Monday, February 7, 2011

How I Came to Hate Oprah

I did something that even as contrarian and controversial as I can be at times, I was embarrassed by. I wrote a comment on a website that I like very much called Black Art In America, where I criticized a perfectly talented and well intentioned artist who had organized a commemorative book of art for Oprah Winfrey. I did this with the following comment, among others “Oprah succeeds based on a basic and I believe dangerous delusion that fame and riches (or even happiness) can be achieved through magical thinking, like that which is promoted from books like the "Secret". This is relevant to artists, as the success of an artist would appear to be in the sole power of the artists' thoughts. This discounts so much of the great art that has not made the artist rich and famous, or even happy. “

After being spanked by many members of the website community, and even my friends for insensitivity, I was asked by a very close friend if any of this has changed my mind on Oprah, and I had to reply no. What it has done though is to make me think about myself a bit more, not likely the goal of the creators of this book.  Would the sensitive Oprah crowd want to see a vehement Oprah hater turned into a narcissist? Though it is nothing to be proud of, that is indeed what has happened.

Oprah represents more to me than I think I have let on in my blogging blasts of her, or my family fights with my Oprah adoring mom around the Thanksgiving day table. It  actually goes back to high school for me, where like most adolescents, my ideas emerged from intuition into full fledged viewpoints. Oprah’s show was new when I was in high school, and though I am of a different generation than Oprah, her show was aiming in many ways to find its identity as I was aiming at discovering my own. I have looked through some of those early season topics and can understand why every day in the Winter (as the Fall and Spring I was going to Cross Country and Track Practice) I would curl up on the sofa and watch Oprah at 4:00. Titles like “Trouble Getting a Date?”, or more provocatively “Snobby, overbearing, or just plain hard to deal with...Rude, obnoxious people turn off their friends”. I had both of these issues as a teenager, as many teenagers do. To hear an adult have a serious forum to discuss those issues legitimized my anxieties. There is no wonder that my generation has helped to make Oprah a billionaire. She was there for us when we needed her.

In the Television business when a television drama has lost its original intention it is said to have “jumped the shark”. Examples of this can be seen everywhere from “House” dating Cutty, to “Chuck” hooking up with the pretty FBI girl. This is why HBO and Showtime remain so good. They never Jump the Shark. In the “Sopranos” Tony never leaves the mafia. In the “Wire” drug dealers still kill, and cops still get drunk and drive around town hurling Bourbon bottles from their cruisers. Oprah on the other hand was not happy with connecting to us anxious, but rather normal rational people. Instead she jumped the shark in the most flagrant of ways. She started moralizing. She grew a heart, but that heart was so bogged down by superstition, and a realization that her every word would be followed, that the show became a religion. The problem in my view came in 1998 when she made an announcement that she would de-tabloid  her show. This is not such a bad thing, but instead of de-tabloidization she created a new type of sensation, which I would call pseudoscientification.  Oprah became the equivalent of L. Ron Hubbard who went from writing sci-fi novels to founding Scientology. America followed her down that path, and they enriched her along the way. By 2000 she had fermented her spiritual quest, and that evangelism became the focus of her career. The Wall Street Journal called this effect" Oprahfication", and explained that Oprah had embraced a public form a therapy.

What I hadn’t realized is that what she also did but jumping the shark, is left the rest of us in a tank full of piranhas. She had perfected a type of TV, but when she left to become a cult icon, we were left first with Jerry Springer, and then a myriad of reality show hell. There was no room for a 16 year old sitting on the sofa listening to honest, and interesting people talk about not being able to get a date. Instead it is now Oprah telling the world how to find an elusive inner being. Or giving credit to that now proven fraudulent anti-vaccine movement. Or Oprah guiding a delusion of free will and personal success, while the viewers are growing in frustration with their own unresolved lives. Perhaps this is why I am so anti-Oprah. She has left a void where there was simple questioning of normal issues to a disaster of false hope and naivety. That said “Skins” did not exist on MTV when I was 16, so perhaps I would have had something to watch after all.

Thinking of Oprahfication as a new cultural norm has become an excuse for me, and by its very popularity made me an elitist. It is tempting to think that this was not the case.  Oprah programming of old was mainstream programming. Still it is not those early programs but the extremity of Oprah's success and popularity in the days since that separates me from large portions of American society. In fact, tracing my own personal development I can start in 1991 when Oprah had the dating, and fighting friends episodes and watch as my life has unfolded in direct opposition to hers. Of course she has become a billionaire, but that is only the most obvious of the divergences. The greater one is a move away from banality towards two opposing, yet strongly profound world views that separate my psyche from an Oprah psyche more than politics, class or even religion.

Aging is of course different for everyone, but the struggles of acknowledging physical limitations, and how we deal with illness and fear is what may be the biggest divide in the Oprah worldview, and in my own. Like most people I have faced sickness, and tragedy, to a greater extent than some, but to a much lesser extent than others, Oprah included, who suffered so greatly as a child that I can’t even fathom the pain and repercussions. Still, these sicknesses and anxieties have shaped me, as I am sure her suffering has her. The difference is that for her they have given her a belief that everyone has a power that extends beyond themselves. For me, I am everyday humbled by the opposite. I am humbled by the fact that I am powerless, yet still loved and alive. I don’t need an inner strength, or a strength from God. This is where Oprah’s world and mine differ. We both want to conquer fear and mortality, but I think that the only hope comes through physics and material action, she believes it comes from spiritual and supernatural strength. These views are so different that they are a line in the sand of existence, which Oprah herself has helped to draw, and I am happy to take my place on the other side.

I titled this blog, “How I came to hate Oprah”. This is meant to be provocative, and a little ridiculous. There is no reason for me to hate Oprah, and I don’t. She is clearly a deeply sensitive and caring person. Maybe a better title would have been “How I came to hate Oprahfication”, but that is too sociological, and not personal enough. So in retrospect I think the best title should be “How I came to know myself in the age of Oprah.”


  1. Obviously, I've never thought that much about this...being that you're smart and think about things, and I just think about what's next on Jerry Springer. Never really watched Oprah too much because i found her show slow and dull. Where are the great fistfights between fueding jilted stripper girlfriends? Where is the big messy food fight at the Jerry Springer Thanksgiving table? Though I don't follow Oprah very closely, the only reason I know about "the Secret" is from promos for Oprah's show. Oh, and she lost a bunch of weight one time. And ran a marathon. And upset the beef people. And supported Obama for President. And gave a bunch of people cars and a bunch of other people a trip to Australia with Travolta as their pilot. And then she started her own network. And there you have everything I know about Oprah. Not that you asked. But after reading your post, now I'm even more glad I never spent much time watching her. Let me know when you're ready to discuss Mother Love, because that's a whole other ball of wax.

  2. Interesting thoughts. I'm not the biggest fan of Oprah either, one of the reasons for which is indeed her religious beliefs. But it's pretty easy to avoid her - if you can't find a good TV show, find a good book or film instead. :)


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