Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Oprah... Just Oprah - Not Awful

Oprah on her final show
Those who know me well probably also know that I’m not the biggest fan of Oprah Winfrey. The reason for this can best be exemplified by the penultimate and third-to-last episodes of Ms. Winfrey’s show, broadcast in late May. Taped from the United Center in Chicago, the two-part event was the epitome of the mega-idolatry Oprah’s fan base is noted for. In this case, one celebrity after another was paraded to the center of the filled-to-capacity amphitheatre and proceeded to sing her praises – in a few cases, quite literally. As the camera hung in close to each star’s anguished face, and as that star read a carefully scripted tribute on the monumental difference Oprah has made on nearly every female life form on the planet, reaction shots of Oprah’s audience of “ultimate viewers” validated nearly every word with their mix of grief, frenzy and euphoria, seen before only when the Beatles landed in America.

I think it’s this last part that gets my goat the most: the notion of Oprah as a demagogue, someone who has indeed changes lives, but for those who are changeable only by a TV personality. What does it say when a megapixelled image must impel you into bonding with your friends, family, even yourself. Isn’t this Orwellian manipulation, albeit for an ostensibly positive result? Just how close is this to another another dystopic warning knell, A Clockwork Orange? Oprah has been called, not inaccurately, “the most influential woman in the world,” but such a superlative, female or not, should be more than a bit worrisome for those who espouse individual thought and the freedom to express unique, sometimes unpopular, ideas.

But the Oprah who hosted the final show made me realize that she is also an extremely skilled pop psychologist. This is not a put-down; her gift, by her own admission, is the ability to communicate directly with her audience and impart in them a philosophy of self-betterment and self-esteem. Her recurring directive is too heed your “calling” and to make your life’s work the response to that calling. She delivers this message firmly yet compassionately; her sangfroid is balanced perfectly by genuine emotion- and genuine is the key word here. Parts of her philosophy, particularly those dealing with spiritual energy, but her prescription for life is hard to argue with. In other words, laid out flat, without all the idolizing and genuflecting from her legions of followers, celebrity or otherwise, she’s not bad.

When I worked in TV news, I was told that you couldn’t address the camera and cry at the same time. Some fragile newscasters found this out the hard way. One in particular had to deliver a tragic story on the news and broke down, ultimately regaining her composure but “let go” for losing that all important journalistic stoicism. But Oprah did it on that final show, speaking about her harsh upbringing in Mississippi. She is so comfortable, in front of millions, that those millions each feel like her closet friend.

No doubt that is why she has endured for 15 years, but I frankly believe you could have saved most of that time simply by watching the final show. Her opening speech conveys her mantra sufficiently; no need for all those hours of redundancy. How many times do you need to be told about your own personal energy?

Every day for 25 years, according to 23 million women, apparently.

Post script: Amidst all the lauding I have for for the final episode, I do have one bone of contention: the neglect of mentioning Phil Donahue. This man invented the format that drove Oprah to power, but from viewing this show, you'd have thought she did. Shame, shame, the divine Miss O - give credit where credit is due.

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