09/05 Author's Roundtable 2: Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon Guest Writer: Sarah Moon Cassinelli

Friday, December 16, 2011

posted under by Unit for Criticism
[On Monday, December 5, the Unit for Criticism held the second of its Fall 2011 Author’s Roundtables. The Unit hosted Kathryn Lofton to discuss her book Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. The below contribution is from Sarah Moon Cassinelli.]

“This Oprah is maybe not your Oprah:” personal narrative and commodity in Oprah’s world-making

Written by Sarah Moon Cassinelli (English)

Kathryn Lofton
For most in attendance at Kathryn Lofton’s roundtable talk, Oprah Winfrey is a familiar subject. The talk show host’s presence filled my childhood living room each afternoon. My mother was a devotee and I would watch with her. She and, later, my friends and I, enjoyed the show for the personal stories, the guests, and for the emotional catharsis that came just before the conclusion of each episode. The consistency of the episode formula, Kathryn Lofton argues in her recent book, is a major part of the show’s success.

Lofton opened her roundtable presentation with the same question that begins her book, “What is Oprah?” There are many ways to answer that question: Oprah is undoubtedly a savvy and successful business woman, a global philanthropist; whose work is particularly geared toward women and children, and the head of multi-media brand that began as a television show and which has become a cultural force. She is also an intimate and inspiration to her viewers and fans. But by asking what, instead of who, Lofton pushes her beyond exclusively discussing Oprah the person. Lofton is not a biographer and is less interested in pursuing the “underdog” narrative that predominantly describes Oprah’s journey to the top. Instead, she is more focused on the ways Oprah strategically uses parts of her personal narrative to construct a world where transformation is possible for those who buy into the confession-conversion-transformation model that each show offers. As Lofton states, “Oprah is a noun, a subject, an object of action. Oprah is an instance of American astonishment of what can be… Of her, of you, of what you could and might become.” Although Oprah has used her influence and brand to produce and promote numerous movies, authors, books, and even other talk shows, Oprah’s personal story of uplift and success is her oldest and best-selling product.

Lofton selected three different clips from The Oprah Winfrey Show: 20th Anniversary Collection , to punctuate the body of her talk. The first, “Stood in My Shoes,” featured a woman named Joni who once purchased a pair of Oprah’s shoes at auction. The shoes were much too big, but Joni would step into them to give herself a sense of hope and strength; the shoes—a former possession of the talk show host—gave Joni literal and spiritual connections to Oprah. This clip, according to Lofton, powerfully demonstrated the ways in which Oprah’s success rests in part in her ability to make herself “usefully universal.” Oprah’s well-known personal trials and triumphs act as the infrastructure that supports a world that diverse viewers can access and inhabit. Indeed, just as Joni stepped into Oprah’s actual shoes, so the show invites viewers to occupy Oprah’s world where there are almost limitless options for individual change. As Lofton states, “The world of Oprah Winfrey is that self-contained world, a world apart from the mundane and arbitrary rules of ordinary existence” (84). Hers is also a world with enough power and resources to offer the promise of transformation. That the purchased shoes act as a portal to Oprah herself is simple but striking example of how commodity and personal stories are the building blocks to Oprah’s world-making.

Oprah and  Christine McFadden with her new twins 
The second clip featured the more harrowing story of Christine McFadden. Entitled, “The Worst Day of her Life,” the video describes the murder of Christine McFadden’s four children by her ex-husband. Lofton used this clip to discuss commonly used features of The Oprah Winfrey Show: the personal narrative of a difficult event related through photo montage and snippets of media footage. The language of change and personal redemption are key characteristics of the show. As discussed in her chapter, “Diverting Conversions: The Makeover of Social Rite,” the power of language is crucial to transformation. Furthermore, it is the narration of the event and one’s return from darkness to light, and not the experience that changes the lives of those who witness it (91). For example, many women have appeared on Oprah to testify that they were no longer suicidal because of Christine McFadden’s story of strength. As viewers absorb the testimonies of those like Christine McFadden and the women she helped to save, and as the show focuses on the pleasures of transformation and personal strength, we ignore the fact that the tough questions have not been asked. For instance, what drives a person to kill four children? Why does Joni lack adequate job opportunities?

The last clip Lofton showed highlights the allure of the makeover and commodified self-improvement. The “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” was a crossover episode that featured the five men of the 2003-2007 Bravo TV Show by the same title. Those who have received makeovers, whether the contestants get to be “princesses for the day” or are given an entirely new, apparently gay male-approved look, often comment that they feel like an entirely new person. This time, transformation is made possible through changes to one’s appearance which are powerful enough to positively alter the very core of who that person is. Oprah and her show unabashedly sell a version of “The Best Life” but as Lofton argues, what are the cultural, epistemological, and even moral stakes of such product pushing and self-making?

Diana Jaher’s (Theatre) response has been reprised on Kritik. But a second response by Dale Bauer (English) was organized around the question, “Is all pain the same?” Compelled by the show’s tendency to commercialize the personal and Oprah’s seeming ability to strike through all different types of pain with one equalizing blow, Bauer presented three very different examples of personal pain and challenged us to question the tenet Oprah delivers with each episode: that shared pain is therapeutic. The first example is from O Magazine. On the last page of each issue, Oprah offers personal reflections. In the August 2001 issue, Oprah mourned and reflected on the accidental death of her beloved dog, Gracie. Bauer then presented her second example, a piece entitled “The Aquarium” by Aleksandar Hemon (The New Yorker 81.17 13 June 2011). Hemon’s memoir about his infant daughter’s battle with cancer, two brain surgeries, and her death seems to crash head-first into Oprah’s tenets about pain, suffering, and salvation:

One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling--that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel's suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anyone. And Isabel most certainly did not earn ascension to a better place, as there was no place better for her than at home with her family. (Hemon)
The comparison of an infant’s death to the loss of one’s dog was not lightly made. Bauer was not trying to expose Oprah in a negative light; rather, the Hemon piece meant to illustrate Bauer’s desire to “know that there are very different pains” in the world and to show that the experience of pain is not transcendental. The third example was an anti-sentimental take on her own trauma: her stroke and subsequent recovery process. As Bauer concluded her response, she reminded us that “Oprah’s world lacks irony or two ways to read a situation.” Instead, she urges us to embrace the complexity of experience and not shy away from what makes it distinct.

The third response by Mimi Nguyen (Gender Women Studies/Asian American Studies) is also reprised on Kritik.

Toward the end of the roundtable, Lofton acknowledged that it is “easy to do a critique.” Hers is not a project that simply attacks on Oprah Winfrey. Rather, she is interested in critiquing the depoliticized fairytale that Oprah’s show promotes. As Lofton stated, The Oprah Winfrey Show is “painfully unable to think or speak systematically” about the social and cultural issues it takes on with each episode.


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