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Oprah – the secular messiah

This is the unedited version of my column that appears in the Viewpoint section of the Courier Mail, 25 May 2011.

While the Rapture may not have occurred, this week does mark the end of an era – the Oprah one.

The first of three final shows screens tonight, bringing to a close 25 remarkable years for Oprah as the host of the most beloved of daytime talk shows.

Not that Oprah is the shy, retiring type. She’s investing her famous energy in her OWN network and various other commercial arms that mix business and philanthropy.

Whether you love or loathe Oprah and/or what she represents, it’s hard not be impressed by the trails she’s blazed, the boundaries she’s challenged and the changes she’s wrought upon a genre once known as ‘homemaker entertainment’ that featured ‘nuts and sluts’ and the ‘freak of the week’.

Talk shows, which developed from talkback radio (and a mainly male audience), deliberately cultivated a female one during the 1970s. Breaking down the barriers between host, guests and audience, they were regarded as light and largely irrelevant ‘couch’ entertainment.

Pioneered by Phil Donahue in 1967, by the 80s, there were over 20 – the most popular being The Oprah Winfrey Show (1987), Geraldo, and tabloid shows fronted by Jenny Jones, Rikki Lake and Jerry Springer.

Relying on ordinary people to perform a ‘confessional’ before the camera, exposing their (dirty) secrets and baring their souls to a mass audience, the genre quickly became reviled. American media commentator, Dr Vicki Abt describing appearing on the programs as akin to ‘defecating in public.’

In an essay on daytime talk shows, Laura Grindstaff likens them to pornography, because they expose ‘people’s private parts in public.’

Just when her popularity was soaring in the mid 1990s, Oprah turned her back on that kind of production and instead focused on ‘living your best life’ and attempted to ‘teach’ her growing audiences to ‘live with purpose.’

Not that this philosophy prevented her from picking up numerous celebrities, many of whom are now close friends. Nor did it hinder her from getting them to spill their secrets and share their passions, fears and dreams with audiences – the most infamous being Tom Cruise’s couch fiasco. Now that was a ‘money shot.’

Accumulating vast wealth along the way, Oprah has also made her endorsement a guarantee for printing money – for authors, manufacturers and upcoming talents. Already, publishers and retailers are wondering how they can possibly fill the void that her show will leave. Advertising spots in her final programs are said to be worth $1 million dollars.

Being the most prominent African American woman in the world, she’s worked hard to combat racism, homophobia and numerous prejudices – and this is to her credit. Yet, to hear her spoken of is to enter a universe where acolytes worship at the altar of O. Certainly, the responses and emotions she stirs are akin to religious fervour, Sarah Hampson of the Globe and Mail referring to her as a ‘secular messiah.’

Only, criticize Oprah and you’ll be the one crucified.

In her tell-all book on Oprah, Kitty Kelley claims that the TV host always saw herself as ‘an instrument of God.’

Ironically, while a woman of very humble beginnings, she’s exceeded the status of the celebrities she interviews and become a brand unto herself – a fact of which she’s very aware.

But, for all her good works and intentions and her ability to face down taboos, Oprah also embodies a great deal that’s problematic. Known for her generosity, what she gives away is often donated by businesses keen to use her name to promote their product.

Likewise, in her attempt to seem ‘ordinary’, there’s a sense in which she comes across as narcissistic and more focused on ‘me’ than ‘you.’

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-Sided, How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, says when she appeared on Oprah, it ‘…had a theme about women and poverty, and she made some statement about how really it’s all a matter of attitude. You can overcome anything. I was offended; horrified… It’s not bad to be optimistic … but it’s always a big mistake to delude yourself, to say as long as I think positively, the problems will go away.’

Others, like Hampson, feel that Oprah’s ‘common touch’ lies in the fact she’s as needy as her audiences. Ouch.

Perhaps food and travel personality, former chef, Anthony Bourdain best sums up Oprah’s contradictions. In an interview for the Not Quite Nigella blog this week, he says, ‘Don’t watch the show but I think how can you be against Oprah?…She’s made mistakes, sure I’ve seen them… Dr Phil, which we will all have to account for later. But on balance she’s on the side of angels.’

Maybe. I’ve no doubt the devil in us will be singing her praises for a while to come.


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