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Out of touch, much, Grande Dame Winfrey?

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

November 17th, 2007

I’ve written before about the conspicuous consumption, product placement and brand-worshipping spectacle that is the Oprah Winfrey Show’s annual “Oprah’s Favorite Things” episode, so I won’t do that again, at least not for now.

Right now, all I want to mention is that on today’s Oprah Winfrey Show, the Queen of All Media devoted her program’s vast resources (and called in some product-placement largess from GE, Loews and a couple of other major lifestyle brands) to provide a team of personal organizers, carpenters, designers and the like to renovate the gorgeous, huge yet pathologically cramped and cluttered home of a middle (or, to my eyes, upper middle) class family who had previously been living as hostages to a “hoarding addiction.”

Now, as someone who has never been accused of being excessively neat (that sound you’re hearing is my best friend laughing at my understatement), I want to be clear: that sneer you’re (rightly) reading into my tone is not at the idea that hoarding or disorganization can be serious impediments to comfort in one’s domicile. (Seriously… I’m not poking fun at Oprah’s hoarder guests. Any personal organizers want to donate pro-bono organizing assistance to WIMN’s home office should be in touch.)

No, my annoyance stems from the fact that with all the families in America cramming way too many people with way too many things into tiny apartments or overstuffed one and two family homes, for whom such aid could have been equally life-changing — families in which even a $500 trip to The Container Store or Ikea for a couple of rooms worth of storage bins, closet organizers, shelves and hangers would be prohibitive — the Oprah show bestowed hundreds of thousands of dollars of goods and services on a seemingly wealthy family already financially comfortable enough to own a 3,000-square-foot house large enough for eleven rooms (all newly decked out with high end furnishings and appliances, gratis) and a multi-car garage (now stocked anew with enough tools to make any mechanic drool).

As Oprah lectured on about the importance of individuals choosing not to buy so much unnecessary, extraneous stuff, I couldn’t help but think two things.

First, there is the somewhat obvious reality that if compulsive shopping and hoarding, especially outside of our means, is a disease, it is one the talk show host has helped to create. Really, Ms. “Favorite Things”? After a couple of decades of on-air and in-print shilling for clothing, cars, cosmetics, baby carriages, specialty brownies, and on and on, seemingly unto infinity, now you want people to not buy too many random whozits and whatzits they don’t need? Whoever would your advertisers hawk to if people who could afford to buy your sh*t, or, for that matter, people who can’t afford to but do anyway, followed your advice? (Not to worry, Oprah advertisers: her producers saw no inherent irony in promoting the repeat of your Grande Dame’s “Favorite Things” show during an episode about how people must, to be emotionally and physically comfortable in their environments, curb the influx of stuff and “stop shopping.” Rest assured, even on an episode about the evils of hording, Oprah The Institution — as opposed to Oprah the person — will never worship in Reverend Billy’s Church of Stop Shopping, will never participate in anything resembling Buy Nothing Day. Not even when her personal organizing expert guest advises her viewers to do just that.)

Second, though, was even more galling. As one of the millions of Americans who keep being pushed out of one neighborhood after another into successively smaller and smaller apartments due to rapidly rising rents in Gentrification, USA, can’t get sick because I don’t have health insurance, and who scrimp and save to keep up with basic luxuries such as, oh, say, food… I can’t think of much that would be more insulting, aggravating or irrelevant than Oprah’s from-on-high declarations about how the general public would be so much happier if we simply stopped behaving like her eleven-room-home-owning, conspicuously-consuming, money-wasting, space-squandering, overly-indulged suburbanites. Yes, it’s true that many Americans live beyond their means, wrack up ridiculous amounts of debt and try to plug emotional holes with products, coached by an increasingly commercial culture in which fewer and fewer public spaces (and fewer bits of media content) aren’t actively trying to sell us something at every given moment. But it’s ludicrous to imagine that the basic life circumstances, no less the problems, of Oprah’s pampered clutterbugs are accessible and relatable to the majority of the general TV public, not even most Oprah viewers, who have somewhat higher incomes than viewers of many other syndicated shows.

(Momentary aside: When I call Oprah’s guests “pampered” it’s not because I’m sitting in judgment of their lack of organizational skills or their self-described mental problems with addictive hoarding. I’m glad they got the help they needed and hope their joy at their sparklingly clean, beautifully appointed new home is deep and long-lasting. I call them pampered, though, because that seems a good definition for folks with the luxury of indulging an obsession that leads them to accrue literally tons of expensive items that they don’t need, don’t use, and sometimes don’t even open. In an economic downturn during which so many people are losing their homes in the subprime mortgage disaster, when the cost of rents and groceries and education and health insurance and gas and transportation are all skyrocketing, real wages are not keeping up, and even basic necessities are becoming more and more difficult to attain for more and more Americans, it is a luxury to shop excessively, all the time. And it’s only those who could afford to manifest the hoarding addiction in higher-end ways who were featured on Oprah today — as opposed to people who, say, stockpile decades’ worth of old newspapers or refuse to purge overflowing closets, drawers and cabinets of cheap, outdated clothing that hasn’t fit in decades, or other kinds of hoarding exhibited by workaday Joes.

So, why would Oprah award such an extreme windfall on already-wealthy people who could, if they really wanted to, undertake a transformative home improvement project on their own? And why wasn’t an alternate choice made to get organizing skills and redecorating help to people whose inability to tame their clutter is at least in part a result of not knowing how to function effectively within space constraints — say, two or more families crammed into a single-family townhome, or a single mom with three children trying to squeeze her personal belongings, all her kids’ stuff and a work area for a small-business start-up into a modest, two-bedroom apartment?

The answer becomes very clear when you keep in mind this truism: when Oprah does shows like these, they are not content, they’re commercials. Remember content? Those several-minute-long segments of information or entertainment periodically interrupted by advertising messages? Content as we knew it long ago, when a show about helping someone overcome an addiction might actually have been about helping someone with an addiction, is dead. What has replaced it are full length features for name-brand companies who pay through the nose to have their products, logos, mottos and services integrated into pre-existing scripted and unscripted entertainment — and who sometimes work with writers, producers and networks to craft, create and distribute programming entirely for the purpose of showcasing their corporate offerings. (For examples and evidence galore, see “Triumph of the Shill” — part I, “Product Placement Runs Amok in Movies About Product Placement Run Amok” and part II, “Reality TV Lets Marketers Write the Script,” my two-part series for Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture on product placement and commercialism corrupting media content.)

As an explanation of today’s Oprah show, the long and short of it is this: advertisers do not consider the modest dwellings of low-income, working-class or even middle-income viewers to be appropriate or beneficial staging sets for their couture furniture, expensive vanity renovation services, or even lower cost and useful home organizing systems more accessible to most viewers. Instead, advertisers want their products featured in aspirational environments: a mini-McMansion looks like a “hellhole,” according to Oprah’s expert organizer, but, add a sprinkling of benevolence from Lowes and GE and Broyhill, and… voila… stunning, magazine-ad living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms appear, as if by magic. Oh, and money. Lots of money, which you, dear viewer, are encouraged to spend as you aspire to transform your own fixer-upper into an island of Oprah-worthy bliss.

I wrote that series on product placement back in 2004. It’s only gotten worse since, as Anne Elizabeth Moore, fellow WIMN’s Voices blogger, has documented to such detailed and devastating effect in Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing and the Erosion of Integrity, out now from the New Press. Buy it from the independent bookstore Women & Children First — and remember to tell them WIMN sent you!

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