Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture. Edited by Trystan T. Cotton and Kimberly Springer.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, December 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-1-60473-407-2, $50. 240 pages.
Review by Katie Ellis, University of Western Australia
Trystan Cotton and Kimberly Springer’s edited collection Stories of Oprah starts with the very simple question “What would Oprah do?” (vii). This is a popular question amongst both journalists and bloggers who’ve noticed the pervasiveness of her favorite things and book club and their increasing influence on American and international culture. Even as Oprah’s influence over contemporary American culture increases, this volume shows us that there is no universal Oprah despite what we may think (xi).
The term “Oprahfication,” often invoked throughout this collection, was first used during the 1990s to denounce TV sensationalism (133). The online urban dictionary defines it in several ways: highlighting constructions of masculinity and femininity, the division between public and private spheres, and becoming a “better person” by following Oprah’s advice regarding her favorite things and people (doctors, celebrities, etc). The essays compiled in Stories of Oprah investigate these aspects of the so-called Oprah Winfrey Cultural Industry to present an important and timely contribution to “Oprah Studies” (xiii). Yes, Oprah Studies really exist—academics have investigated the impact of Oprah on culture for a number of years.
This collection distinguishes itself from others via a focus on “interdisciplinary methods and interpretative frameworks” (xiii) and is divided into three sections. Part I, Oprah the Woman, Oprah the Empire, looks at the ways Oprah selectively foregrounds certain aspects of her upbringing and beliefs to appeal to a certain type of audience. Part II, Contesting the Oprah Experts, examines a variety of topics favored by the Oprah show as they and she highlight personal agency as crucial to success. This section also considers sections of Oprah’s audience and how she influences them. Part III, The Oprahfication of the Media, outlines Oprah’s influence on news media, politics, and the movie industry again through her depoliticized focus on personal agency.
Oprah’s personality and life story are key aspects of her success. Viewers of her day time talk show are familiar with the sexual abuse she suffered in her early life, as well as her belief in the importance of teachers and hard work, as she refers to these events and values often during interviews with guests on her show. Part I opens with an essay by John Howard which argues that Oprah’s back story is a careful construction that fits into the American myth of success. For Howard, Oprah’s story is depoliticized and deracialized and ignores the structural inequalities experienced by black Americans.
Likewise, in her chapter “Oprah Winfrey and Feminist Identification,” Jennifer Rexroat argues that Oprah rejects any association with radicalism. Rexroat invokes Patricia Misciagno’s framework of de facto feminism to analyse where Oprah fits in relation to feminism. De facto feminists such as Oprah agree with the goal of feminism but do not identify as feminists themselves. By removing her goal of “empowering women” from the rhetoric of feminism, Oprah’s project is more comfortable to Americans who may reject the feminist label. Rextroat encourages the reader to decide for themselves whether Oprah promotes feminist ideology and practice. While I’m not sure that this chapter is as open-ended as it purports to be, it does raises an important point about the limits of feminism for everyday women and whether de facto feminism is the logical outcome of the women’s movement.
Throughout this section, all of the authors critique Oprah’s personal solutions to political problems as problematic, and the final chapter, “Gendered Translation of New Age Spirituality” by Karlyn Crowley, details the ways Oprah repackages new-age spirituality within a neoliberal rubric by invoking the rhetoric of both race and gender. Crowley argues that Oprah positions herself both as “one of the girls” and a leader in a church of her own making. As an everywoman she again seeks to heal her audience from trauma without addressing systemic oppression.
Part II moves more towards audience participation and begins with an essay by Sherra Schick which examines Oprah’s message board online community as an elastic, not essentialized metaphor of the ways women use the web. As Schick asserts, without the internet, that interactive global community of Oprah’s audience would not exist. Following from Crowley’s chapter, Schick concentrates on Soul Stories as an example of the internet increasing the complexity of culture by allowing women a voice. After the message board was hacked—subjected to a “male intrusion” and closed down—Schick argues that women were driven further into the margins.
While Oprah’s message board appeared to have a positive impact on the lives of the women participating in this forum and prompted them to create a community outside the designated Oprah space, Adriana Katzew and Lilia De Katzew surveyed a sample of Chicana women and, interestingly, most saw Oprah as having little impact. For Katzew and Katzew, Oprah is successful in both a white and man’s world with the potential to reach an international or global audience with the assumption that women’s issues are universal. All those surveyed knew who she was, some value her independence, and most see her as “whitewashed.”
In her examination of the ways Oprah constructs female teenaged heterosexuality, Katherine Gregory argues that The Oprah Winfrey Show has shifted from a carnivalesque to an individual orientation to a more recent focus on changing your life. Teen sex is constructed as detrimental to self-improvement on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The result is a moral panic which pathologizes teen sexuality and for Gregory doesn’t teach teen women how to negotiate their physical and emotional needs. This topic, popular throughout Oprah’s television history, continues to subject the female teenager to regulatory forces.
Heather Talley and Monica Casper then shift the focus to Oprah’s philanthropic work in Africa, considering it as part of a tradition of celebrity causes. Although Oprah’s work in Africa can be seen as being all about Oprah (p.107), the authors encourage us not to just write it off. After discussing how philanthropy in Africa can distract from the real issues, do more harm than good, and neglect to acknowledge what happens after the celebrity leaves, the authors then use Oprah’s work in Africa to invite a consideration of how philanthropic consumption facilitating agency can work.
The final section consists of four chapters which consider Oprah as a media brand which permeates news, literature, cinema, and global politics. Like the chapters in Part I, Kathleen Dixon and Kacie Jossart’s chapter Oprah and the News Media argues that Oprah maintains a political distance and relies on melodrama. The Oprah Show repackages news as entertainment with narrative structure and drama. Through her political distance, Oprah is mildly reformist and again foregrounds personal agency. For Jaap Kooijman, this is problematic particularly in relation to Oprah’s treatment of 9/11 and the war in Iraq. In his chapter, Kooijam argues that by emphasizing personal agency Oprah translates international political issues into personal experiences. This in turn leaves little room for a dissenting voice and likewise assumes American values are universal. This chapter demonstrates the ways Oprah’s persona has reshaped politics and news media to draw in a previously neglected (female) perspective.
The final two chapters of the book extend this discussion to consider the ways Oprah’s literary favorites are repackaged—interpreted through her—for a broader audience. Edith Frampton focuses on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon to argue that while Oprah’s book club has been criticized for depoliticising a number of texts, these critiques may in fact be born from a limited conception of the political. As a number of other writers in this collection note, Oprah emphasises the importance of personal experiences in political ways (although never overtly). For Frampton the book club’s focus on the centrality of breast feeding in Song of Solomon subverts the hegemony, particularly as this central aspect of the book was critically ignored.
Throughout the collection, writers often refer to Oprah as whitewashing certain issues for her predominately white audience, and Trytan Cotton’s examination of the Harpo produced screen adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God expands on this idea. He argues that by emphasizing romance at the expense of race, Oprah’s production company, Harpo, neutralizes the novel’s social commentary. In addition, the filmic narrative promotes Oprah’s ideology that self initiative and hard work bring success (167).
Each chapter in this collection successfully contributes to the overall argument that Oprah has created an ideology that emphasizes personal solutions to political problems. This ideology is communicated through Oprah’s widely encompassing cultural industry and infiltrates understandings of race, sexuality, gender, spirituality, politics, and class, but without interrogating systemic oppression too closely.
This collection sets its self apart from previous writing on Oprah’s cultural impact, which tends to concentrate the ways Oprah panders to a white audience and/or contributes to a marginalization of fat people. While Stories of Oprah acknowledges these areas, its focus on Oprah as a cultural industry encompassing television, magazines, film, literary publishing, and international philanthropy offers a unique, in-depth and interdisciplinary perspective. Stories of Oprah covers a huge range of ideas and issues arising in the face of Oprah’s reach across media and cultural industries. In light of Oprah’s recent overt political backing of Barack Obama and her announcement that she will end her talk show, it will be interesting to see whether the Oprahfication of American (indeed global) culture will remain when her cultural output no longer includes the confessional mode of a daily talk show.