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The Oprah Phenomenon

The Oprah Phenomenon

Jennifer Harris
Elwood Watson
WITH A FOREWORD BY ROBERT J. THOMPSON
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 312
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jcghr
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  • Book Info
    The Oprah Phenomenon
    Book Description:

    Her image is iconic: Oprah Winfrey has built an empire on her ability to connect with and inspire her audience. No longer just a name, "Oprah" has become a brand representing the talk show host's unique style of self-actualizing individualism. The cultural and economic power wielded by Winfrey merits critical evaluation. The contributors to The Oprah Phenomenon examine the origins of her public image and its substantial influence on politics, entertainment, and popular opinion. Contributors address praise from her many supporters and weigh criticisms from her detractors. Winfrey's ability to create a feeling of intimacy with her audience has long been cited as one of the foundations of her popularity. She has repeatedly made national headlines by engaging and informing her audience with respect to her personal relationships to race, gender, feminism, and New Age culture. The Oprah Phenomenon explores these relationships in detail. At the root of Winfrey's message to her vast audience is her assertion that anyone can be a success regardless of background or upbringing. The contributors scrutinize this message: What does this success entail? Is the motivation behind self-actualization, in fact, merely the hope of replicating Winfrey's purchasing power? Is it just a prescription to buy the products she recommends and heed the advice of people she admires, or is it a lifestyle change of meaningful spiritual benefit? The Oprah Phenomenon asks these and many other difficult questions to promote a greater understanding of Winfrey's influence on the American consciousness. Elwood Watson, associate professor of history at East Tennessee State University, is the editor of several books, including "There She Is, Miss America": The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America's Most Famous Pageant and Searching The Soul of Ally McBeal: Critical Essays.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7213-2
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Robert Thompson

    To speak of Oprah Winfrey is to speak in superlatives. She’s the richest this, the most powerful that; the first this, the greatest influence on that. What Caesar was to geography, it would seem, Winfrey is to turn-of-the-twenty-first-century culture. Commentators refer to the “Oprahfication” of America much like historians refer to the hellenization of Europe and Asia under Alexander. Winfrey positioned herself at the head of a vast cultural empire and then convinced everybody to confirm that she’d done so. A discussion of Oprah Winfrey nearly always begins with hyperbole.

    Oprah Winfrey starts out with one extraordinary gift: the ability...

  4. Introduction: Oprah Winfrey as Subject and Spectacle
    (pp. 1-32)
    Jennifer Harris and Elwood Watson

    For a brief moment in 2002, President George W. Bush faced one of his most savvy media opponents to date: Oprah Winfrey. According to the White House, Winfrey declined to join an official U.S. delegation scheduled to tour the schools of Afghanistan and draw attention to the subordinate role of Afghani women, claiming “she didn’t have the time.”¹ The news item was quickly disseminated, as befitting anything that tied together so many newsworthy elements: refusing a request of the U.S. president, rebuilding Afghanistan, and Oprah Winfrey herself. The attempt of the White House to draw on Winfrey’s cultural currency to...

  5. Part I. Oprah Winfrey and Race

    • The Specter of Oprah Winfrey: Critical Black Female Spectatorship
      (pp. 35-50)
      Tarshia L. Stanley

      Theorists of black visual spectatorship have long considered the spectacular modes of observation practiced by African Americans with regard to popular representations of themselves. Whether black people’s engagement with their imagery has been acquiescent or resistant, reconstructive or revisionary, critics agree that black people are experts at looking for themselves and at themselves in visual media. In the case of Oprah Winfrey—talk-show host, actress, producer, bibliophile, and businesswoman—critical black spectators have either absented themselves from serious critiques of her iconographic presence and function or dismissed her presence as one constructed for white audiences. This essay examines the provocative...

    • My Mom and Oprah Winfrey: Her Appeal to White Women
      (pp. 51-64)
      Linda Kay

      In the mid-1980s I was a single white female (SWF) working as a sportswriter for theChicago Tribune. I lived in a condominium in downtown Chicago with a view of Lake Michigan. I did not own a car, walked everywhere, and reveled in my status as a city girl. My mother, who had raised three kids in a New Jersey suburb and was recently widowed, visited Chicago regularly. On the days I went to work, she passed the time at Water Tower Place, an impressive mall and condominium complex that stretches seventy-four floors above Michigan Avenue. The main entrance to...

    • The “Oprahization” of America: The Man Show and the Redefinition of Black Femininity
      (pp. 65-84)
      Valerie Palmer-Mehta

      The hit Comedy Central series The Man Show debuted on June 16, 1999, to ratings that broke all records for the channel. The introductory program was titled “The Oprahization of America,” and original hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla had this to say about talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and contemporary social relationships in the United States:

      Kimmel: We’re here because we have a serious problem in America and her name is Oprah. Millions and millions of women are under Oprah’s spell. This woman has half of America brainwashed.

      Carolla: She tells them what to read, what to eat, what to...

  6. Part II. Oprah Winfrey on the Stage

    • Oprah Winfrey and Women’s Autobiography: A Televisual Performance of the Therapeutic Self
      (pp. 87-100)
      Eva Illouz and Nik John

      It has become somewhat commonplace to suggest that the genre of talk shows has blurred the private and public spheres by exposing to public view secrets hitherto confined to the bedroom (or whispered into the ear of a professional). However, the process by which the private is made public is still largely unclear. To become a public form of speech, a private utterance must undergo a transformation, that is, be recoded as a public performance. In this essay, we suggest that Oprah Winfrey’s construction of her biography on television is exemplary of the kind of cultural transformation that the private...

    • From Fasting toward Self-Acceptance: Oprah Winfrey and Weight Loss in American Culture
      (pp. 101-124)
      Ella Howard

      In 2002 Oprah Winfrey stated, “I did a head-to-toe assessment, and though there was plenty of room for improvement, I no longer hated any part of myself, including the cellulite. I thought, This is the body you’ve been given—love what you’ve got.”¹ The story of Winfrey’s dramatic rise to stardom is widely known. An African American woman born into rural poverty, shuttled from one relative to another, and the victim of prolonged sexual abuse, Winfrey prevailed over nearly every imaginable disadvantage to pursue a career in broadcasting. Proving her critics shortsighted, she created a revolutionary new approach to talk...

    • Spiritual Talk: The Oprah Winfrey Show and the Popularization of the New Age
      (pp. 125-146)
      Maria McGrath

      Nineteen ninety-four was an important year for Oprah Winfrey. In anticipation of her upcoming fortieth birthday, she began a radical program of self-transformation. To gain control over her lifelong battle with weight, she decided to abandon all fad diets for a more consistent plan of healthy eating and a strict daily running schedule. In aLadies’ Home Journalinterview in November 1994, Winfrey reflected on her commitment to her new exercise regime:

      Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it. . . . This is the hardest thing there is...

    • Oprah Winfrey and Spirituality
      (pp. 147-164)
      Denise Martin

      The public persona of Oprah Winfrey is a richly textured and complex mosaic composed of artist, philanthropist, television host, actress, author, publisher, producer, advocate, filmmaker, teacher, businesswoman, and media-pop icon. Many critical works that address Winfrey consider her performance of these roles within the context of gender studies, media studies, or both. Although such readings are certainly accurate, they tend to neglect the equally rich and compelling spiritual and religious themes found in Winfrey’s collective body of work. These themes can be interpreted according to the rubric of the New Age movement; however, an alternative examination of Winfrey’s cultural production...

    • Phenomenon on Trial: Reading Rhetoric at Texas Beef v. Oprah Winfrey
      (pp. 165-188)
      Jennifer Richardson

      In January 1998 a conglomerate of cattle producers from Texas sued talk-show host Oprah Winfrey for comments she made on her show about the safety of the U.S. beef supply. Like many good stories, this one could begin with, “In the beginning was the Word.”¹ At every turn, the trial lends itself to a rhetorical critique: it was an event born of, centered on, and sustained by the word. It began with what Winfrey said, to whom, and where, and it insists on being about what people can say, to whom, and where. It never would have happened if not...

  7. Part III. Oprah Winfrey on the Page

    • Oprah’s Book Club and the American Dream
      (pp. 191-206)
      Malin Pereira

      In their essay “America Dreamin’: Discoursing Liberally onThe Oprah Winfrey Show” Debbie Epstein and Deborah Lynn Steinberg assert that although the show identifies the failures and limitations of the American Dream for women and African Americans and, to a lesser extent, for the lower classes, in the end, it recuperates this classic mythology by affirming that self-actualization is indeed the key to social and economic success. They argue that this belief that the American Dream is accessible to everyone, regardless of the social forces governing their lives, dominates the narrative of the show. Not surprisingly, Epstein and Steinberg are...

    • Some Lessons before Dying: Gender, Morality, and the Missing Critical Discourse in Oprah’s Book Club
      (pp. 207-226)
      Roberta F. Hammett and Audrey Dentith

      As educators, feminists, cultural critics, and lovers of reading for pleasure, we are fascinated by Oprah’s Book Club. Oprah Winfrey’s ability to call attention to the work of otherwise marginalized authors and to promote a widened readership of their novels among a largely conventional fiction-reading public—as she did in the original incarnation of the book club—is remarkable. It is doubtful that writers of color such as Ernest Gaines, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison would have become household names and best-selling authors without the status and publicity that flowed from Winfrey’s endorsement of their writing. With professional as well...

    • Making Corrections to Oprah’s Book Club: Reclaiming Literary Power for Gendered Literacy Management
      (pp. 227-258)
      Sarah Robbins

      In the fall of 2001, the juggernaut of Oprah Winfrey’s original book club hit a roadblock. Up until that time, Winfrey’s television-based reading community had been humming steadily along, generating unprecedented sales for every book she selected while garnering zealous participation from fans, as well as praise from organizations such as the American Library Association. Oprah’s Book Club had been big news on the American cultural scene from the moment of its inception. AsTimemagazine reported in December 1996, the novels Winfrey chose for her show were catapulted into the upper echelons of best-seller status.¹ As analyses such as...

    • Knowing for Sure: Epistemologies of the Autonomous Self in O, the Oprah Magazine
      (pp. 259-276)
      Marjorie Jolles

      A common popular narrative of female empowerment is the story of the woman who goes looking for personal satisfaction and “completion” in others and, after much disappointment, only truly finds it in herself. This narrative suggests a vague link to American popular conceptions of feminism, which for some includes the political, ethical, and cultural ideologies that argue for women’s self-determination.¹ Some of these ideologies associated with the popular cultural version of American feminism are drawn from modern liberal theory, which, in celebrating self-determination as the superior path to selfhood, conflates personal authenticity with personal autonomy. According to the logic of...

    • Oprah Winfrey’s Branding of Personal Empowerment
      (pp. 277-292)
      Damiana Gibbons

      Fresh from the successful launch of Oprah’s Book Club and the continued success ofThe Oprah Winfrey Show,Winfrey launchedO,the Oprah Magazinein May–June 2000. In that premier issue, Oprah Winfrey proclaimed her desire to guide her readers toward personal empowerment while linking their success to her own self-empowerment: “This is the defining question of my life: How do you use your life to best serve yourself and extend that to the world? One answer is this magazine. To be able to share all the things I have learned and have access to other people’s wisdom, and then...

  8. List of Contributors
    (pp. 293-296)
  9. Index
    (pp. 297-303)