As “The Oprah Winfrey Show” draws to a much publicized end this month, one thing is clear: Al Gore may or may not have invented the Internet, Mark Zuckerberg may or may not have invented Facebook, but Oprah Winfrey most certainly did invent social media.
Like early competitor Phil Donahue, Winfrey closed the geographic gap between audience and host from the moment she took over “AM Chicago” in 1984. Her decision to walk among the audience made it clear that she was neither authority figure interviewer nor a celebrity host. Instead, she was just another citizen who had a few questions and opinions about a wide variety of things, some of which she knew something about, some of which she did not.
Then, in November 1987, on what was now “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” she closed the professional gap as well. While interviewing a group of sexual abuse survivors and their molesters, Winfrey revealed that she, too, had been sexually abused as a child. In doing so, she shattered the fourth wall between interviewer and subject, between medium and message, between marketing and personal revelation, and the world was never quite the same again.
During the quarter century she ruled daytime television, Winfrey’s image of a talk show crept into virtually every nook and cranny of popular culture. She took as her model the kitchen table, where personal experience reigns supreme and the breaking of social silences is encouraged. Historically considered a feminine, and therefore inferior, form of information gathering and distribution, it has become a template for publishing, journalism, film, academe, and, of course, television. Expertly wielding the once-verboten interviewer’s tool of empathy and self-disclosure, Winfrey brought previously taboo issues such as incest, domestic abuse, sexuality, addiction, depression, AIDS and, later, various international crises into the public discourse.
More important, she turned the personal narrative into a valuable commodity.
Your life, she said to an army of guests and fans who ranged from the wealthy and celebrated to the tragically marginalized, is not just important to you and the ones you love, it is also important to me because it is important to my audience.
Which increasingly meant everyone.
It was a message Americans, caught in the sticky post-revolutionary web of economic politics, were more than ready to hear, highly commercial but still evangelical — as with Jesus, no sparrow was too small, or damaged, or deviant to escape Winfrey’s attention. Taking the feminist credo “the personal is political” one step further, Winfrey argued that the personal was also culturally significant, creating a vision of communal and spiritual individualism. She encouraged her audience to treat itself better, whether by leaving an abusive spouse or indulging in a chocolate truffle. Exploring and/or honoring an individual’s experience of his or her life, be that person famous, infamous or just an average soccer mom, became a rock on which to build an empire and an age.
This message took many forms. Beginning in the 1990s, memoir became the hottest literary trend. “Voice,” once the hobgoblin of journalism, became its most sought-after commodity, along with the anecdotal lead and the behind-the-scenes first-person piece. Pediatricians and other experts were shoved off their advice pedestals in favor of “girlfriends,” “working moms” and celebrities who were in turn encouraged to reveal their “ordinary lives” — from their baby bumps and love addictions to their favorite scented candle and Girl Scout cookie.
From the banks of the wide river of celebrity culture, the voices of the proletariat rang out — through reality TV, the blogosphere, then Facebook and Twitter. We are now a nation of self-narrators, a congregation engaged in 24-hour confession, fascinated by our own back stories, and that, too, is difficult to imagine in a world without Oprah.
Winfrey’s show, meanwhile, became a kind of sociological patent office, the first stop for anyone with an idea or a product or apology to sell. With her rich alto and soulful eyes, her comfortable curves and pitch-perfect mix of hubris and self-deprecation, she was the mother/sister/wife/teacher/friend we never had, the lap that would envelope us even as the hand slapped us to attention. When James Frey lied to Winfrey, even Frank Rich, then New York Times grand pooh-bah of punditry, came on the show to give him what for.
Winfrey forgave our sins because she shared so many of them. The self-disclosure that was so shocking in 1987 became a trope — over the years, Winfrey has revealed having a child when she was 14, engaging in an adulterous affair, contemplating suicide, having a secret half sister and, of course, battling weight and eating issues. Rising from a poor and troubled youth to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in America, she offered hope and inspiration to millions, and, unlike any of her peers, her whole message focused on helping us achieve the same. Live your best life, she told us. Who doesn’t want to do that?
In her recent book, “Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon,” Kathryn Lofton argues rather convincingly that Winfrey has become a religion, not just because she so often invokes the importance of the spiritual on her program but also “because she invites ritual processes toward her and her iconography fosters produced ritual.” That ritual, as Lofton notes, is often performed at the cash register, purchasing whatever book, product or guru’s guide that Oprah has most recently anointed, but it can also be something more opaque, a mindset that acknowledges inner pain and attempts to assuage it through action — be it following “The Secret” or cleaning out your closets.
The tent of Oprah Winfrey is large, with many entrances. Self-examination is set off by pampering just as guides to healthful living are salted with daily indulgences. Because Winfrey is so undeniably successful, her advice seems unquestionable — if you want what she has, then do what she says.
But it’s important to remember even now that Winfrey is a product and master of television. Yes, she has starred in and produced feature films, brought “The Color Purple” to Broadway, encouraged exposure to both new authors and the classics through her book club and created a fairly spectacular website.
But when it came time to figure out the next step, she didn’t set up a film production company or her own publishing house; she created her own network — because television is still the ultimate form of social media, a place where you can find anyone talking about anything any time, a genre that mirrors and directs our culture like no other, a power even greater than Winfrey herself.
Oprah Winfrey listens to a reporter’s question during the Discovery Communications Television Critics Association winter media tour in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 6. “The Oprah Winfrey Show” is ending its run on May 25 after 25 years.