| Spring, 2012

Sizing Up Oprah

Oprah

Ray Beldner, Oprah 5.21.10

In May of 2011, Oprah aired the final episode of her talk show, ending a 25-year run. now that her show is done, Winfrey is not, of course, planning to retreat into a state of respectable semi-obscurity like an ex-president. What role she’ll end up assuming in her new cable network OWN (Oprah Winfrey network) is still uncertain, but it’s important to keep in mind that Oprah must worry about her own needs as well as ours. Fortunately, the two seem to go hand-in-hand. Oprah knows better than anyone how to turn her personal preoccupations into sustenance for her millions of fans, and if self-interest has served as the guiding principle of her career and outlook, it has also been the vehicle for a broader ethical project. The individualism succinctly captured by the term (and mandate) OWN might lead us to forget that the owner of this acronym embodies something akin to a collective movement—if it didn’t also remind us that we have all, in one way or another, made Oprah our own.

Oprah’s story, an improbably inspirational version of the American dream, is fairly well-known. The daughter of a single African-American teenager from Mississippi, a victim of incest, a mother at age fourteen to a baby that died in infancy, an acknowledged user of crack cocaine, Winfrey managed to rise above the difficult circumstances of her childhood to become a co-anchor of the local evening news in Cincinnati before she reached twenty. Merely competent as a reader of the news, Oprah discovered her true talent upon being demoted, as she saw it, to the morning talk show “People are Talking” on Baltimore’s WJZ, where she was encouraged to put her brash, uninhibited personality on display. Hired in 1983, at the age of 29, to host “A.M. Chicago”—subsequently renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show”—Oprah quickly surpassed Phil Donahue as the most popular talk show host first in Chicago and then in the United States. Competing for viewers with figures like Geraldo, Sally Jesse Raphael and Jerry Springer, Winfrey spent years showcasing the shockingly bad, tabloid-worthy behavior of ordinary Americans, before deciding to raise the tone of her show in the mid-1990s and shift focus to what she deemed more uplifting topics, including New Age spirituality, contemporary literature and celebrity interviews. Attracting anywhere from seven to fourteen million viewers daily, “Oprah” was the highest-rated talk show during most of its 25 years on air, earning its host $275 million annually by 2008. And the talk show was simply one project among many. Oprah used her production company Harpo to develop movies, television dramas, O Magazine and several lavishly funded charities—all of it bearing her inimitable signature, all of it a gargantuan form of self-expression.

Oprah sometimes characterizes herself as a messianic figure at the forefront of a grand historical movement, and yet the ethos she champions seems to eschew social activism in favor of private self-improvement. A distinctly modern phenomenon, this hazy but pervasive set of norms, precepts, narratives and values emphasizes the psychological, the private and the personal as the most important and meaningful forms of experience, making individual happiness—understood as a subjective or emotional state—the ultimate end of existence. While individuals in earlier historical eras tended to define themselves in terms of their vocation or their function within a larger community, now they tend to identity themselves with a private, unseen interior.

Though it seems to have become a part of our hard-wired common sense, what some critics have coined the “therapeutic” worldview is actually a relatively new phenomenon. Different cultural historians assign the roots of our current paradigm to different dates, some tracing its prehistory back to the romantics, others to the Renaissance, but when looking for a foil to the modern moment, an era serenely devoid of any trace of a therapeutic mindset, almost everyone points to ancient Greece. Compare, for instance, the ancient Greek preoccupation with “the good life” to Oprah’s philosophical mandate, “Live your Best Life®.” The has become your. The, in the Greek formulation, suggested the objective status of the good: the good was the same for everyone; virtue was not subject to personal definition. By contrast, Oprah’s your relativizes what is good to the individual, allowing each person to decide what is most important for him or herself. It suggests a redefinition of goodness as a subjective condition, a feeling of satisfaction or contentment, whose measure you are charged with taking on a daily basis—lest you discover you’ve failed to live the happiest, most emotionally fulfilling life possible at every second. And Oprah’s motto is a command. Never in Plato’s dialogues do you encounter the statement “live the good life”—because it would have been redundant. The problem was figuring out what constituted the good life; if you knew which actions were virtuous, you would seek to perform them, or at least recognize the absolute truth in the claim that you ought to. But Oprah makes her mandate explicit, even as she advertises a mission whose moral urgency is debatable—injecting the language of zealous obligation into her call for individual happiness.

Though rooted in theories developed and propagated by mental-health practitioners, the therapeutic worldview has spread widely into popular culture, and many critics have complained that it has turned America into a population of vapid, quiescent narcissists. For critics on the Left, the discourse of therapy causes people to blame themselves for their unhappiness—rather than social or structural problems such as inequality, unfair working conditions, and institutional disempowerment—which in turn forestalls social activism and collective transformation. For critics on the Right, the therapeutic worldview allows individuals to view themselves as the victims of pathologies beyond their control and thus to abdicate any sense of individual agency. For both sides, the therapeutic spells the death of communal involvement and social responsibility.

And yet one could also argue that therapy and the culture that surrounds it represent not the cause of social fragmentation, but its antidote. Therapy, in all its forms, teaches us how to express our subjective experiences in a socially recognizable form, and so allows us to connect with others on the basis of our purportedly private difficulties and dilemmas. Some people pay thousands of dollars a year to learn these lessons; others watch “Oprah.” In one case you’re confessing your pain, in the other you’re watching someone else do so; either way you learn the necessary vocabulary and come to appreciate the cathartic consolations of the talking cure. When critics accuse therapy of fostering self-involvement and isolation, they forget that it involves a fundamentally social ritual. Even if you’re simply telling your problems to your therapist, you’re performing your interior life for an audience. And nobody is better at this quintessential therapeutic act, of translating the private into the public, than Oprah, whether she’s eliciting a confession from a guest or offering one of her own.

Central to Oprah’s talent for winning her viewers’ trust is the quality of her voice. It’s deeper, sterner than one would expect. You might assume that a talk show host who once dragged a wagon filled with 67 pounds of fat onstage as a demonstration of her weight loss, or who lay submerged inside a bubble bath while entreating the higher spirits, would sound flighty or superficial. But Oprah’s voice is not breathy, mawkish or shrill. Neither falsely nor glibly enthusiastic, hers is the voice of a professor, a secretary of state. Yes, she can be emotional, crying seemingly on cue over the tragedies of her various guests, or during a performance by Faith Hill of “I Surrender All,” or when she announced the end of her show; she can also be capricious, changing her mind regarding whether to stand by James Frey, about whether to publish her autobiography, about whether to marry Stedman Graham. She seems to suffer the pointless delusions and neuroses that we all suffer. But her approach to this wayward psychological clutter has always been dead serious. Serving as head spokesperson for the therapeutic worldview is, after all, a weighty responsibility, and one that she approaches in a duly earnest fashion.

One of the things that makes Oprah such a master of therapeutic self-presentation is her ability to oscillate between stunning candor and fastidious secrecy. Though she has acknowledged on air that she was the victim of sexual abuse as a teenager, that she gave birth to the child of one of her molesters, and that she experimented with crack cocaine, she also carefully monitors the flow of information about herself, requiring all employees and guests on the show to sign elaborate confidentiality agreements, in which they promise not to take pictures of her or talk about their interactions. On an episode last year, in which she considered what she might do during her final season, Oprah declared, “I want that little crawl going across the stage, across the screen, for what I’m really thinking during the show. Years ago I’d say it would be a little bubble. But now you could just have a crawl: liar, liar, liar, liar.” On the one hand, this seems like a rather honest admission. During her show, Oprah has thoughts that she doesn’t feel at liberty to share. And who wouldn’t in her position? Hence she seems, in this moment, human, and rather openly, unreservedly so. In fact, Oprah is giving us the impression that she is being more honest with us than she was during all those other interactions, in which she kept her judgments to herself. On the other hand, she is also underlining the ubiquity of deception in social interactions, and the likelihood that her guests are lying to her—and therefore suggesting that she herself may not be telling us everything that she is thinking even now. Like much therapeutic discourse, the act of disclosure hints at the existence of even deeper secrets, and further undiscovered interior realms. At the same time, however, Oprah imagines precisely those secret thoughts that she feels unable to reveal displayed on the screen, in a brazen act of making public that which she has defined as private. This is the game of therapy: not merely concealing by revealing or vice versa, but making a “show” of concealing in the same moment that you are revealing; publicizing the interior self while seeming to hold something back, thus securing the impression of psychological depth that depends as much on blatant secrecy as calculated disclosure.

Oprah’s strategies for winning her viewer’s trust, sympathy and devotion, of course, go beyond the merely rhetorical; she also makes very effective use her own body. Her never-ending weight gain and weight loss function as a brilliant externalization of inner conflict—of that painful, solitary experience whose value depends upon its resistance to outward manifestation. A notorious binge eater and fad dieter, Oprah has oscillated publicly and dramatically between different sizes and different attitudes about her size, famously dropping 67 pounds in 1986 before gaining the weight back, then losing it all eight years later before gaining it back again and finally, in 1996, hiring personal trainer Bob Greene, whose advice kept her fit until around 2007, at which point she gradually grew to her current plus-sized proportions—at some moments during this saga identifying mental health with bodily fitness, at others asserting that a disregard for her weight was the key to happiness.

But Oprah’s weight problems do more than express her interior conflict; they also attest to her insatiable appetite, her rampant materialism. Famous for her extravagant giveaways of personal computers, refrigerators and cars to audience members; for her lavish gifts of shoes, diamonds and houses to friends and family members; and for her opulent lifestyle, Oprah may seem an unlikely advocate for the psychological and the spiritual, both of which are traditionally defined in opposition to worldly goods. But this duality has marked New Age spirituality from its very beginning.

At the turn of the twentieth century, two precursors to the New Age movement, the New Thought and Mind Cure movements, were spearheaded by a loose affiliation of spiritual healers, preachers and self-help authors, including Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, William Walker Atkinson, Warren Felt Evans, Napoleon Hill and Frank Channing Haddock. These figures rejected the Protestant obsession with character born of hard work and deferred gratification, which had distinguished earlier self-help philosophies, preaching instead the existence of unrealized psychic abundance within each individual. In Thought Vibration; or, The Law of Attraction in the Thought World (1909), William Walker Atkinson proclaims:

I believe that every man has, potentially, a strong Will, and that all he has to do is train his mind to make use of it. I think that in the higher regions of the mind of every man is a great store of Will Power awaiting his use. The Will current is running along the psychic wires, and all that it is necessary to do is to raise the mental trolley-pole and bring down the power for your use. And the supply is unlimited, for your little storage battery is connected with the great power house of the Universal Will Power, and the power is inexhaustible.

Though Atkinson invokes the nineteenth-century bootstraps ideal of “Will Power,” he does not present this virtue as something readers must struggle to develop; the slightest gesture of psychological reorientation is sufficient to tap into its infinite powers. Indeed Atkinson suggests that boundless energy is simply miraculously there for people to access, and yet his metaphor betrays the truth: this cosmic power grid is actually the product of the previous generation’s tireless labor—the labor responsible for the cities, factories and transportation systems that undergirded a new era of prosperity and material comfort. Or, to put it another way, the sense that all variety of resources—psychic, bodily, material—are copious and readily available grew out of the new economic landscape in the twentieth century. While a key factor responsible for the popularity of New Thought philosophy was the decline of Christianity as an explanatory framework, another was the transition in the United States from a situation of relative material scarcity, one that necessitated austerity, to a situation of economic abundance, one whose very persistence required the willingness of Americans to indulge their desires and cultivate their sense of entitlement.

By the 1950s, a decade in which unrestrained consumption energized the economy, the basic tenets of New Thought found their most persuasive advocate in Norman Vincent Peale, minister and author of the most widely read self-help book of the postwar period, The Power of Positive Thinking. A combination of folksy religious wisdom and practical tips for succeeding in business, Peale’s book suggests that spiritual growth leads to financial prosperity. Peale encourages readers to regard God as a business partner, to “effect a merger with God,” treating economic activity not merely as a metaphor for religious experience, but in fact conflating or merging the two, so that each becomes an expression or realization of the other.

Oprah, as Maya Angelou has declared, is the contemporary heir to Norman Vincent Peale. Peale warned his readers against becoming “super-sophisticated,” and Oprah has adopted his pose as a regular person whose experiences are broadly representative. Astutely, she recognized early in her career that unabashedly enjoying her own wealth would not alienate her viewers, since she appeals as much to their aspirations as to their sense of their own reality. And her most conspicuous manner of displaying her appetites, her struggle with her weight, obviously allows her audience to feel that she suffers from the same problems that they do, in spite of her $2.7 billion net worth.

One might even surmise that her weight problem is part of a calculated strategy, but such an account fails to grasp the therapeutic worldview’s dual potency. Its gestures are never merely transparent revelations of the inner soul, but they are never merely performative either. Watch Oprah, and you can’t help feeling that she is, in every one of her statements and mannerisms, just unequivocally and preternaturally real. It becomes almost impossible to distinguish the artifice from the sincerity. In fact, one might argue that she renders the distinction meaningless. But of course people will continue to try to draw it—and those who are too committed to preserving their sense of their own personal integrity will inevitably find Oprah’s protocols of self-presentation to be disconcerting—as did Jonathan Franzen in 2001.

The two figures officially reconciled when Winfrey selected Freedom for her book club, but Franzen’s first invitation to appear on the book club for The Corrections was memorably rescinded, following disparaging remarks Franzen had made about the show and its viewers. He claimed, “[Winfrey’s] picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional [books] that I cringe, myself, even though I think she’s really smart and she’s really fighting the good fight,” suggesting his novel might not be a good choice for the club since his work was “solidly in the high-art literary tradition.” Later, in his essay “See you in St. Louis,” Franzen attempted to explain his maladroit response to Oprah’s invitation. The real source of his misgivings, he said, was Harpo Productions’ decision to follow him with a film crew as he visited his hometown, where his mother had recently passed away, in order to get shots of him looking thoughtful, wistful, nostalgic and writerly. Besides the reductively biographical notion of artistic production that this presupposed, what bothered Franzen was that it all seemed so staged. He was afraid of being a phony.

This is an anxiety that has burdened many of Franzen’s peers in the literary world, most acutely David foster Wallace, and one could argue, as Wallace did, that all of the flamboyant gestures, arch poses and clever gimmicks that characterized the age of irony (also, significantly, the age of Oprah) originated in this basic anxiety. If you are constantly worried that what looks like sincerity is a sham, then you may as well go the other way. You may as well find a way to protect your fragile but precious interior self, which may not, you fear, be robust enough to survive the unclean social traffic of show-and-tell, the greasy handprints of your peers, and the corrupting contagion of flattery and envy. And what better way to insulate the self from all that would compromise or pervert it, than to shield it underneath a glaze of self-conscious sophistication and subterfuge—a strategy that presupposes an innocent yearning for a pure form of self-expression, a moment of direct transference from the private to the public?

“The Oprah Winfrey Show” operates, by contrast, on the unacknowledged premise that no such thing as “pure” self-expression exists, which is not to say that Winfrey views sincerity as impossible. Quite the contrary, sincerity is possible, but, as Oprah reminds us daily, it is always a production, and sometimes it is the well-engineered result of a production company. Honesty takes work, premeditation, craft. The difference between Franzen and Oprah wasn’t that the former was authentic and the latter saccharine; the difference was that the two subscribed to conflicting sets of aesthetic criteria for how to produce the impression of authenticity. One might be tempted to say that Franzen’s criteria are highbrow, whereas Oprah’s are middlebrow, but it was, of course, just this sort of claim that got Franzen into trouble in the first place. (America, after all, likes to keep its class and cultural hierarchies as secret as possible.)

While speaking about the televised two-day tribute, “Surprise, Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular,” Oprah remarked, “I’m still feeling all that love from the last two days. everybody keeps asking me, was I surprised? Did ya see my face?” In questioning whether she was surprised, of course, people were implicitly wondering whether the whole spectacle, including her reaction, was scripted. Significantly, as Oprah rushes to reassure viewers that her facial expressions are a reliable indicator of her actual feelings, she adopts a southern black dialect hammed up to the point of self-parody, ramping up her artifice paradoxically in order to accentuate her authenticity. And yet her tactic somehow works. It’s thoroughly convincing, and thus seems to undercut any clear distinction between performance and self-revelation. One reason it works is the widespread—albeit embarrassing—perception, especially among white middle-class audiences, that the idioms and accents of certain regional and ethnic subcultures enjoy a privileged relationship to truth, sincerity and pathos. But those who lack this particular resource, yet nonetheless wish to make a performance out of their interior life, can always resort to that other mode of rhetoric also put to daily use by Oprah: the therapeutic.

In his brilliant but now mostly neglected The Fall of Public Man, the social critic Richard Sennett lamented the contemporary obsession with authenticity, which he sees as potentially fatal to the public sphere. In the eighteenth century, he claims, people did not treat language primarily as a means of communicating private, interior experience, and thus they wouldn’t have faulted it for failing to achieve this goal. Nobody thought of polite behavior or adherence to etiquette as insincere. Individuals were not therefore weighed down by the illusory ideal of fidelity to a true self and could contribute, through wit, role playing and creative negotiation, in coffee houses and salons, to the development of a theatrical, endlessly malleable public life. Sennett thus seeks to overturn the prevailing assumption that social conventions function as a constraint from which the self must be liberated: on the contrary, conventions, manners and rituals serve as the very conditions of our liberation by allowing us to “playact” ourselves. The disappearance of playacting in the twentieth century, he argues, entails a less flexible, less imaginative society, in which individuals find themselves anchored down by the notion of a static self, and thus incapable of creative compromise.

While Sennett is almost certainly correct to conclude that society has become far more self-centered in the twentieth century, he would also have us believe that a defining characteristic of this self is its unchangeability. But the version of the self imagined by Oprah Winfrey and other gurus of therapy is always ambivalent, always aspirational, and thus always subject to acts of transformation and reinvention. Though we are constantly being told to remain true to ourselves, we are also constantly admonished to work on ourselves, to improve ourselves. The contradiction in such rhetoric produces possibilities that Sennett fails to acknowledge. A world in which the personal reigns is not necessarily one bereft of improvisation, creativity or theatricality. Millions of Americans tuned in, after all, not to watch Oprah, but to watch “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” The apparently unnecessary fourth word in the title didn’t serve simply to remind people that they were watching a television program; it also suggested what might be achieved with the raw material of the self.

If we have all learned, in other words, how to turn the self into a kind of show, then this also means that the public sphere has not entirely evaporated; it has simply come to be constituted and pervaded by a discourse of the personal, the psychological, the confessional. Everyone knows the lingo. In conversations with strangers, we’re not terribly surprised by the sudden disclosure of deeply personal psychological details. Indeed the common currency of the psychological arguably allows individuals to relate to each other in spite of whatever political, regional, ethnic or class boundaries might separate them, and Oprah has spent decades using this insight to bring together broad, multicultural audiences, all of whom believe that she represents them—and does so in an intensely personal way.

Recall for a moment the way Oprah chose to address the people of Iowa in her first stump speech for Barack Obama. “Oh my goodness. At last I’m here. Backstage, somebody said, ‘Are you nervous?’ I said, ‘Damn right I’m nervous.’” In typical fashion, she immediately focuses not on political questions or Obama’s virtues, but instead on her own personal decision to step onto the political stage, and the emotions inspired by this decision. But Oprah’s declaration is not merely narcissistic. Empowered by her hyper-representational capacities—the kind any American politician might covet—her first-person pronoun represents more than just herself, so that “at last I’m here” could easily be heard as referring to all of the reluctant voters who find politics to be alienating, thus challenging them to step out of their comfort zone. Or, hearing in “Oh my goodness. At last I’m here,” a muted echo of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Thank God almighty, we’re free at last,” one might argue that Winfrey is referring to Obama’s candidacy, her appearance, and the importance attached to both by the American media as an indication of the progress African Americans have made since the beginning of the civil rights movement. But these interpretations are plausible only if it is also possible to believe that, simultaneously, she really is simply referring to her own emotional jitters as a regular person suffering from stage fright. Otherwise she relinquishes her ability to garner collective empathy. The paradox of Oprah is that she claims remarkable political and representational powers only to the extent that she persuasively denies these powers; her statements become political only insofar as they invoke and appeal to the personal.

Oprah may have been the first to demonstrate the efficacy of psychological vulnerability as a political strategy, but she has obviously been followed by some fairly important imitators, most notably Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, the latter of whom wagered that a reality show focused on her own charmingly dysfunctional family dynamics (in confrontation with the Alaska wilderness) would strengthen her candidacy for the presidency. Though such tactics, given these examples, may appear for now to be gender specific, they attest to a more general change in the past couple decades, a shift to a therapeutic mode of politics that candidates both male and female, Democratic and Republican, have sought to exploit. In her stump speech for Obama, Oprah goes on to remark, “This is not about partisanship for me. This is very, very personal. I’m here because of my personal conviction about Barack Obama and what I know he can do for America.” Even as she endorses one of the most progressive contenders for the presidency in recent years, Oprah refuses to identify herself with a particular political party. Indeed, the kind of rhetoric that she believes can unify Americans is not partisan or ideological, but personal, emotional and therapeutic. And it’s become increasingly clear in recent years just how effective particular emotions—whether hope, terror or disaffection—can be at unifying and energizing coalitions of Americans who might otherwise be at odds, especially when those emotions are detached from any fully articulated or coherent ideological content.

It is a somewhat unnerving state of affairs. Solidarities of feeling tend to coalesce around charismatic individuals, and yet such feelings tend to be amorphous and mercurial. To say that this is a problem is, of course, to fault emotional modes of political engagement by subjecting them to rational measures; one might just as easily fault rational modes of political engagement by subjecting them to emotional measures. Moreover, although she tries to rule us through our feelings, Oprah is just about the opposite of a totalitarian figure. But this is precisely why it is so easy to misrecognize the considerable power she wields.

“Live from the heart of yourself,” Oprah emphatically instructed her audience during her final episode. It is curious that someone so adept at seeming to speak directly to each individual viewer would rely so frequently upon platitudes. No doubt this habit is one reason intellectuals tend to be dismissive of Oprah. But it is important to note that her various insights are powerful precisely because of the trite formulations in which they are couched. What her language does—and what, as I have been arguing, therapeutic dis- course in general does—is to translate a whole range of feelings, which people may initially experience as inchoate, weird, elusive, and radically isolating, into objective social facts. Such feelings thereby cease to be the sole, private possession of the individual sufferer, or a singular hallucination situated only within the mind of that person, becoming instead a communal rite that many people have to pass through, and thus a basis for solidarity, but with all the texture of a deeply private experience. Though Oprah often seems to be asking her viewers to engage in self-reflection, her extraordinary appeal arguably stems not from helping people make discoveries about themselves, but from the way she nurtures a salutary repackaging of their subjective experiences.

Obviously clichés alone are not able to perform this redemptive service; the way feelings get staged on the show serves to underscore their communal purchase. While Oprah seems to speak directly to you, the viewer, as you sit alone in front of your TV, she is also speaking to a studio audience, whose emotional reactions the show incessantly spotlights, thus serving to embody the millions of other viewers also watching, feeling and identifying at the same time, and thereby reminding you, the individual viewer, that you are participating in a collective experience—and that your private emotions are paradoxically your gateway to this experience.

Imagine one such viewer. Call her Megan. Megan has been dissatisfied with her marriage for enough years now that she is uncomfortable admitting how long she’s felt this way. Her husband is not abusive, not an alcoholic and not even a cheater. It’s just that they don’t really communicate, and he doesn’t respect her, she suspects. When she finds something to be funny, for instance, and starts to laugh, she looks at him so they can laugh together, even though she ought to know better by now, but he just raises his eyebrows and says, “huh?” as if he’s annoyed by the interruption. She’s no longer expecting cinematic romantic moments, but she does think that whatever happiness her life might hold ought to come from the little moments of togetherness that she almost never has with her husband. And while her marriage is obviously not catastrophically bad, it does seem to be mostly devoid of joy, and made up of lots of little let-downs, in which she has to compose herself, take a breath, and pretend like she’s not upset. None of these moments is unbearable in itself, but together they add up to a life of unhappiness. Megan doesn’t feel she can talk to her husband about her dissatisfaction, and she doesn’t feel she can talk to anyone else either. She’s not exactly sure why, but she doesn’t want to admit to her friends or her family that she’s stayed in a bad marriage for so many years and lied about it for so long. Maybe she’s embarrassed. Or perhaps she’s not sure whether she has a legitimate right to complain—but this is part of what makes her unhappy, this uncertainty. And so the thing that is probably the biggest problem, the most nagging concern of her life, she doesn’t share with anyone else, which makes her feel all the more alone, lonely about the fact that she can’t discuss her loneliness with anyone else.

And then she watches Oprah interview Meredith Baxter Birney, who discusses her bad marriage, and her worst moment, which involves nothing more extreme than an argument over what to name their kids, during which her husband insulted her and walked out on dinner. But in that moment Birney obviously felt just as alone and confused as Megan does now, and it’s sad to watch her describe it. Based on Oprah’s reaction and that of her audience, it’s obvious that this is a pretty common scenario, which is a relief. Watching the show makes Megan’s problem feel real and somehow recognized. And seeing Birney calmly discuss it as something in the past makes her feel less trapped. Though Megan doesn’t completely agree with Oprah’s interpretation—that Birney was the one responsible for her predicament—and though she’s probably not going to divorce her husband any time soon, she feels, for a little while, slightly less isolated, slightly less weird, slightly less burdened by the negative thoughts that she’s had for years but never shared with a single other person. In fact, she even feels like she’s experiencing a bit of the togetherness that she believes is essential to a happy life.

If “The Oprah Winfrey Show” has been therapeutic for people in this way, or in similar ways, it represents a peculiar, though familiar, state of affairs, at least in contemporary America: the individual, in this situation, does not find meaning in serving the needs of the larger community; instead the community, or rather the imagined community—the one that the studio audience stands in for—is important only insofar as it serves the therapeutic needs of the individual. No wonder those committed to traditional ethical notions of the good find Oprah’s worldview to be frustrating. Although Oprah commands her audience in her final episode to “start embracing the life that is calling you, and use your life to serve the world,” this imperative acquires importance as part of her broader ethos precisely insofar as it leads to individual happiness; the latter remains the ultimate measure of a given project’s fundamental worth.

And yet Oprah’s readiness to turn service into a therapeutic endeavor makes sense in a context where viable and appealing civic institutions and other kinds of tangible collective organizations are lacking, and where the notion of the public good has become increasingly abstract and attenuated. Ironically, then, the most palpable community out there for Oprah’s viewer is the fragmented, scattered aggregate of other viewers, a community in which the individual participates, in the only way she can participate, by responding emotionally to the scenes of psychological suffering that Oprah stages. And Oprah is herself serving this atomized population, supporting the collective good by generating a momentary image of community, of emotional solidarity, and putting it in the service of the private individual—who has now become, rather than any social or communal entity, however conceived, the primary target of all public service.

Winfrey’s move from talk show host to owner of a cable network will only complicate the elusive structure of her influence. At least during her show millions of Americans all sat in front of the TV at the same time. in keeping with the general drift of media delivery toward fragmentation, her celebrity has now exploded into thousands of disconnected private moments: an internet clip watched during a stolen minute at work, an overheard sound bite, a surprise appearance somewhere, a smile on a magazine cover at the supermarket. it is difficult to know whether this dispersal of her presence will mean the breakdown of her authority as a public figure or the insinuation of her worldview into ever more private corners and crevices of individual experience. Oprah could very well turn out to be more ubiquitous than ever before, and her nonstop availability to her fans may intensify those delusions of personal intimacy that she has always been so adept at fostering. Already you can go to her website whenever you want, pick the clip relevant to whatever need or anxiety happens to feel most pressing, stop it and start it as you like, and skip over the parts that apply to other people, but not to you. in this new serviceable form, however, Oprah’s presence may lose some of its magic. The fantasy had always been that she was talking exclusively to you. But the source of this fantasy’s appeal may turn out to be the very condition that kept it from ever becoming real: you knew, in the very moment you were having it, that everyone else was having it too.

Timothy Aubry is a professor of English at Baruch College. His most recent book is Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle Class Americans (2010). View all posts by Timothy Aubry → This entry was posted in Culture, Essays, Ethics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Tags: , , ,
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