Week by week, Lee Siegel of The New Republic offers some of the most insightful cultural analysis to be found anywhere. In this week’s issue, he considers the meaning of Oprah Winfrey, arguing that Oprah represents the apex of television as a culture-shaping medium. In his words, “Oprah Winfrey is to television what Bach is to music, Giotto to painting, Joyce to literature.” The saddest commentary on that assessment is that most of Oprah’s viewers would have no idea what Siegel means. But, who needs to read Finnegan’s Wake, Dubliners, or Ulysses when you can just tune into Oprah?
Is Oprah basically about the centrality of the self and the cult of personality? Here is Siegel’s take on the meaning of Oprah:
Narcissism and solipsism? Sure. But why not call it withdrawal into a protective inner space instead? When Oprah, in the course of seven days, talks to 13-year-old boys who have been seduced by their teachers, features “flattering clothes for all figures,” presents “five things that can make you younger,” and follows that with the story of a woman whose husband set her on fire, she is hitting the different planes of the self like hitting the walls of a solitary fortress. In a world where it’s hard for some people to know how to think about themselves, the assurance that fashion smiles on you however you are shaped (be content with who you are) and that some people have it a lot worse than you do (count your blessings) is worth gold.
As the culture focused more and more narrowly on personality–on you–Oprah brilliantly expanded her format to put personality at the center of radically diverse experiences. One day, she had physical makeovers (she was almost two decades ahead of shows like “Extreme Makeover”). The next, you “met” a woman who returned home to find her four children shot dead by her ex-husband. After that, a deep commiseration with thin, pale Renée Zellweger over her ordeals with the paparazzi. Then a convening of Oprah’s Angel Network, a charitable club that saved enough spare change to send 50 poor kids to college for four years. Or cooking with Paul Newman, or weeping with Sidney Poitier, or hugging Diana Ross. Then a disfigured young victim of a drunk driver meeting with the driver’s mother. Followed by “Your Wildest Dreams.” And then a psychologist–Dr. Phil for a while, until he started his own show–or spiritual guru. And then a new book on Oprah’s Book Club, almost always about a woman: a neglectful mother, a neglected daughter, an abused wife. Oprah has distilled the total American environment into a unified experience that is accessible to every individual ego.
There’s something more, too. Something remarkable. A single week of Oprah takes you from bondage to all the violent terrors of life, to escape through vicarious encounters with celebrity, to visions of charity and hope, to hard resolve, to redemption and moral renovation. And running through these thoughts and sensations is the constant motif–reinforced by self-help gurus–of growth and strength through suffering. In other words, not even 50 years after segregation, America’s first black billionaire is offering to her mostly white–if the composition of her studio audience is any indication–female, middle-class audience something fairly extraordinary. She is presenting to them the essential structure of the slave narrative of the antebellum South, right down to her Book Club’s quest for literacy.
The name Oprah gave to her production company–her business–is Harpo Productions, which is “Oprah” spelled backward. That is exactly right. Winfreyism is the expression of an immensely reassuring and inspiring message that has, without doubt, helped millions of people carry on with their lives. And it is also an empty, cynical, icily selfish outlook on life that undercuts its own positive energy at every turn. On her way to Auschwitz, sitting in her hotel room in Krakow, thinking about the masses of people who were murdered in the death camp, Oprah wrote in O, “I have never felt more human.” Her empathy and moral growth seem to require human sacrifice. Yet watching Oprah does fill you with hope. It also plunges you into despair. She has become something like America itself.
Media coverage of Oprah tends to be fawning and celebrity-driven. Sometimes it is even worse. Consider the article from USA Today entitled “The Divine Miss Winfrey?,” published earlier this month. In the article, reporter Ann Oldenburg argues that Oprah is now the nation’s spiritual leader.
From her article:
After two decades of searching for her authentic self — exploring New Age theories, giving away cars, trotting out fat, recommending good books and tackling countless issues from serious to frivolous — Oprah Winfrey has risen to a new level of guru.
She’s no longer just a successful talk-show host worth $1.4 billion, according to Forbes’ most recent estimate. Over the past year, Winfrey, 52, has emerged as a spiritual leader for the new millennium, a moral voice of authority for the nation.
Lee Siegel’s article is worthy of a full reading. He understands that Oprah represents the victory of therapy over moral seriousness. In her own strange way, Oprah really is a mirror of the American mind.
SEE ALSO: My commentaries, “Oprah Winfrey: Agent of Moral Insanity” and “The Church of Oprah Winfrey — A New American Religion?” Also blog article entries here, here, and here.