The Gospel of an Icon:

Oprah, the Rorschach test

posted by Katherine Pratt Ewing

Kathryn Lofton does an excellent job of documenting how Oprah has achieved her icon status through her genius at synthesizing multiple strands of religiosity and spiritualism with secular ideas of tolerance and consumerism. But this icon status makes Lofton uneasy, just as Oprah generally makes the intellectual elite uncomfortable, despite her evident “good works” and promotion of liberal values such as tolerance and respect for others. Focusing on Oprah as an icon/inkblot, we can use our reactions to her as a Rorschach test:  What do we project onto Oprah and what analytical blind spots result from these projections and the discursive anxieties that underlie them? The uneasiness, evident in Lofton’s tone throughout the book, is an index of fundamental contradictions that many of us, as members of the intellectual elite, embody.

Clearly, Oprah’s product endorsements have had a huge impact on sales, which is no doubt galling for us critics of neoliberal capitalism, who are often ashamed to admit how much we ourselves buy and consume in the privacy of our own lives. Most of us are not strangers to the act of buying to help us feel good, but members of the intellectual elite disavow their commodified selves as a mark of class status and taste.  Watching Oprah, we enact this disavowal, and Lofton herself performs it when she writes: “We’re happy for the woman and glad for her good tidings, but we are left with the itching uncertainty that we don’t feel very good at all about all this commodity fetishism.” Criticizing Oprah’s blatant embrace of shopping performs a deeply entrenched scholarly identity that has its roots in Marxist intellectualism. It thus reproduces old political ideologies and dichotomies, such as the (often implicit) idea that political action to create a better world requires personal austerity and social upheaval.

Oprah makes people feel good. Scholarly critics fear that Oprah is anaesthetizing the masses. Lofton asks us to be surprised at how Oprah blends spirituality with the real world of commodities, but she does not as readily examine or challenge the common assumption that spirituality-cum-commodified self-improvement is antithetical to social/political action. In fact, the criticism of Oprah’s political effects seems oddly misplaced. There are at least three arenas that Lofton discusses in which Oprah’s acts have had significant social and political effects that go well beyond passive self-improvement: the election of Obama; transformation of the reading practices of the wide public that participates in the Oprah Winfrey Book Club; and the refashioning of gender. Within these three arenas, Oprah has arguably contributed significantly to the fashioning of a new middle-class subject and made it a performative possibility for millions of viewers. Oprah’s iconic performances have had important political and social effects that most liberal academics would be expected to applaud, including the encouragement of reading and the promotion of religious, racial, cultural, and sexual tolerance, by downplaying difference. Yet Lofton presents these Oprah effects in prose that often oscillates between a balanced review of scholarly and historical sources and conclusions tinged with disparagement. It is this tone, which belies her analytic neutrality, that might lead Oprah’s audience members to wonder what Lofton is doing to “their Oprah.”

Lofton’s epilogue focuses on the “‘Oprahfication’ of Obama,” by which she means the way that Oprah put Obama into the mold of a “familiar sort of savior,” a commodified product of neoliberalism.  She and some of her more socially progressive readers are disturbed by this commodification—including Deidre English, who calls such Oprahfication “chilling.” Yet the effect of Oprah’s decision,to come out and take an explicit political stance—not only aligning herself with a Democratic political candidate, but also actively promoting his presidency—was enormous. Oprah’s decision to openly endorse one candidate was quite a contrast from her usual practice of even-handed inclusiveness. One effect, of course, was to alienate some of her most conservative viewers, producing a small drop in Nielson ratings. But another effect was to create a huge base of support for Obama among people, especially women, who otherwise might not have imagined voting for a black presidential candidate. Some have argued that she may have influenced the very outcome of the election.

Oprah has this power to shape middle-class American discourse precisely because she does not take an overtly radical political stance focused on upending the current economic and social order from the outside, which would alienate people who are worried about rapid social transformation. She instead operates from within, performing and promoting a middle-class subjectivity grounded in a form of spirituality that has deep roots in American religious practice. She made it conceivable to identify Obama with the mainstream middle class—an effect that goes well beyond shallow, commodified “Oprahfication.”

The concept of depth is another one of those Oprah inkblots that exposes academics’ anxieties about the contradiction between their elitism and their egalitarianism. Lofton herself is uneasy and noncommittal about the concept of depth, presenting arguments that are critical of Oprah’s lack of depth, while aware that the criticism of spirituality as “thin” raises the question of what “thick” or “deep” might be. What is needed is a more systematic analysis of the politics of “depth,” beginning with its deployment by academics.

The association of Oprahfication with lack of depth is clearest in critiques of Oprah’s effects on the reading public. Lofton, like others, is skeptical of the interpretive approach to reading that Oprah encourages in her book club: she stresses that Oprah’s interpretations, which encourage readers to react emotionally to a book and relate its characters to their own lives, lack depth and reduce books to their ability to “return women to an Oprah way of life,” reiterating the core theme of Oprah-as-icon. Lofton is one of several scholars who have engaged in the classic highbrow-lowbrow debate and either bemoaned the loss of “depth” in an Oprah reading or celebrated how Oprah’s approach is a new style of reading that has encouraged the middle class to engage with both new authors and classic tomes that otherwise may have been inaccessible to most readers. Cecelia Farr, for example, compares the book club to an introductory English class: the first step is to reach students. One could also draw a comparison with Sesame Street, which uses the idiom of commodities to “sell” reading to kids.  Both Oprah and Sesame Street effectively reach and shape a self who always already inhabits a commodified world. Furthermore, Oprah’s book recommendations brought many female and minority authors the kind of visibility and respect that otherwise might have eluded them, effectively forcing a widening of the literary “canon.”  Surely, a “deep” reading is not precluded by a form of reading that first grabs people emotionally and gets them to buy and open the book. But Oprah stimulates our class anxieties surrounding taste and the discernment of quality as manifest in our ability to interpret a novel “deeply.”

I turn finally to the question of gender and to scholarly anxieties about Oprah as an icon of womanhood. Why would Lofton say that “women and femininity in Oprah’s empire are . . . served up to be sacrificed”?  What are the effects of Oprah’s use of gender?  Are women being sacrificed or rendered powerless by Oprah’s embrace of feminine style?  Feminists may well be concerned that this sort of emphasis on the feminine deprives women of their political voice and plays into the hands of an arch-conservative like Glenn Beck, the only talk show host who rivals Oprah’s popularity. Beck is the antithesis of Oprah in so many ways—a white male whose commentary plays a central role in shaping conservative political discourse as it is articulated by many middle-class Americans. Yet he himself has stated on his show that his wife watches Oprah. Though he denigrates Oprah, his comments imply the following peculiar analogy: Oprah is to women what he, Beck, is to conservatives. In this analogy, the domestic doings of women can be safely ignored. Beck asserts a form of divisive but beleaguered masculine culture that must be protected from the incursions of foreigners, government, elite liberals, and uppity women. If Oprah is painted as merely promoting feminine distractions, then she too can be safely mocked and ignored.

Lofton’s reading of Oprah unwittingly participates in a similar class- and politics-based denigration of the feminine that involves a problematic conceptual slippage. Many feminists of a certain age, who recall their bra-burning resistance to gender inequities in the workplace and the home, have been critical of an upcoming generation of women who seem to have forgotten these hard-won social gains as they subject themselves to a feminine style and impossible shoes. But a large proportion of this younger generation doesn’t necessarily recognize the bra or the shoe as a symbol of male domination as they dress for their successful careers. Furthermore, their concern with style needn’t mark them as politically apathetic or conservative, as both Beck and Lofton appear to assume. Beck uses a specific form of masculinity as the emotional juice for his political conservatism and tries to paint women’s world as apolitical and powerless. Assuming that he is correct reproduces this assumption.

Denigration of feminine political action has a long past. The temperance movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was mocked as a bourgeois woman’s concern before it moved into mainstream politics and became the powerful force that resulted in Prohibition. Discussing how Oprah was directly influenced by the multiple strands of spiritualism that developed in the nineteenth century, scholar Trysh Travis has suggested that these forms of spiritualism were marginalized both by the general public and by the academy because they were judged to be “pathologically bourgeois and feminized.” They were criticized as being vague and superficial—a concern that Lofton herself expresses about Oprah’s approach to Obama, to books, and to spirituality. Historically (and, from an anatomical point of view, rather paradoxically), the feminine has been seen as lacking depth. Lofton’s criticism of the way Oprah encompasses both style and personal autonomy in her vision of self-improvement rests on a similar unease with feminine style and bodily practice, which is shared by many scholars. Yet, in our time, neither femininity nor masculinity can be detached from commodified bodily practices. Oprah’s entanglement of spiritualism and feminine commodities, which Lofton so powerfully demonstrates, can instead be viewed as an ethical discipline that not only embraces forms of embodied feminine pleasure but links these pleasures to forms of power that have the potential to recast the political process by reshaping the middle-class subject into one who is tolerant of the racially, culturally, religiously, and sexually other.

Focusing on the ways in which Oprah’s performances make scholars uneasy exposes the silent ambivalences and contradictions that shape our own discourse. These contradictions emerge from tensions between our egalitarian ideologies and our entrenched intellectual elitism. Oprah preaches a more egalitarian and tolerant social order, just as do many liberal scholars and other members of the intellectual elite, but she goes about it very differently. She disrupts intellectual elitism by making aspects of elite culture—ranging from lifestyle to literature—visible and accessible to everyone.  Unfortunately, efforts of the intellectual elite to promote a better world often backfire, foundering on the political polarization of liberals and conservatives. Conservatives attack liberals, especially those at elite research universities, for being out of touch with mainstream America. In some respects, they are right. Our uneasiness with Oprah arises precisely at those moments when we draw the line and pass judgment on her appeals to the lowbrow middle-American consumer. And yet Oprah has figured out how to transmit her message of tolerance even into the home of Glenn Beck.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version


Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.