The Gospel of an Icon:

OMG: Oprah Winfrey, pop religion, and the temple of our familiar

posted by Daphne Brooks

If, like me, you’ve filled up your sabbatical time this year logging countless hours of watching The Oprah Winfrey Show’s Season 25: The Farewell Season, as well as its behind-the-scenes sister show on OWN, the Queen of All Media’s brand new cable network, then you’ll probably find it hard to select just one favorite moment from a season so awash with the spectacular celebration, tender adoration, (self-) righteous vindication, and tearful adulation of the most successful woman ever to work in the television industry. How to choose between the mega-“my favorite things” two-day gift giving extravaganza (an event that our lady of sumptuous philanthropy likened to the beauty of good things happening to good people) and the “come-to-Jesus” estranged friends truth-and-reconciliation episodes featuring Whoopi Goldberg and former self-help protégé Iyanla Vanzant?

But the scene that stands out in my memory, and the scene that crystallizes the arguments of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, Kathryn Lofton’s arresting new study of “the good news” delivered and commodified by the “symbolic figure” that is Winfrey, is one in which the talk show host looked out tearfully across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia and registered her awe at seeing a garnet red “O” emblazoned in lights at the center of that country’s national landmark. O-vercome with emotion, Winfrey turned the magnitude of that gesture into a teachable moment with her audience the following day, by describing how this was the symbol of what it means to work hard and dream big.

And so O goes. As Lofton brilliantly observes (and I quote at length here, as it is my favorite passage in the book),

She is capitalist and capital; she is a commodity and consumer. Oprah is a product, but Oprah’s product is not individual objects. Her patents are not mechanical innovations or engineering improvements. She does not design fabric or copyright personal recipes. Rather, her taste is her product. Her O is what sells. The O is her signature, her initial, and her trademark. It is a sound, a reminder of her televised exclaimations: “Oh, no.” “Oh, yes.” “Oh, please.” “Oh, I never.” “Oh!” “Oh?” “Oh.” Awed, orgasmic, thrilled, worried and converted, an O is the noise of emotional presence and ready delight (what I feel right now, right here, before this new thing, new experience, or new encounter—Oh!) should not confuse the consumer with its earthy sheen. The O is never unscheduled or chaotic. It is cadence. For every girly (womanly, interviewing, ministerial, listening, awakening) “oh,” there is a corporate O labeling a magazine, a book, a bracelet, or a piece of stereo equipment. The O circles her consumer selections with her emboss, bequeathing her halo upon her beloved choices. The O envelops the commodities that she has chosen expressly for herself and now, expressly for you. She is a pitchwoman of her own consumption; her consumption is her commodity.

I have been enveloped by the O for some twenty-five years now, at once seduced, delighted, and irritated by—and yet drawn to—the image of a profoundly self-assured, brash, and at times entertainingly ego-driven baby-boomer African American woman who climbed the ladder of extreme wealth, fame, and social and cultural power in the post-Civil Rights era just as I was coming into intellectual and political consciousness as a black feminist scholar in the 1980s and ’90s. For me, Oprah Winfrey took the “temple of my familiar” (to borrow a line from brilliant novelist Alice Walker, a Winfrey “legend,” whose Color Purple opened a key chapter in her own self-professed spiritual awakening odyssey)—multicultural, middle-class woman-centered popular culture—and transformed that experience into universalized self-reckoning and a mega-million dollar empire. She invented, as Lofton’s book suggests, her own late-twentieth-century, commodity-driven version of a Great Awakening, and then rode it hard all the way into the new millennium.

My fascination with Lofton’s book, then, sits at the intersections of the personal and the professional, a uniquely liminal position that Oprah herself has turned into an artful and profoundly profitable state of being. And so, in the spirit of the confessional and the performative, and in a bid to pay homage to the porous boundaries between the personal and the communal that Oprahfication celebrates, endorses, and demands, I begin, then, with a few points about my own engagement with this phenomenon.

I have been—and perhaps in some ways will always be—one of the denizens, the followers, the 100% skeptical and yet 100% “true believers” of and in the Oprah Nation. I have been both captivated by her programs about white supremacy in all-white Forsyth County, Georgia (which aired in 1986, my freshman year in college) and the Little Rock Nine’s steely and yet graceful fortitude (which aired in 1996, when I was in graduate school) and embarrassed by her ostentatious obsession with the material (see the “My Favorite Things” episodes from any year). Still I can’t deny that O’s consistent engagement with the cultural memory of the Civil Rights movement and her equally consistent obsession with spectacular consumerism are somehow entwined. These two sides of Winfrey and, by extension, her entire empire articulate the imbricated legacies of black historical trauma and the access to quotidian privileges that define my own intersecting racial, class, gender, and generational identifications. Lofton’s book makes this clear: an Oprah can and did emerge out of the chrysalis of this late-capitalist moment—the summation of multiple liberation movements, globalized economic shifts, and media technology booms. O is the sum of all of these parts, the answer to an equation, and the promise of a new beginning for all who believe and have hOpe.

I first made the “Oprah connection” during my mother’s ultimately—thankfully—triumphant journey through battling breast cancer in the winter and spring of 2006. We were both drawn to the comfort of the ritual of watching “Lady O” every weekday, and we structured our days around that 4pm release. Chemo in the mornings, lunch in the early afternoons, a nap, a run to the pharmacy, Oprah, and the shift into dinner and bedtime. She was the voice of frivolity and quotidian delight in the midst of anxiety about my mother’s condition. She was affective energy—faith, comfort, joy, Aretha-charged “spirit in the dark” release in the face of the unknown.

For the first time in my life, I couldn’t get enough of Oprah, and thankfully that season marked the release of the twentieth anniversary DVD collection of the show—seventeen hours and six DVDs worth of footage from The Oprah Show—endless footage of car giveaways, South African girls school specials about the wall color and linen in their dormitories, Tom Cruise hallucinating on a couch, and Sidney Poitier tributes. Oprah began to bleed into our evenings and weekends. I carried her with me back and forth between California and New Jersey and watched her on my laptop in lonely airport terminals.

I stopped making the connection with O once my mother had come through her treatment. But there was one other moment when her empire drew me in—when I sought solace and relief from my personal pain.

Spring 2008: I had been numb for many months from a nasty break up with my partner and was trying to find my way again. And there in the pages of O: “A Bicycle Built for You.” I had to get it, and only the shiny mint green model—O’s favorite color—would do. It was my own path out of “the darkness,” a new lease on life. And it remains my prized possession, one that I became obsessed with buying as a result of (whether I’d like to admit it or not) O’s encouragement and the way that I’ve enjoyed the pleasures of depending on Oprah to “light my way” and make me feel good—especially through the pleasures of consumption.

What to do with all of this? To be sure, Lofton’s scholarship is—whether she knows it or not—forging its own self-help meta-empire of scholars trying to come to terms with their own Oprah addictions in this, her first book. And what a tremendous study she has produced: ambitious and imaginative, critically cogent and rigorous, and yet (and quite delightfully) as quirky and unpredictable as popular culture itself. This book is in and of itself a pleasure to read, and clearly pleasure is a concept that lies at the heart of this study. Lofton consistently gives her readers new ways of considering the intersecting spiritual, cultural, and social politics of pleasure that dominate Oprah’s universe and that sustain and nurture her legions of followers.

More than anything, this fascinating book inspired me to keep asking questions of the Oprah phenomenon and its relationship to spirituality. As a scholar of literary studies, I am particularly fascinated by the role of the literary in Oprah’s brand of religiosity, and thus I was drawn to Lofton’s lively chapter on the book club phenomenon. Given the fact that Winfrey has maintained a well-publicized and in some ways career-altering connection to Toni Morrison’s work and consistently refers to Maya Angelou as “her mentor,” I’m continually interested in the significance of literary tropes and narrative symbolism in Oprah’s religious aesthetics.

Indeed, Lofton’s study makes me think of the ways that Winfrey’s film adaptation of Beloved itself operate as a spiritually redemptive tool in the transformations that the program underwent as it evolved into “Change Your Life TV.” As fans of the show may recall, it was after the summer that Oprah shot the film adaptation of Morrison’s classic meditation on slavery and cultural memory that she returned to her program and began proselytizing about the changes that she aimed to make to mark how she had distinctly “reformed” her show and re-defined her brand of programming as distinct from that of “trash talk TV.” One wonders to what extent a postmodern, magical realist text like Beloved operates at the level of religious conversion in the form and content of Winfrey’s program. In Oprah’s universe, how is the literary configured as a kind of spiritual experience in the pursuit of self-knowledge? (Just as well, serious fans may recall how her post-Beloved era leads to the moment when our host tries on her hat singing a new theme song backed by a choir—a version of a gospel song entitled “I Believe I’ll Run On.”)

The Beloved connection to Oprah’s spiritual politics is a powerful one, in my opinion, for one other key reason, and that is this: There are ways in which we might read the religious iconicity of the Oprah that Lofton details with great care as perhaps in some ways analogous to her role as an actor and her longtime interest in acting. In the introduction to the book, Lofton argues that an “Oprah is that which stands in, filling a space where before there was something missing or something needed.” This sort of a claim beautifully overlaps with the landmark arguments made by Lofton’s Yale colleague and performance studies scholar Joseph Roach, who argued influentially, in his work Cities of the Dead, that the figure of the actor operates as a “surrogate” and an effigy: a figure that stands in for the hopes, fears, and desires of a community, a figure that “evokes an absence,” bodies something forth, and “carries within [it] the memory of otherwise forgotten substitutions.”

These sorts of comparisons between the actor, the talk show host, and the religious icon might also force us to think in new ways about the always present place of the body in Oprah’s religious culture. Clearly her own corporeality is the site of fan identification, the expression of her imperfections, as well as the key symbol of the all-important makeover, and Lofton’s study encourages readers to think more about the spiritual relationship Oprah is forging (or not forging) with the body.

The Gospel of an Icon also got me to wondering if we can draw any connections between Oprah’s brand of spirituality and nineteenth-century spiritualist practices. Works like Molly McGarry’s really fine book Ghosts of Futures Past and P. Gabrielle Foreman’s groundbreaking research on the black spiritualist medium Hattie Wilson (known by literary scholars as Harriet Wilson, author of Our Nig) challenge readers to consider the intersecting politics of celebrity and women spiritualist leaders (from Wilson to someone like the Anglo trance medium Cora L.V. Scott). Given the ways that spiritualism plays with the boundaries of the religious and the secular, and given the ways that Lofton alludes to Oprah’s ability to appeal to cross-racial audiences (as did Wilson, in particular), it would be fascinating to consider how O’s performative aesthetics tap into this cultural tradition.

Most people who read Lofton’s study will, however, probably be most intrigued by the ways in which she grapples with the spiritual politics of Oprah’s material world, a world in which spectacular scenes of mass audience hysteria (fainting! sobbing! dancing!) generated by gift giveaways have become something of a seasonal pop culture tradition. Lofton suggests that we might read the material world of Oprah as a portal through which to best understand her spiritual ethos. As she argues, “we must agree that one of the great success stories of Oprah’s years has been the complete conversion—the conversion of a nation—to consumption as the adjudicating determinant of our relative freedom.” One of my dear friends and colleagues and I have had many a conversation about Oprah, and she has stated that she can’t reconcile Oprah’s deep obsession with materialism and her putatively altruistic philosophies—and this is something that she’s struggled with (as in, “Why don’t I like Oprah more? Maybe it’s because of what seems like a conflict in ideals”). For me, her question led to more questions. For instance, are there particular types of marketplace objects (like bicycles!) that are particularly spiritually resonant? Readers will find themselves engrossed by the ways that Lofton traces the dialectic between materialism and Oprah’s religiosity.

This material world, Lofton suggests, is one that is deeply entangled with gender politics. As she contends, “this book addresses imperatives applied outside the realm of the sect, into the imperatives of comfort nestling modern women in a language of self-service. That language (‘I just like to feel good, I just want to feel safe, I just deserve to be whole’) is the secular an Oprah creates.” Lofton’s book is seemingly unique to religious studies in that it addresses a gendered religious space that is interracial, inter-class, and transregional, and it is provocative to consider how O’s world compares to other American religious subcultures and the ways in which they do or do not encourage woman-centered desires and identifications.

Lofton concludes her study with a provocative wink by asserting that “an Oprah never says you HAVE to do anything. What you do, and who you follow is your choice.” I was struck by this assertion and wondered whether Lofton might be nudging her readers to think more about Oprah’s deep investment in celebrity culture and her personal tension between embracing her own exceptionalism and encouraging others to follow the path that she has taken. (And I’m thinking here of Oprah’s deep determination to get The Color Purple gig, and how she loves repeating the line about how she was going to have to “let go and let God” finally make the decision about whether she would win the part.) Lofton’s book thus ends on a note that urges us—however obliquely—to consider Oprah’s own very public obsessions with celebrity and the cult of celebrity as it relates to religious culture.

At the heart of this imaginative, daringly whimsical, and critically persuasive study, though, is Lofton’s magnificent style as a writer and the form that her work inhabits. In many ways, the form of Lofton’s prose manifests the object of her inquiry. Throughout The Gospel of An Icon, her prose resonates with a kind of playfulness and a spirited engagement with “the collective.” But however ludic the “we” in her study may seem, this strategic invocation of the first person plural allows Lofton to perform a style of writing that, like her perpetually alluring object of inquiry, pulls her audience into the realm of contemplating their own collective desires.

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