, organizing the self’s power-to confess, first; then to industriously introspect; then possibly, to improve; but most of all, to never to exit itself.

Well, yes, but let’s be precise here. There is one thing that can be trusted in this world he describes, and that’s Oprah herself. Every day at 4pm, once a month in a magazine, and soon to be 24 hours a day on cable.

The Secret Of Oprah’s Success [Slate]

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