Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Elitist, Escapist, or Everywoman?: Deconstructing ‘The Oprah Effect’

Let me be clear: the purpose of this review is not to critique Oprah’s philanthropy, or her validation of sexual abuse victims, or her support of visible minorities. These are all empirically wonderful things. Whether you love her or loathe her, Oprah’s patronage of the causes that matter to Oprah cannot be denied. I’m not sure which side of the Oprah fan club I belong to. Considering how much information is available about the Oprah brand, we know remarkably little about Oprah the person, other than the choice tidbits she and her Harpo minions choose to divulge. Who is Oprah? She morphs her personality to fit each guest. She’s dancing and thumping with Tina Turner, philosophizing with Maya Angelou and talking literature with Toni Morrison. I half expected her to jump on the couch with Tom Cruise during his outburst! Some people would argue that this is the job of the talk show host, to make each guest feel comfortable. People respect Oprah because she is self-made and there’s no arguing that she’s made a lot of money and a big impact.

Toni Morrison & Oprah
Oprah’s success is often credited to her ability to connect with Middle America. Indeed, her struggles with food and body image are something many women can relate to. We do relate to Oprah, but do we admire her? Despite my efforts to dismiss Oprah as just a mixture of favorite things, weight loss gimmicks and secret Stedman, I can’t do it. Despite my efforts to ignore her, Oprah makes me think. Not only that, but I’m embarrassed to say that Oprah makes me think harder and think better about things I think about anyway. Despite my efforts to mock Oprah, she takes my empty ambitions of thankfulness, self-realization and humor and puts them into practice with ideas like a gratitude journal, aha! moments and the ugly cry. The Oprah Winfrey Show seems to invite mocking, but when you actually examine what it stands for, mocking doesn’t make much sense.

It’s no coincidence that Oprah.com is the first site to pop up when you Google “live your best life.” Living fully is Oprah’s calling card. Living fully is easier when you’re a billionaire with a personal chef and a payroll full of experts. It’s much more difficult for the ordinary person. As much as Oprah does connect with women of North America, her daily show is also a sense of escape for ordinary women. For example, one contributor to the online forum thriftyfun.com wondered how often she should change bed sheets. Another member responded “I saw Oprah say on her show once that she does them every other day. But she is Oprah and can do that. LOL. Or have that done, I should say.” Exactly. Many of us enjoy Oprah, but we also realize that her reality is not ours.

Robin Okrant attempted to adapt her life to Oprah’s reality for one year and chronicled the experience in her blog Living Oprah (now a book of the same name). She embodied every lifestyle suggestion made by Oprah and reported how much money, energy, and time it took. It turns out that it’s very expensive to live Oprah and the majority of us simply cannot afford to live our best lives as prescribed by the Queen of Talk.

It’s incomplete to discuss money and Oprah without mentioning what has been dubbed “The Oprah Effect.” When Oprah endorses a product, sales skyrocket. This says more about our consumerist and celebrity-obsessed culture than it does about Oprah’s discerning taste. In fact, rumor has it that Oprah’s personal taste is actually quite gaudy and horrid. But when you have dozens of people ensuring that you live your best life, apparently this doesn’t matter.

Oprah’s final episodes – the two surprise extravaganzas at Chicago’s United Centre and the final “love letter to her audience” in her studio were nothing if not representative of Oprah’s show and legacy. They showcased Oprah in her finest glory: part A-list celebrity pal, part benevolent billionaire, and part self-help goddess. The recipe was clearly a success as CTV reported 1.6 million Canadian viewers for the ultimate episode, a record for the series. Her final words of wisdom to viewers included affirmations about feeling worthy, embracing your true calling and listening to life’s whispers. She proclaimed: “You are not alone. You can change your life.”

Oprah certainly changed hers. For a name that means “runaway,” Oprah has runaway - with society’s collective soul, from the childhood she was born into, and now into a lucrative new undertaking with OWN. She is the quintessential self-made woman. From skinny jeans to fat clothes, she has been part of our culture for 25 years. I don’t know if she is elitist, escapist, or an everywoman; ultimately she’s an enigma. I still cannot articulate how I feel about the richest and most influential woman of our time. But instead of joining the anti- or pro-Oprah parades, I’ll live my own life: take what works for me, leave what doesn’t, and resist the urge to ridicule. Oprah would be proud.

Mari-Beth Slade is a food and wine lover, wayward librarian and would-be philosopher. She works as a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax, but spends most days doing yoga poses at her desk or brainstorming discussion topics for her book club.

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