Academic Writing

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Oprah's Farewell

I just finished watching the second of the Oprah’s Surprise Spectacular. I’m not a big Oprah fan, but given the insane hype and my devotion to keeping up to date with pop-cultural goings on, I figured I should at least take a peek.

Image from today.msnbc.com
I’m not sure what to make of it exactly. Given that the three final episodes of the show were completely produced by her producers and not by her, it can’t really be considered self-congratulatory (as I think a lot of her shows lean towards). Rather, this feels more like This is Your Life on some major steroids. It’s no question that Oprah has had a huge impact on television and what a daytime show can be. She also has proven to be an immense philanthropist, giving millions of dollars to educate those who otherwise would not have had the opportunity, as well as making great strides to impact the lives of others in different facets. Despite that, and maybe this is due to my upbringing where I was always told that the highest form of charity is where the receiver and the giver don’t know the other’s identity, but I always feel like her generosity was done through the lens of “Look at me, I’m Oprah and I’m amazing.” And while yes, she wants to do good for the world, she also doesn’t do anything that doesn’t promote her own personal brand. So there’s a sense that it’s not entirely selfless.

My second observation is a more meta one. Her producers have brought out the big guns for her. Today’s show alone features Aretha Franklin, Tom Hanks, Jerry Seinfeld, Kristen Chenowith, Michael Jordan, Maya Angelou, Will Smith, Jada PInkett-Smith and countless others. They are all there paying tribute to Oprah for her 25 years on television. Right? They acknowledge the good that she’s done, but ultimately this is because she’s going off the air and this is a tribute to her many years in front of the camera. It seems a little incongruous. This might be somewhat cynical, but given what I know about the television industry, and the importance of the relationships people have with others, this plays more like people trying to promote themselves through aligning themselves with Oprah and her brand. It doesn’t feel like a pure celebration of a person who does good, but a very public kissing-up. I don’t think this theory fits with all of the guests. Ms. Franklin and Ms. Angelou’s appearances are probably a little more honest, why would they need to promote themselves through Oprah? Then again, why would any of them? All of the stars who appeared are big names in their own right, but there’s just something about it that feels so manufactured. They might be there to say goodbye to a friend, but it’s also clear that they are probably there to help themselves as well.

The other thing that struck me so odd is that, as mentioned, this is a farewell spectacular. This is celebrities saying goodbye to Oprah. I wonder how many of these people that are saying how much they’ll miss her presence on TV actually tune in to her on a daily basis. My guess is pretty low. And, she’s not going away. She has an entire cable network now devoted to her (not to mention her ongoing magazine). Also, lets put this into perspective. This is a television show. TV. She’s not, God forbid, dying or dead. She’s not even really going anywhere. Oprah has established herself s one of the strongest entertainment brands and just because her show is going off the air doesn’t mean she’s gonna stop doing what she does best, self-promotion.

Oprah isn’t really a polarizing figure, I don’t know many people who share my feelings towards her. I can’t even really articulate completely why I’m not a fan of hers. She was on in my house on a daily basis as my mom watched her every day while preparing dinner for us as kids. Her voice, to this day, brings me back to those days sitting in our kitchen while the smell of spaghetti and meatballs filled the room. That should invoke positive memories, which it does, but they don’t transfer onto her. I think my distain towards her is partly due to her constant self-aggrandizement, which you would think would be offset by the good she does, but it doesn’t.

She’s not the first person who’s had a show go off the air, yet since it’s Oprah, it’s gotta be big. It reminds me of Boorstin’s idea of pseudo-events. It’s big because it’s gotta make a splash and it has to make a splash because it’s Oprah, and Oprah only does things if they’re big and promote her own brand and image. Something about the whole thing just doesn’t sit right to me.

Dissenters welcome (and expected).

1 comment:

Dan said...

I confess I didn't watch any of the Oprah festivities nor will I. Before I give my thoughts on Oprah, I want to make a tangential point. You said, "She’s not the first person who’s had a show go off the air, yet since it’s Oprah, it’s gotta be big. It reminds me of Boorstin’s idea of pseudo-events. It’s big because it’s gotta make a splash and it has to make a splash because it’s Oprah, and Oprah only does things if they’re big and promote her own brand and image. Something about the whole thing just doesn’t sit right to me."

Know what I felt that way about? The royal wedding. I had people try to explain to me why it's a big deal - Cinderella story, royalty fascinates us, the scandals of this family, happily ever after story, what have you - none of it added up to that level of festivity for me. The media decided to shovel it down our throats, so we ate it. This is strikingly similar, I think.

Which touches on my larger point about Oprah. Oprah matters, I do think so. But it has little to do with her daily show. Think about the backlash that NBC faced when it yanked Conan off the air - if people REALLY like Conan that much they would have tuned into his show and saved him from cancellation. People loved the idea of Conan more than Conan himself, hence the Team Coco movement that developed online.

Oprah's got the same thing. Sure, many housewives watch her. But 10 or 20 times that many people align themselves with Oprah. Most of them don't buy any products that Oprah shills. They may not even abide by the lifestyle or advice that Oprah preaches.

I see Oprah less as a media personality and more as a preacher. She has a community. Some of them tune into her sermons, others choose to abstain. but once the preacher is gone, all of her worshipers come out of the woodwork. It's irrelevant at that point whether one person is more of a follower than another.

What's cool about it all is that once something is going to be gone forever, people begin to reflect on why it matters and to write thoughtful pieces about it. What did Oprah accomplish? At least these five things: http://theweek.com/article/index/215590/5-things-oprah-taught-america. And probably a hundred more things others can point to.

So it's not about the individual prayers that the preacher inspired during her lifetime that will define her legacy; judge her by the wide-ranging influence she had on an array of followers.