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The strange genius of Oprah

Now celebrating her twentieth year as the host of the world’s most influential talk show, Oprah Winfrey is to television what Bach is to music, Giotto to painting, Joyce to literature. Time magazine hit the nail on the head when it recently voted her one of the world’s handful of “leaders and revolutionaries.” (Condoleezza Rice wrote Oprah’s citation: “She has struggled with many of the challenges that we all face, and she has transformed her life. Her message is empowering: I did it, and so can you.”) Like all seminal creative figures, her essential gift lies in her synthesizing power. She has taken the most consequential strands in modern life and woven them together into an hourlong show that is a work of art.

The boilerplate criticisms of Oprah--she exploits a culture of victimization that she did so much to create; she glamorizes misery; she amplifies already widespread narcissism and solipsism; she fills people’s heads with hackneyed nostrums about life--are correct, up to a point. But that’s not the whole story. Oprah’s critics write as if her goal of extending to her audience empathy, consolation, and hope were intrinsically cheap and cynical. On the contrary: The question is whether that is really what she is offering.

Oprah’s aspiration to inspire her audience with hope--elaborated on her TV show, in her magazine, and on her website--is hardly ignoble. Her “victimized” viewers--not all her viewers, to be sure--are simply people who have been hurt and have nothing to guide them and nowhere to turn. So they make a virtue of necessity and convert their injuries into proactive forces in the world--just as some people turn their old school ties into proactive forces in the world.

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.

In 1986, human nature in America started to change. That year, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” based in Chicago, became nationally syndicated, and the country entered the beginning stages of a quiet cultural revolution. It took awhile for the transformation to take hold, but, four years later, the effects were unmistakable. Do you really think George H.W. Bush, who presided over the spectacularly successful Gulf war, lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 because of a sagging economy? It was Oprah, stupid. It was Oprah behind Clinton in 1992 and also in 1996; and it was Oprah behind George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, electoral shenanigans notwithstanding.

It’s safe to say that, with her parade of afflicted guests, Oprah helped along the perception of Clinton’s childhood wounds as evidence of authentic character. With her emphasis on imperfect self-presentation as proof of genuine intention--she has appeared on the air in her bathrobe, without makeup--she also helped create an atmosphere that turned Al Gore, and then John Kerry, into fabricated con men who were too handsome (Kerry had his lanky Jimmy Stewart allure), articulate, and privileged to be trusted or true. Bush, on the other hand, was so inarticulate, awkward, and funny-looking that, when you thought of his own super-privileged background, you felt that at least he had something going for him. And all that unconcealed imperfection made him real--or at least electable.

It’s ironic that O, Oprah’s glossy monthly magazine, relies on the same formulas as potent arbiters of perfect appearance like Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and Self. Like its founder and editorial director, O is on the very front line in the American struggle between tyrannical appearances and the ordinary, imperfect, mortal person. Not just the suffering, injured person, but the unbeautiful person. In our society, not measuring up to resplendent appearances can cause a deep psychic wound. Every sphere of life has its heroic moments, and, in the War of Ordinary People Against Ideal Images, this exchange between Oprah and Julia Roberts is the equivalent of that solitary figure confronting the tank in Tiananmen Square:

Oprah: Does the pretty thing ever get to ya? ... I’m wondering, I was having this discussion with my girlfriend the other day. I said, “It’s a really great thing we were never, like, pretty women, because now we don’t have to worry about losing that.”

Julia: You can’t really complain about being in a movie called Pretty Woman when you’re the woman.

It’s hardly a coincidence that Roberts has been one of Oprah’s select circle of favorite guests. Her full mouth and large, lustrous eyes contrast with and echo Oprah’s own features. Just 33 years ago, when a 19-year-old Oprah got her start in television, anchoring the news for a local Nashville station, society would not have been ready to acknowledge such a comparison. You can only talk about it now because Oprah has become so rich and famous--she attracts tens of millions viewers around the world, and her net worth is said to be about 1.4 billion dollars. But the way she orchestrates and manipulates appearances on her show is one of the sources of her success.

It is not hard to imagine that, for many middle-class black women in her audience, Oprah’s dig at Roberts--”the pretty thing” fades, which is a tragedy when all you have is the pretty thing--is an affirmation of sorts. At that moment, the white movie star (the yuppies’ very goddess) is diminished by the black host’s humor, irresistible self-deprecation, and earthy wisdom--qualities that black women in her audience might identity with and that, in Oprah’s inspiring case, helped her bypass the white standard of beauty on her sure-footed path toward power and riches. After all, Roberts is Oprah’s guest, not the other way around. Oprah is the one asking the questions, and with all the self-assurance and astuteness of someone who knows the answers. With Roberts, Oprah’s sharp tongue not only spoke a humble truth to powerful appearance; it repossessed, as it were, the black sensuality that collagen stole and gave to the white world.

For the middle-class white women who tune into Oprah every weekday afternoon, and who don’t look like Roberts, the liberation from Hollywood standards--and from beauty magazine standards and fashion-world standards--is absolute. The star is being torn down with the movie that must have driven tens of thousands of white suburban girls into eating disorders. Roberts actually has to fall back on the unreality of a character she played in a film to defend herself against the real, the very real, woman sitting before her! Even as she treats ordinary wounded people like celebrities and eases celebrities into talking about their ordinary setbacks, disappointments, and wounds, Oprah has created and appeals to a kind of fourth race--the Oprah-people--which is not white, black, or celebrity. The Oprah-people stay glued to her show, because Oprah speaks to their true existence, the life they live away from the glamorous images purveyed by television and the movies.

The secret of Oprah’s success on television is precisely that her show has been, until the recent “reality” craze, the antidote to the images of ideal happiness and physique that appear on television. From her first talk-show gig in Baltimore hosting “People are Talking,” in which an overweight, awkward Oprah brought equally ordinary people in front of the cameras to speak with her, she has always thrust life in the face of imperial television. Think of it like this: The media is Caesar. Having mastered and then revolutionized its idiom, Oprah is Christ. Like changing water into wine, she has managed--through her elevation of hidden, obscure, or neglected experience into spectacle--to make the television set watch you.

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 Renee 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.

For all the show’s seesawing between horror and inanity, and precisely because of its cunningly orchestrated subtext of racial catharses--a la the exchange with Roberts--”The Oprah Winfrey Show” is a racial utopia based on the exchangeability of colorless human pain. There is something beautiful and profound about that. As democracy seems more and more to be defined by the number of people who become rich--not many--Oprah’s show has gotten more and more popular. In Oprah’s universe, democracy is defined by the number of people who are “empowered” by knowing that their sadness and frustration is shared by other people--a lot of other people. It is a kind of egalitarianism from within.

Oprah has said, “If there’s a thread running through each show we do, it is the message that `you are not alone.’” No wonder either Oprah or her guest is almost always weeping. The fluidity of tears--the oceanic melting of the ego in high feeling--represents the essence of Winfrey-democracy. We are not alone because we can blur into another person or become another person at any moment. We can make over our appearance, achieve our “wildest dreams,” or be heartened by the evidence of charity or by the revelation that the rich and famous are creatures of feeling, too, which makes their lives possibly habitable phases in the spectrum of exchangeability. And, if the very worst happened, and we came home to four murdered children, we would know what to expect, having been there, in a way, before. We would not be alone then, either. “Tears, tears, tears! / In the night, in solitude, tears,” wrote Walt Whitman, the poet of American democracy. “Moist tears from the eyes of a muffled head; / O who is that ghost? that form in the dark, with tears?” Well, it could be anybody. Almost anybody at all. Oprah has accomplished an amazing trick, or even a miracle: She has turned living vicariously into living authentically.

Every “Oprah Winfrey Show” has about it the aura of Oprah’s own life, just as the rituals and sacraments of a religion are suffused with the life of the religion’s founder. Above the testimony of Oprah’s guests hovers what viewers know about Oprah’s experience. This is not unlike watching an actress like Nicole Kidman, over whose film characters hover the facts that we think we know about the real Kidman. Yet, in Oprah’s case (as in Kidman’s) we know only what we have officially been told. One of the ironies of Oprah’s success is that this woman, who has made a gospel of publicizing private life, scrupulously keeps fans in the dark about her own.

What we do know, from scores of hagiographies, certainly sounds like an inspiring American story. Born in 1954 to an impoverished, teenage single mother in Kosciusko, Mississippi, Oprah was raised by her grandmother there, and then by her mother in Milwaukee. She also lived part of the time in Nashville with her soldier father and her stepmother, both of whom gave her a love of reading. She received excellent grades in an Upward Bound program at an all-white elementary school in Milwaukee, then achieved academic success in high school in Nashville, where she was elected vice president of the student council. Around that time, Oprah was chosen, along with another student, to represent Tennessee at the White House Conference on Youth. A few months later, she entered and won a beauty contest, which led to a part-time job doing newscasts at a local radio station. At Tennessee State University, she majored in speech and drama. She won two more beauty contests, and major ones: Miss Black Nashville and Miss Black Tennessee. Before graduating from college, she landed her first TV job as a newscaster for a news show on a CBS affiliate in Nashville. From there, she went on to Baltimore, Chicago, and fame.

All the while, she was testing different styles of presenting herself. It was in Chicago, a year before her show went national, that Oprah’s intimate style broke new ground. In 1985, she announced on the air that she had been raped by her cousin when she was nine. She later revealed that, the following year, a friend of her cousin started molesting her, abuse that she says continued into her teens. Pregnant at 14--she won’t say by whom--she had the baby, who she says died. Around that time, in 1968, Oprah also claims that an uncle sexually abused her.

Oprah’s public narrative of private victimization shadows every moment of the narratives that get spun on her show. It floats above her choice of books and authors for her Book Club: One of her idols, Maya Angelou, was also raped as a child; one of her first Book Club choices, She’s Come Undone, by Wally Lamb, is about an obese young girl who is raped. Oprah’s public story flickers in her choice of all the victims of sexual abuse among her guests. And it’s present--a shadow that accentuates the light--in her works of charity, like the $10 million she recently donated to house victims of Hurricane Katrina: Out of great pain, goodness.

The Oprah tale is, as they used to say, a paradigm shift. In place of Horatio Alger’s Protestant ethic-driven rags-to-riches story, Oprah’s is a Christian fundamentalist-driven tale of the power of faith and grace. It’s not that Oprah hasn’t worked hard to get where she is. One of the most appealing things about her has got to be that she always looks exhausted. Oprah has always worked superhumanly hard, it seems, but the object of her work is different from the traditional Alger-type jobs: rag-picking, selling newspapers, et cetera. Oprah’s work has been her own life. That is her ministry.

Like any great artist mastering a genre in order to recast it, Oprah has revolutionized the presentation of self on television through the total deployment of every dimension of her life. Her artfulness reached the peak of perfection the very same year that she went public with her tale of sexual abuse. In 1985, she landed the role of Sofia in Steven Spielberg’s film of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Like Oprah herself, Sofia was the victim of brutal male abuse. In one stroke, Oprah used her life to capitalize on her role and her role to capitalize on her life. And, by successfully transmuting herself into the fictional character, Oprah could prove to her fans the essential premise of her show: the fungibility of American experience. Exchangeable lives were possible through the democratic vessels of emotion and pain.

In TV terms, Oprah’s multiplication of herself into simultaneous actual, fictional, and didactic selves was on the order of Picasso inventing cubism. But Oprah didn’t stop there. Another story shadowed her public one, just as her public tale shadows every episode of her professional existence. Though she claims to have been romantically involved for years with a man named Stedman Graham, a businessman and former professional basketball player, the two have never married. Naturally, gossip has circulated for years that the relationship is a sham and that Oprah is actually gay. Provocatively enough, Oprah rarely refers to Graham on her show. Instead, her most frequent references are to Gayle King, an intimate friend of Oprah’s since Baltimore. So, rather than refute rumors that she is homosexual, she seems to subtly encourage them--in fact, her official story is that she and King first formed an attachment when a snowstorm forced them to spend the night together.

Her detractors cry hypocrite. But there is nothing hypocritical about having a private life. If Oprah is in a fake romance, and if she is gay, neither reality would contradict her public advocacy of courage, fortitude, and growth through suffering. Rather, her seemingly calculated intimations of a hidden second life only strengthen her hopeful message of ceaseless personal possibilities.

Oprah’s response to skeptics has simply been: “I don’t make things up.” The success of her life affirms the veracity of her life. Oprah: “My initial dream for myself was to be able to stretch out of myself and create work that would touch people’s lives.” To stretch out of herself and to create work--once you stretch your life into your work, you are no longer responsible for what you do. Only for what you are. And you can be something different--anybody different--from minute to minute. Nobody questions the genuineness of someone who has just changed jobs. Being means survival, and survival is incontestably good. You measure what you do by its effectiveness at helping you achieve what you are and what you want to be. “Thank you for saying that,” Oprah often declares to a suffering guest who admits her weakness or culpability, thus indicating a desire to change. The power of proclaimed purpose matters more than the density of a done deed.

The James Frey scandal, beaten to death by the press, horrified Oprah. If you live on planet Earth, you probably know the story. A Million Little Pieces--Frey’s memoir detailing his drug addiction, descent into crime, time in jail, redemption, and reform--was selected by Oprah for her Book Club. As a result, A Million Little Pieces became a sensational best-seller, earning the 36-year-old author a small fortune. It turned out, though, that Frey had made up substantial sections of his autobiography.

Oprah at first defended him, and then, when she became convinced that he had indeed fabricated his story--or when she saw the tide of opinion turning against her--she had Frey back on her show, where she scolded, shamed, and publicly rebuked him. Almost immediately after that imbroglio, she turned to her old friend, Elie Wiesel, whom she first had on her show in 1993. She made Night, Wiesel’s 1956 semi-autobiographical account of his captivity as a boy in Auschwitz, her next Book Club pick. Some people saw this as a cynical attempt to use the subject of the Holocaust as a shield to make herself impervious to any further criticism about Frey. You might also suspect Oprah of using Wiesel to make a self-exculpatory point: Night is no less semi-autobiographical than A Million Little Pieces, yet no one ever questioned Wiesel’s honesty.

A few commentators ventured that Oprah had gotten what she deserved. Frey, they said, had modeled his book on Oprah’s successful formula of sin and/or suffering, leading to expiation and/or redemption. Such a phony “template,” to use the trite term, had finally boomeranged into her comeuppance. But, of course, there is nothing phony about Oprah’s inspiring, exemplary life: “I did it, and so can you.” There is nothing false or artificial about the consolation she brings people; or especially about the way she has transposed the experience of the black ordeal onto white suffering, putting both races in the same hourly daytime boat. She may have done more for black-white relations in this country than anyone since Martin Luther King Jr.

Oprah didn’t get what she deserved. What she got-- and what horrified her--was a reminder of who she was, or wasn’t. Frey had not followed some daytime TV formula; he had absorbed Oprah’s most essential lessons. Like everyone, Frey had a life that unfolded in a singular, definite way. But, in A Million Little Pieces, he stretched out of himself and created work that touched other people’s lives. He turned his life into his job.

Just as Oprah created a talk-show host named “Oprah,” making that character her work, improvising on it and experimenting with it, so Frey created a character named “James Frey,” and improvised on it and experimented with it. He didn’t need to act on the Winfreyist principle of exchangeability by feeling someone else’s pain. He imagined a new persona for himself, constructed out of pain he had actually felt, and then proceeded to play his new role. After all, a person is free to do whatever he wants with his own pain. In this sense, Frey was not lying about his life. He was making his life his work, and, since work is a process of development and life is always open-ended and fragile and provisional, it can take any form you want it to take as you proceed toward your goal. Frey was doing what he had to do in order to be who he knew he really was, and who he wanted to become.

Every person and every ideology has its countertendency. With Frey, Oprah’s countertendency surged into public view. The reverse side of making your life your work is a life in which your actions become mere propulsions along the rails of self-advancement. You are not responsible for what you do because your truth as a person lies in the future as your “goal.” You don’t tell lies, because what might seem like a fabrication to other people is the expression of your genuine feeling, which is authorized by who you know you really are and can be in the future. We are taught that “the end justifies the means” is a ruthless, amoral approach to life. But Oprah has taken that sword-like precept and beaten it into a benign ploughshare of planting, cultivation, and growth. She has made the sincerity of a statement more important than the content of it. Which is to say, she has made it virtuous to be amoral. After all you have been through, you deserve this. Oprah did it, and so can you.

Like Oprah herself, Winfreyism has an equally fraught countermotion. The reverse side of a democracy based on exchangeable feelings is the creation of a kingdom of mere sensations, in which no experience has a higher--or different--value than any other experience. We weep and empathize with the self-destructive mother, we weep and empathize with Sidney Poitier, we weep and empathize with the young woman dying of anorexia, we weep and empathize with Teri Hatcher, we weep and empathize with the girl with the disfigured face, we weep and empathize with the grateful recipients of Oprah’s gift of a new car to every member of one lucky audience, we weep and empathize with the woman burned beyond recognition by her vicious husband. In the end, like the melting vision of tearing eyes, the situations blur into each other without distinction. They are all relative to your own experience of watching them. The fungibility of feeling is really a reduction of all experience to the effect it has on your own quality of feeling.

In fact, Oprah’s universal empathy has an infinite flexibility. When critics complained that she focused too much on stories of physical and emotional horror, Oprah quickly responded, in the early ‘90s, by mocking that very format. Publicly vowing to start diversifying her show, she immediately incorporated lighter fare more frequently. Several months after Jonathan Franzen dissed her Book Club, an incident that gave rise to a heated debate over its true function and value, Oprah disbanded it. (It has returned, but in a more peripheral and occasional way.) The Frey incident sent her spinning in appeasement yet again.

One of Oprah’s most powerful visual metaphors is how she utterly transforms her appearance--her hairstyle, mode of dress, type of jewelry, even her manner of speaking--from day to day. It is her clever, dramatic embodiment of the possibility of personal change and growth. But ability to change is also a capacity for accommodation. It hints at a personality that will “stretch” itself in any rewarding direction, unconstrained by truthfulness or consistency. Unconstrained by the constraint of character, you might say.

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.