Vacare Oprah: The Gospel of O
By Hawa AllanNovember 4, 2012
Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon by Kathryn Lofton
VACARE DEO — “to empty oneself for god” — is a central monastic tenet. In practice, it involves a daily routine of contemplation, say meditation or prayer, that clears space in one’s life to be infused by a higher power. The term begets mental pictures of a lone silhouette cross-legged under a tree, slippered feet rustling under long brown robes, fingertips drawing lightly across gilded pages. In Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, Kathryn Lofton uncovers a similar phenomenon. Or, rather, the simulation of such a phenomenon. In the contemplative world stamped by and seen through the ‘O’ of the ‘Oprah’ brand, one also finds someone sitting cross-legged, this time as part of a yoga practice recommended by Dr. Oz. Or feet power-walking in pumps plugged on Oprah’s last show. Or manicured fingers thumbing through the glossy pages of O Magazine.
The practices encircled by the Oprah ‘O’, Lofton suggests, are ersatz attempts at fulfilling the needs salved by monastic creeds. But are they? Yoga, or any exercise really, is meditative and generally good for one’s health. Pumps endorsed by the magnate of feel-good multi-media would be not only stylish, but surely comfortable. And within any given issue of O Magazine one can skim at least five easy tips on finding one’s true calling. ‘O’ is, indeed, more than a brand. ‘O’ is a monocle through which a New Earth can be viewed, one contorted to fit the dogma of Oprah, the edict to ‘Live Your Best Life!’
The ‘O’ brings to mind a mandala — the ritual or magic circle said to aid in contemplation. Think rose window, or Buddhist wheel of life. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung distinguished between mandalas used for ceremonial purposes in cathedrals or temples from the mental images that emerge, typically in dreams, from the imagination. Jung considered such mental images, which he deemed ‘true’ mandalas, to be symbolic representations of one’s ‘true’ inner self — in his words “the psychic centre of the personality not to be identified with the ego.”
Jung was reticent about publicly discussing mandalas, disclosing in a late essay that he had refrained from writing or lecturing about the sacred symbols for 14 years. “One cannot be too cautious in these matters,” Jung wrote, “for what with the imitative urge […] far too many people are misled into snatching at such magical ideas and applying them externally, like an ointment.” The “true” mandala, for Jung, was the result of a free and individualized formation, not a “mere external representation” avidly procured to soothe a spiritual itch.
Lofton’s ultimate critique of ‘O’ mirrors Jung’s caution. Oprah’s ‘O’, she intimates, is neither a perfect circle encompassing all, nor an idiosyncratic manifestation suggesting the universal. The ‘O’, rather, occupies the overlap in a Venn Diagram made up of three other circles — religion, capitalism, and pop culture.
It’s true, as Lofton points out, that Oprah Winfrey, the person, eschews the rigidity of religion. Winfrey’s Christian roots notwithstanding, she has shied away from organized religion in favor of a non-denominational spirituality, in accordance with which “[w]e can choose whether to go to church or not, we can worship as we please — or we can lounge in bed on a Sunday morning, wearing the very cutest underwear.” Who needs the formality of church when you can find the sacred in everyday tasks like laundry, or stumble upon an “A ha! Moment™” while trying to start your car? The world of ‘O’, it appears, makes “you” the master of your spiritual life.
Lofton’s deft consideration of this world, however, reveals one awash in its own commandments, consistently telling audiences “[w]hat to do, what to say, what to wear, what to hear, how to listen, whom to date, whom to dump, when to dump, when to buy, what to buy, how to improve, what to practice, what to read, when to take a break.” ‘O’ impels you to become the master of your own life, your best life, but in the ‘O’ way. Guidance toward self-love is coupled with goading toward self-improvement — a ritual cycle that can make ‘O’ a circle more vicious than divine.
The rituals of ‘O’ include, among other things, a kind of conversion through consumption. The self-interested deliberation thought to drive the free market is something Winfrey, though a self-made billionaire, disavows. “People would be stunned to know how little calculation has gone into the creation of my life,” she has said. Her brand, rather, developed by accident, by “[j]ust daily choosing to do what felt like the right thing to do.” Winfrey’s choices are then multiplied. She remarks that she will never eat another burger and beef prices plummet. The same also applies to her endorsements. Indeed, the ‘Oprah Effect’ is a term for the sales boost incident to the mere mention of a consumer item on one of her media portals. Of course, publishing professionals have credited Winfrey for single-handedly reviving the book-selling industry — whether contemporary or classic, books selected for Oprah’s Book Club™ immediately top bestseller lists.
That said, when Oprah encourages you to buy, she is not cynically cashing in on a product placement; she prompts you to purchase so you can better yourself. There is ever a “soul-salving signification attached to her recommendations,” according to Lofton, a promise of transformation through curated acquisition. Lofton encapsulates this “spiritual injunction to consume” with a description of altruistic advertisements in a Chicago-based Oprah Store:
Quotations like “Always lead with the truth,” “Love what you’ve got,” “Live your own dreams,” and “Become more of yourself” swirl around store areas devoted to workout clothes, pajamas, men’s clothing, Oprah show souvenirs, and O baby paraphernalia.
With purchasing power presented as a portal to personal power, there is an evident blurring, here, of the freedom to buy and the freedom to be, viz., of individualism and individuality.
Oprah, then, is a paradoxical truth: “She is capitalist and capital; she is a commodity and consumer […] She is a pitchwoman of her own consumption; her consumption is her commodity.” And her message is disseminated into, and shapes, popular culture through any one of several outlets, including but not limited to The Oprah Winfrey Show, Harpo Radio, Inc., Oprah’s Book Club, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, Oprah’s Angel Network, Oprah.com, Change Your Life TV, and, of course, O Magazine. (On her ubiquitous presence on the periodical’s cover, Winfrey told Essence in 2003: “When I first started the magazine, people were always saying ‘Well, who else are you going to put on the cover?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, who’s going to sell better than I am? You got any ideas?’”).
The world of ‘O’ is areligious yet ordered by rules, above the material world yet of the material world. The messages spread through Oprah’s multi-media empire have contributed to a “spiritualization of American culture,” and in these messages “Oprah hasn’t just been consistent; she’s been repetitive.” Their essence, it seems, is to empty oneself for Oprah.
How does one empty oneself for Oprah? Well, before you purchase any of the items endorsed on her “O List,” there is the matter of decluttering, of unburdening one’s home and, in the process, one’s psyche, of items that no longer serve. Another prerequisite of consumption is abstention from frivolous spending habits (under the guidance of Suze Orman), which not only saves you cash to spend on products that make you the Best You, but leaves a tithe for the ‘O’ ritual of philanthropy.
Above all, however, one empties oneself for Oprah through the ritual of confession. You must empty yourself of your tale of trauma and your shameful secret(s) in exchange for entry into the world of ‘O’, where triumph and salvation surely await. The “Oprah Arc” is what Lofton calls the “redundant” narrative progression of a given episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, on which viewers can expect “salacious details and a certitude of a triumphant return.” James Frey’s redemption (and subsequent book deal) turn on his televisual confession about fabricating parts of his hitherto ‘O’-approved memoir; former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey must testify to his homosexual leanings in an armchair angled toward Winfrey’s own; a “regular” viewer tells of struggles with obesity prior to an “A ha! Moment™” that led her to lose weight “the right way,” and, subsequently, to be gifted an ‘O’-sponsored makeover. On Oprah’s show, “[i]deals are established, destruction occurs, and the subject is moved away from the deceptions of the pristine picket-fenced exterior to the hard truths of interior self-knowledge.”
Non-interviewees can participate in the ‘O’ ritual of confession as well, through, for instance, journaling on Oprah.com or the old fashioned way in an ‘O’-endorsed leather-bound diary. They can also do so by participating in Oprah’s Book Club™. In perusing the Club’s book selections, Lofton discerned yet another pattern:
[A] woman, usually of eccentric yet compelling character, experiences an enormous trauma (or has a persistent dilemma, such as obesity or a cruel mother). The remainder of the plot follows the character as she manages the psychological, material, or social aftereffects of this trauma.
Moreover, in discussions of said book in a given Oprah portal, the emphasis is on “Making a Connection™” with readers by prodding them to extract (or embed) aspects of their own stories from (or into) the book’s plot turns and the protagonist’s travails.
Lofton uses a scholarly term for such a person, a “resisting reader,” one “who brings a social identity to her encounter with a text.” In providing “an alternate language for self-description,” Oprah’s Book Club™ picks are endowed with therapeutic qualities and, of course, a spiritual essence. Readers pore over her selections in the same manner as Christians communing in Bible study groups — in order to apply the holy text directly to their daily lives. Moreover, the authors are elevated to sacred figures:
Rather than pose the writer as an exiled, idiosyncratic, and elite hero, the author is transformed into a chummy mystic, a possible comrade who shares the same familial challenges, wardrobe struggles, and self-doubts as Oprah’s viewers, albeit with an overdeveloped gift with words.
In fostering such reading, and engaging in this kind of reading herself, Winfrey has been accused of narcissism. Lofton cites Kathleen Rooney, author of Reading with Oprah, who claims that Winfrey’s insistence on filtering her reading of literature through her autobiography has cultivated an immature and shallow approach to fiction. That subtle psychic alteration that is meant to be sowed by literature, the invitation to step into someone else’s shoes, to see the world through Other eyes, it is argued, is lost when one reads the ‘O’ way. Where there was to be empathy, there instead arises solipsism.
Lofton does not seem to wholly agree. Indeed, just as audiences have been beckoned to empty themselves for Oprah, Winfrey has emptied herself for her audiences. In the early years of her nationally syndicated talk show, Winfrey nurtured a connection with viewers through her own numerous confessions: of struggles with fluctuating weight, with sexual abuse, with her history of addiction. As Winfrey also told Essence in 2003:
“Gayle [King] and I used to joke about what people must have thought when they turned on TV and saw me [...] They thought nothing, because I was Black and fat with a Jheri curl. The general manager at my station said to me, ‘You know you can’t beat Donahue, so just go on the air and be yourself.’”
And be herself she did. She ultimately offered her own autobiography, her own story, to hungry audiences who devoured them and let rise from her mortification a reborn Spirit — Oprah, the incorporated embodiment (in this case not a redundant phrase) of a brand and a mission that will outlive Oprah Winfrey, the founder in the flesh. As Lofton put it, “Oprah Winfrey can be canceled, boycotted, and condemned. Oprah cannot.”
In any case, Winfrey, the person, though alive and well, has virtually ceased to exist. Emptied of her confessions and secrets and torments from weight loss and gain, she too has made room for Oprah and the cordon of “paraministries” (Martha Beck, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Suze Orman, and, once again, Iyanla Vanzant) who sermonize the ‘O’ way. Winfrey and her on-air mantra have undergone a profound transformation. In Lofton’s shorthand: “I am black. I am fat. I am lonely. I am in need […] I am your spirit. I am Spirit.”
Though as omnipresent as her brand, Winfrey the Spirit has lost some of her allure. Lofton observes that, as Winfrey became less of a personality and more of a guru, her interview style worsened. Far from an interlocutor who elicits ahas!, Winfrey has fallen back on “offering more ‘uh-huh’ replies than piercing follow-up inquiries.” Perhaps this can be forgiven of someone who has transcended herself.
Winfrey has put it simply: “I transcend race, really.” And in that 2003 Essence interview, Winfrey fielded a question about “player haters who say things like ‘She’s not really Black’ or ‘She treats White people better than Black people.’” She responded that she used to be frustrated by such criticism, but, after seeking advice from Sidney Poitier and Maya Angelou, she put this consternation behind her once and for all: “Just because you are a part of my culture doesn’t mean you can decide for me. White people don’t decide for me. Nobody decides for me. I get to decide for myself. Once I got that, I was free."
Lofton, though, aptly notes that Winfrey “wants to be beyond blackness but also points to her blackness as distinguishing her accomplishments.” Lofton illustrates how — in reminiscing about childhood days in the black church, in recalling bouts with racism early in her career, in overtly distancing herself from any Black Power sentiment, in resisting the designation of ‘black leader’ — Winfrey artfully code-switches, “mov[es] as she does back and forth between a representative black woman and a racially transcendent icon.” Even to the extent Winfrey is resigned to being deemed a black leader, she has recast this position to one of role model. As the icon said: “A black person has to ask herself, ‘If Oprah Winfrey can make it, what does it say about me?’ They no longer have an excuse.”
Again and again, Lofton reminds that in ‘O’ territory, structural biases and constraints do not exist, only individual stories of trauma and rebirth. As put in The Gospel of an Icon, “[t]alk of legislative policies and global economies is for other locations, for magazines printed for other parts of ourselves and television shows at other times of day.” Indeed, in the world of ‘O’, Lofton finds a “rigorous multiculturalism” — on-air and in-magazine conversions (a.k.a. makeovers), for example, feature women of multiple races and ethnicities who are ever silent on the structural significance of their identities, effectively reducing such differences to the decorative.
However, what Lofton overlooks is the potential significance of Winfrey’s film presence and how it might further complicate her relationship to blackness. From playing a strong-willed woman who stands up to white would-be employers in The Color Purple, to a working-class matriarch living in a crumbling, urban tenement in The Women of Brewster Place, to Sethe, a former slave suspended between her bonded past and newly-legislated freedom in Beloved, to co-producing Precious, a film that follows the travails of a morbidly obese black teenager with incest and illiteracy, Winfrey has dramatically engaged topics that get short shrift in her ‘O’ multi-media portals. In Winfrey’s dramatic representations, the past and continuing socio-economic significance of race is recurrently performed on screen.
So where race is concerned, Winfrey is a resigned role model who admittedly stands on the shoulders of giants who fought for civil rights, but who barely acknowledges a continuing need to fight for and fulfill these rights. On planet ‘O’, there is no talk of governmental intervention, only divine intervention. Nevertheless, in Winfrey’s dramatic representations, there appears to be yet another dimension, a space cleared to relive and reenact racial trauma that is segregated from both Winfrey the personality and ‘O’ the multifarious media platform.
Winfrey’s use of the dramatic, the fictional realm to contend with race makes sense, given the pent up backlash poised to strike when she uses her self and brand otherwise. For instance, in an October 2001 National Review article, one writer cited reader feedback that Winfrey acted in a “disgustingly divisive” manner at a Yankee Stadium prayer rally held in the wake of September 11. The offending act? She’d mentioned after the singing of “We Shall Overcome” that the hymn was the “African American national anthem.” The blowback when Winfrey references race makes sense of the post-racial glow of ‘O’: Winfrey’s views on race as person and product are better analyzed as less intrinsic and more of a tactical endeavor.
In an artfully narrated epilogue, Lofton notes that Oprah is not the only African-American phenomenon to cherry-pick from “blackness” so as to unify an audience in her image. President Obama’s ‘O’ is another “space anyone can fill with anything,” foremost, of course, one’s Hope for Change. Where Oprah summons us to be the change we want to see, Obama calls us to see the change we want him to be — (or at least he did in the first election cycle, before we were instructed to simply look ‘Forward!’). While Oprah is Every Woman, Obama is Every American. And Oprah, it is estimated, helped generate about a million additional votes for Obama in 2008, after breaking with longstanding custom and endorsing him for president. Oprah’s commercial speech, in this instance, was not the kind protected by Citizens United (money, anyway, is energy within O’s jurisdiction). The power of this support, rather, came from an overlapping of similar worldviews that both solicit and are enhanced by hopes and dreams of consumers and citizens.
As with Oprah’s ‘O’, there is price paid for the ticket into Obama’s ‘O’: turning over any race-based complaint. Obama, as president, has called on others to do the same; at the Congressional Black Caucus’s 2011 dinner, he admonished the group— after code-switching into that ‘g’-dropping mode he adopts when addressing majority black audiences — to “stop complainin’, stop grumblin’, stop cryin’” and get to work! Indeed, the ‘O’, whether Oprah’s or Obama’s, is a porthole that allows you to see what you want, or, rather, what you hope to see. Yet, when this viewfinder prominently features a black figure, then the more inspiring images of Hope and Change and projected images of a Best Self — mental pictures that Obama’s and Oprah’s performances are orchestrated to stir — contend, unfortunately, with base associations that are politely termed “stereotypes.”
Winfrey herself is not immune from making such associations. In considering Winfrey’s role as missionary and the mobilization of ‘O’ to raise and extend funds for good causes, Lofton details the experiences that “forced Oprah from inner-city Chicago to the Gauteng Province.” The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls was established in Johannesburg in 2007, years after Winfrey had made attempts at funding a similar cause near her Chicago headquarters. “I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools [in the United States],” Winfrey told one reporter. “The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there. [In America] if you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers.”
Winfrey was initially disappointed after starting a mentorship program for teenage girls from the Cabrini-Green housing projects. She learned, from witnessing the kids’ struggles with attendance and completing class assignments, that “[i]n order to make meaningful changes, you have to transform the way people think.” She then decided to sponsor 10 children aged seven to 14 whom she enrolled into boarding school. On a “surprise visit” to see how the kids were doing, Winfrey found that “the inner spark [she] was used to seeing in their eyes was gone, replaced by their rooms full of things.” She found that they could speak of “what they owned […] but couldn’t speak of what they’d done.”
Concluding that she’d “given them too much, without instilling values to accompany the gifts,” Winfrey refocused her philanthropic urges on South Africa — the ancestral homeland she adopted after the results of a DNA test traced her roots to the Zulu people. The all-girls boarding school in Johannesburg is not at all, as Lofton points out, subject to “ascetic condescension.” Rather, the site is an offshore repository for Oprah’s taste, featuring her hand-picked interiors, fashionable (yet comfortable) uniforms and even personally-selected flatware: “Every tile, every doorknob, has been Oprah’s specific choice.” Dismissing concerns from South African government officials that the academy was too decadent given the country’s widespread poverty, Winfrey independently determined that the African schoolgirls were deserving of her largesse.
Lofton usefully juxtaposes Winfrey’s generosity at home and on the African continent, and notes the irony that Winfrey at once disapproves of the apparent materialism of her wards in Chicago yet stewards a conglomerate that spurs audiences to shop for inner peace. She does not further probe the double standard that she has identified — namely, Winfrey’s designation of black kids in Chicago as undeserving, and African kids in Johannesburg as deserving of the bounty of ‘O’. Winfrey’s own words provide some clue, in her lament that the “inner spark” was somehow lost in the Chicago children’s eyes; materialism is not to be indulged in for its own sake, in the land of ‘O,’ but as a means toward spiritual salvation.
Winfrey’s benevolence in South Africa raises other questions. Again, in that 2003 Essence interview, Winfrey says: “What’s amazing about African children is that you see yourself in every one of them […] You see your own beauty. You see the depth of your richness.” Lofton appropriately calls Winfrey a “repatriating dreamer,” but it would be fruitful to further ask, what is it that Winfrey sees when she looks at an African child? Whose inner spark does Winfrey see? Are these children yet another space in which Winfrey (to the extent she still exists) can recreate herself?
The gentle teasing of Lofton’s prose connotes, to this resisting reader, a familiarity with ‘O’ and its rituals that goes beyond that of a rigorous critic, and, perhaps, hints at a resisting disciple. Putting aside my own unfounded projections, I must, of course, make a confession: I have subscribed to O Magazine. I did so with an internal eye roll, then, throughout the 12-months of my subscription, let slip my own aha! upon finding each Oprah-adorned issue in my mailbox. And I read the contents of each magazine in an order attuned to my preference — an inaugural turn to Martha Beck’s materteral advice, the routine flip past Dr. Phil’s monthly dose of tough love. Then I let my subscription lapse. Like Lofton, I’ve read my Veblen, I know all about the trappings of conspicuous consumption. I’m duly skeptical of what she calls “the improvement of the interior through exterior reformation.” But …
I have a friend, I’ll call her Lilah. She’s a jewelry designer. I watched her one evening as she sat at her kitchen table strewn with glittery curio in various stages of assembly, easing one tiny multicolored bead after another onto a thin wire with tweezer-like pliers. Too clumsy to help, I reclined on her recliner and stroked her Balinese cat.
“Can you imagine doing this hour upon hour every day?” She asked. We exchanged a dreary gaze, a telepathic recognition of persons who manufactured her jewelry in a Chinese factory. I thought of my quivering fingers, good for nothing other than typing and petting furry mammals. I changed the subject, casually mentioning a book review essay I was writing about Oprah. Lilah looked up again from the earring dangling in her hand, a solemn expression on her face.
“Oh,” she said, her serious eyes almost sad, “I love Oprah.”
Lilah went on, told me that she’d watched The Oprah Winfrey Show almost every day throughout her pregnancy with her now-teenaged twins, that her water actually broke while she was viewing a program, that without Oprah she would never have found the courage to leave the father of her children, and strike out to raise them mostly on her own. Back then, she raised her boys on a single salary earned from helping run a fashion showroom. Today, she is a partner in a prosperous jewelry-design business and is figuring out how to start a scholarship program for kids of workers who manufacture her designs in China.
I listened, my hand idle near her belly-flaunting cat, unsure of how or whether to go on with a then-seemingly glib explanation of how Oprah sits at the intersection of religion, capitalism, and pop culture. Sure, there were all the tell-tale signs — the international philanthropy, the lived metaphor of (re)birth through ‘O’ … But who was I to lecture her, tell her that she had emptied herself for a brand, that instead of being guided toward the circumambulation of self, she’d been lulled into the circumambulation of Oprah? That she had found Spirit, not her spirit?
Emerson called the life of man “a self-evolving circle,” a continual concentric expansion of self-awareness and transcendence. So who, really, can discern whether Lilah’s circle exists within or outside the outline of Oprah’s own?
Jung himself, a devout adherent to psycho-spiritual authenticity, admitted that there are numerous, perhaps even infinite, routes to the “true” inner self. His friend Richard Wilhelm commented on the uncanny similarity between an ancient Taoist-alchemical tract and Jung’s ideas on mandalas — uncanny, considering that the mystic psychologist independently arrived at his own ideas and had never heard of the former. Wilhelm, thus, concluded that “the truth can be reached from any direction, provided that one digs deep enough.” Oprah’s pathway, her ‘O’, might open to a world of surfaces, but who is to say that devotees may not ultimately find within it their own true centers?
Hawa Allan is a lawyer and a writer of cultural criticism and fiction whose work has appeared, among other places, in Best African American Essays, the Chicago Tribune and Tricycle Magazine, where she is a contributing editor. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Columbia Law School, where she was a fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Culture.
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