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Does Oprah’s Finale Herald The Rapture?

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

May 25th, 2011

With the end of The Oprah Winfrey Show being treated on the level of cataclysm, I’m feeling deeply grateful. Not for her show, mind you, which has had its merits and detriments — but that my emotional strength comes from within, my psychological insights spring from an examined life, and my socio-cultural awareness is rooted in the writings of progressive feminist, anti-racist journalists, activists and thinkers. And I’m feeling deep sadness for the millions of people who seem to think the Oprah Show’s departure marks an end to their most significant source of community, insight and esteem. Our media need to provide more and better models for community engagement, education, inspiration, entertainment, and creativity.

Oprah shifted the TV landscape and American values along with it, in ways that have benefited our culture. But a talk show host should be able to leave syndication without viewers being left feeling deprived of inspiration and education (especially when that talk show host is a mogul who isn’t planning a quiet retirement but is moving on to run a network named after her, that conveniently reminds us that she OWNs us).

Oprah Winfrey has used her platform over the last twenty-five years to shine an important spotlight on the underexplored issues of child abuse, domestic violence, gender and race discrimination, AIDS, homophobia, and more. The nature of those televised discussions has had a profound and unmeasurable effect on her viewers’ lives. On-screen and off, she has championed literacy and philanthropy both domestically and abroad. She has hammered home how important education is, not only through her programming choices but through investing in scholarships for hundreds of men of color (as illustrated by one of the most touching moments in her farewell special).

Yet the near-beatification of Oprah leading up to and including her show’s final episodes has obscured the never-discussed flip side of her show’s shiny coin. On her finale today, she said that when she first got the gig she had no specific vision, just one simple premise: “I just wanted to do a good job and cause no harm.” Considering how often she has urged us to ask uncomfortable questions and how fervently she believes that wisdom comes from deep reflection, I’d like to honor Oprah’s legacy by asking us to examine how she has done on both of those levels. Clearly, she has done an exceptional job by any measurable standard. But has she caused no harm? Well… that’s where it gets tricky.

At the same time as she has done undeniable good, The Oprah Winfrey Show has also overemphasized weight loss and appearance as the arbiters of women’s worth, waging an emotionally devastating, 25-year campaign of fat-shaming that not even the “baby bump!” screaming tabloids can rival. Less analyzed but just as significant, she has consistently contributed to the corporatization of American culture in which people save less and spend more, on the endless stream of branded products she has shilled. And not just things, mind you, but Oprah’s Favorite where-you-can-buy-them-and-for-how-much Things, as the solution to joy… only to then deputize Suze Orman to yell at people for the supposed psychological failings at the heart of their financial troubles. Financial troubles that were in many cases exacerbated by the exact behavior motivated by the product placement advertisers who have turned countless episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show into their own private infomercials. Oprah did not cause the recession, nor did product placement advertisers — but both have undeniably hawked a vision of American life that placed immediate gratification and the pleasures of having nice things (high end decor, luxury vacations, pricey clothes) above saving money, and has elevated the act of consumption to a form of art, a form of therapy, and a handy stand-in for success, love, and joy.

Additionally, as I wrote in Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, when she ventured into the realm of reality television, Oprah’s Big Give positioned charity, not social change, as the key to solving poverty:

On Oprah’s Big Give, the talk show queen promised viewers we’d be inspired by the power of fundraising to change America. Participants were instructed to raise large sums of money (from companies like Target and celebs like Jamie Foxx) and then give it away however they thought would do the most good. Contestants bought groceries for random shoppers, passed out $2,000 worth of flowers to passersby on the street, and donated instruments to a community center serving kids with Down syndrome. These were all very nice things to do, and it was lovely to watch contestants brighten people’s days, pay off medical and mortgage bills, and give poor kids Christmas gifts. But by defining philanthropy so narrowly, the show reinforced the notion that what America needs is charity, not social change. Individual recipients benefited from the experience, but as Linda Diebel wrote in theToronto Star, “Nothing fundamentally changed. There was no revelation that decent education and health care are rights in a developed society, not privileges to be bestowed” by those of means. Oh, and the “twist” that so often accompanies reality shows? The “biggest giver” won a million bucks from Winfrey and ABC. Because giving isn’t the greatest reward after all—a big
fat check is…

Series that focus on charitable giving encourage some form of public service, and as such are far more positive than classically sensationalistic reality shows. However, there is danger in representing poverty, homelessness, and lack of access to education without any focus on infrastructure… Such problems can only be fixed through policy solutions. But corporate underwriters…benefit from the economic status quo, so reality TV teaches us that the world will be a better place if only more of us would give flowers to strangers.

Still, I admire Oprah Winfrey, and appreciate the many positive contributions The Oprah Winfrey Show has made to Americans’ understanding of everything from the prevention of child molestation to the need for social equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, to the crucial nature of access to literacy and education. But when we treat Oprah’s show as the closest American television comes to the divine, when we treat this woman as a televisual messiah, we ignore the seamy underbelly of her show and of our commercial media culture. And if The Oprah Show has taught us nothing else, it is that taboos exist to be broken, and dysfunction lives in the silences.

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