Oprah’s Conflicted, Empowering, Shaming Bond With Women Like Me

I believe, even on my meanest days, that Oprah's quest for global dominance is fueled at least in part by a desire to do some good. And anyway, I could not turn away from her even if I bothered to try.

By Julianne Hing May 25, 2011

After 25 years on the air, Oprah’s very last episode of her daily talk show is airing today. It is the end of an era for a show that’s redefined media and transformed television. And I for one am not going to miss Oprah Winfrey at all. First of all, she is not going anywhere. Did any of you really take Jay-Z seriously when he announced he was retiring from the studio a few years ago? It’s the same thing for me now. And while the end of her daily show marks the end of a cultural era, not only is Oprah not retiring, she is not even retreating from the massive platform she’s built for herself over the past few decades. Oprah will move on to her eponymous cable channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network, which creates a deliciously appropriate acronym. Instead of just one hour of television a day, she will help program 24 hours of it. It will never be the same as her daily talk show, I know. But she will continue to publish her magazine, the covers of which she graces every month. Her daytime talk show may be over, but she will continue to be an omnipotent cultural presence. She will continue to make headlines every time she exhales, and every other time she’s seen cavorting with her best friend Gayle King. Oprah is so firmly enmeshed in the cultural firmament that I don’t know how anyone could miss her. I myself was raised on a steady diet of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in a family of Oprah devotees, and even though I stopped watching the show regularly years ago, I find it impossible to escape her reach. I can rattle off the most obscure Oprah trivia, details that have nothing to do with her show or the broad themes of her life’s work. How often do Oprah and Gayle talk on the phone? Who designed the hand stitched gold dress Oprah wore on the cover of O Magazine’s fifth anniversary issue? What’s Oprah’s favorite color? Who was Oprah’s teen crush? Answers: At least an hour every day, Narciso Rodriguez, sage green and Jackie Jackson of the Jackson 5. I remember being on a date and unselfconsciously talking about Oprah like she and I were well-acquainted friends, and being a little surprised that not everyone knew Oprah the way I did. I’ve often mistaken my familiarity with Oprah for affection. But in truth I am both drawn to and ambivalent about her, and that is probably the real reason why I will not miss her talk show. I’ve been disappointed plenty–I consider my ability to feel let down by Oprah (as well as the fact that it feels unnatural to call her anything but her first name) further proof of the intimacy she’s cultivated with her audience. I remember the "Diabetes: America’s Silent Killer" episode she did last year with Dr. Mehmet Oz, about how the disease plays out in the black community. The show was [so irresponsible it felt offensive](http://colorlines.com/archives/2010/02/shame_on_oprah_scolding_black_church_ladies_without_talking_about_structure.html). "Diabetes is a ticking time bomb," Oprah said gravely during the introduction. "It’s a silent killer. It’s annihilating the African-American community. Literally, killing almost 100 of us every single day, in the African-American community." "It’s time to get out of denial." All true: Diabetes does indeed impact a disproportionate number of black Americans, who are both more likely to contract it and more likely to die from it. But in Oprah’s telling, the solution wasn’t fixing [food deserts](http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/05/do_you_live_in_a_food_desert.html) or increasing [access to preventive health care](http://www.theroot.com/views/10-reasons-african-americans-should-march-washington-about-health-care) or building parks in urban neighborhoods or any of those boring things. Rather, the epidemic calls for a healthy dose of shaming. So After Dr. Oz led the audience through a thorough introduction on the ravages of diabetes, Oprah took viewers to Dayton, Ohio, to meet some black church ladies. Viewers watched as the women served up one of their typical post-service meals of fried chicken and meatloaf, and a table of heavy sides. They’d written to the show about their collective weight issues, Oprah said. Oprah then staged an intervention and sent the women to a boot camp of sorts to get them motivated about changing their lifestyle. When the video segment was over, Oprah turned to the women, now seated in her studio audience, some dressed in their Sunday finery, and clucked her tongue at them, scolding them for being lazy about exercise and stubborn about their diet. It made me so angry to see these women brought from their homes to be shamed on national television. It felt especially unfair to see Oprah lay into these women with a simplistic cultural criticism without discussing the structural disparities that shape people of color’s lives. One conversation is not complete without the other. But hadn’t Oprah detailed her own long struggle with her weight and diet and with taking charge of her health? Hadn’t she partaken in her own game of public self-flagellation, and then redemption through self-acceptance? It’s a story line to which she has returned frequently, an endless recurring cycle that was as irresistible as it was exhausting. I wince now as I remember the [January 2009 cover of O Magazine](http://www.oprah.com/spirit/Oprahs-Battle-with-Weight-Gain-O-January-2009-Cover/1), when two Oprahs stood side by side, a lean and beaming Oprah from 2005, resting an elbow on a chubbier and disappointed Oprah of 2009. The headline, "How did I let this happen again?" stung. The teaser, "Oprah on her battle with weight: a must-read for anyone who’s fallen off the wagon," hurt to read. I felt sad for her, and I felt sad for all the women who look up to her as they struggle to accept themselves in a culture that teaches women to hate themselves. So I felt sad for myself, too. Didn’t Oprah, a brave, powerful woman of color who revolutionized 20th century media, deserve to treat herself with more dignity than that? But then, another question: How much of Oprah’s appeal comes from the fact that she embodies women’s worst insecurities about themselves even as she exhorts women to get over it already? Does that make her human, or does it make her cynically depraved? I skipped straight to the book reviews in that issue and looked at little else. My mom owns DVDs of Oprah’s shows, and my sister pounces every time Oprah’s magazine shows up in the mailbox. Save for a couple niche sewing magazines, my mother has subscribed to Oprah’s magazine longer than any other–and it’s still one of the only mainstream titles that consistently runs decent journalism by and about women. I’ve peeked at a few shows on Oprah’s new network, and sat rapt during the one episode I saw with Maya Angelou on "Master Class," an hour-long documentary style interview with an accomplished public figure. I also took a voyeuristic interest in "Season 25," the riveting behind-the-scenes reality show of the making of Oprah’s finale season. If any of you saw that Yosemite camping episode, you know what I’m talking about. After an exhausting day of shooting mishaps out in the woods, Oprah looked at the camera and said something we didn’t see in the actual episode: "I love the outdoors. But black people don’t want to pretend they’re homeless." Oprah’s magnetism is difficult to pinpoint; she’s got charisma that always feels genuine even though it’s well-practiced. Still, some things we’ve become accustomed to we may never get to see again. Over the years, Oprah’s set has become a destination for celebrities’ big public statements (Ellen DeGeneres and Ricky Martin both came out on Oprah’s show, separated by a stretch of more than 10 years); public shaming and repentance (James Frey and Jonathan Plummer did both); awkward confession (Tom Cruise, all the time), and stoic shows of strength in the face of personal devastation (Maria Shriver, this week). I love seeing Oprah turn her guests to mush. I love seeing the elaborate surprises Oprah plans for everyday people, the way she orchestrates tearful reunions and 24-hour makeovers and swoops in like an actual angel to make people’s dreams come true. It is crazy making entertainment. I believe, even on my meanest days, that Oprah’s quest for global dominance is fueled at least in part by a desire to do some good. And I do believe that she is committed to empowering women and girls, that she wants to give people hope and encourage folks to wake up to the power we all have to make change in the world. So I consume the media she creates even when I’m uncertain if I can stomach more of her self-absorption and moralizing. I am electrified and enraged by Oprah. I could not turn away from her even if I bothered to try.