Breakthrough Books: How to Read the Oprah Phenomenon

The last episode ofThe Oprah Winfrey Show aired on Wednesday, the 25th of May, with Winfrey’s farewell address, “I thank you for being as much of a sweet inspiration for me as I’ve tried to be for you.” There is no question that she has inspired millions of viewers, but what exactly is the impact of Winfrey’s media empire? We asked four experts what we can read to better understand the cultural ripples of Harpo Productions, Winfrey’s multimedia production company, and 25 years of Oprah.

Janice Peck, Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and author of The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era (Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

Jane Shattuc’s The Talking Cure: TV Talk Shows and Women (Routledge, 1997), is an introduction to the historical development of this genre [talk television]. It’s about the appeal for its target audience, which is female, and its cultural significance. Shattuc argues that its appeal is connected to a feminist sensibility. It’s a mild, unthreatening feminism in that it addresses women’s concerns, but not in such a way as to lose advertisers.

Yale religious studies scholar Kathryn Lofton’s book, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (University California Press, 2011), looks at Oprah as a religious phenomenon. Oprah is commonly referred to as a spiritual leader, so Lofton is asking, what does it mean to say that this woman, and her empire, is a religion? Lofton argues that Winfrey is a media messiah in a secular age.

Eva Illouz’s book, Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery: An Essay on Popular Culture (Columbia University Press, 2003), is a sociological look at Oprah’s place in American culture. “Winfrey, in her empire is an ideal example of those collective, ‘big’ cultural phenomena that sociologists of culture love to analyze because they reveal a society’s mindset.” Everybody who does a serious look at Winfrey is not only interested in Oprah, they are interested in using Oprah to ask questions about our world. Illouz looks at all kinds of things––the Book Club, the website, the show. She’s interested in Winfrey’s power, and how Winfrey’s power comes from her ability to offer an explanation for people’s suffering––by treating suffering as a lesson.

Yung-Hsing Wu, Associate Professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and author of “The Romance of Reading Like Oprah,” in The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Club (State University of New York Press, 2008).

Rita Barnard’s study in the “Journal of South African and American Studies: “Oprah’s Paton, or South Africa and the Globalization of Suffering” (Volume Seven, Issue Three, 2006), is about Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country. Barnard analyzes this particular Book Club reading, but also looks at the Leadership Academy in Africa. Oprah’s Book Club is an institution that hones in one-by-one, and readers don’t feel the infrastructure of the mechanism working on them. But when Oprah establishes the Leadership Academy she has moved away from the one-by-one culture to found an entire school for reading.

Eva Illouz’s Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery: An Essay on Popular Culture (Columbia University Press, 2003), examines the connection between Oprah’s celebrity and her biography. When Oprah tells her story––which she does whenever she’s interviewed––she appeals to everyday people by saying, “You’re just like me.” Rags to riches, ordinary to extraordinary. And looking at the messages written on the message boards you can see that they are written from one friend to another. Everyone knows that Oprah isn’t her friend, but addressing her as a friend speaks volumes of the management of her celebrity. Illouz is good at tracking how Oprah has managed that paradox and exploited it.

Kathleen Rooney, Visiting Assistant Professor of English & Creative Writing at DePaul University, author of Reading with Oprah: the Book Club that Changed America (University of Arkansas Press, 2005).

The Oprah Phenomenon, edited by Jennifer Harris and Elwood Watson (the University Press of Kentucky, 2007) delivers a smart critique not just of Oprah’s enterprises, but of the entire self-help genre, which they say all too often depends on doctrines of exceptionalism and personal self-actualization through blithe consumerism while completely ignoring the systemic economic, racial, gender-based and political barriers that stand in the way of many people’s ability to “succeed” and “be happy.”

Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery: An Essay on Popular Culture(Columbia University Press, 2003), by Eva Illouz, makes a statement that is probably fairly true for most scholarly explorations of Oprah: “This work… while well researched and useful for students, is probably not one Oprah lovers would settle down to read in an easy chair.” One of the strokes of genius behind Oprah’s empire is that, even though she talks about herself almost constantly, she never engages in self-reflection on how said empire operates. That’s why it’s fun to see Illouz take the industry that is Oprah and methodically analyze it as an artifact worthy of serious academic interest. And it’s equally fun to see her argue how and why “Oprah embodies not only quintessentially American values, but also an American way of using and making culture.”

Sherryl Wilson, Professor of Media & Cultural Studies at the University of West England, author of Oprah, Celebrity and Formations of Self (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era (Paradigm Publishers, 2008), by Janice Peck. The journey from TV talk show host to “inspirational phenomenon” is the focus of The Age of Oprah. But more than this, Peck’s ambitious aim is to demonstrate the ways in which Winfrey’s road to “fame and fortune” parallels the “political-economic revolution of neoliberalism” in America. The central argument throughout the book is that Winfrey, rather than being an enabler of the people, colludes with individualistic approaches to social issues. This means that Winfrey’s consistent message, through whatever medium, is that the individual is responsible for his or her well being, leaving the social/political structures of inequality unchallenged.

Stating that Winfrey’s success cannot be understood in terms of the power of her persona alone, Peck argues that she (Winfrey) achieves her cultural resonance because of the ways in which she deploys the deep, historical roots of the therapeutic enterprise, U.S. religious sensibilities with the emphasis on individualized spiritual growth, the 1980s “return” to family values, and the waning subsequent de-politicization, of second-wave feminism.

Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery: An Essay on Popular Culture(Columbia University Press 2003), by Eva Illouz. While much of the literature on TV talk shows largely discusses the ways in which these programs operate either as a source of social harm or a force for good, Illouz concentrates on the single example of Oprah Winfrey to consider the historical, cultural and social meanings that the show and the persona articulate and perform. The benefit of this approach is that we arrive at both a greater understanding of the Oprah phenomenon and of the culture in which it is produced and consumed.

In addition to The Oprah Winfrey Show through which Winfrey rose to prominence, Illouz draws on O Magazine, Oprah biographies, magazine articles, Book Club novels, self-help manuals promoted on the show and responses posted on Oprah websites to demonstrate the ways in which Oprah is simultaneously multi-layered and complex while maintaining a consistency of address and message across a range of media platforms. She concludes by arguing that the repeated representation of suffering as almost desirable––because it leads to self-improvement––works to reduce the tolerance of failed lives.

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