Oprah Winfrey is the single most powerful woman in media. She presides over a multi-billion dollar empire as both mogul and star. As a model of American womanhood, she is distinctly contemporary: never before has the predominantly white, middle-class public accepted such an anomalous spokesperson. She is single, childless, and co-habiting with the distinctively named Stedman Graham, who guards the few slivers of privacy she has left; her soul mate is her best friend, Gayle King. These factors alone would seem to mark her populist origins as more of an iconoclast than an icon; a free-thinker, cultural feminist, and a liberal.
She is African American, of course, was raised in deep rural poverty, and proclaims that she carries Sojourner Truth with her into “the meeting with the marketing directors.” She also casts a reformer’s eye, much as Alice Walker and Maya Angelou have, on her own people, recounting how she was bounced between an unnurturing mother, a strict Bible-believing grandmother, and her father. She was sexually abused by several relatives and gave birth as a teenager to a baby who died in infancy. Her brother died of AIDS; her sister, who had betrayed her trust by selling the story of Winfrey’s early pregnancy, died of causes related to cocaine addiction. Winfrey used her fame to call for acceptance of gay people and has shown still-growing social leadership by repudiating “family secrets” as sources of unnecessary shame.
Her book club has elevated reading among her television audience and readers of O, her eponymous magazine; her brassy financial guru, Suze Orman, denounced debt and overspending even in the pre-crash days; her buff diet coach stresses moderation and exercise; her behaviorist specialist, the manly Dr. Phil, stood by her when she confronted the industrial beef industry; both he and the advice columnist Martha Beck regularly encourage women to stand up to dominating men, vampirish friends, and unethical bosses.
Even more than offering women the counsel of these O-branded experts, Winfrey’s message is for them to put time aside for themselves, to journal, to meditate, and thus to hear that “inner voice” that tells them the next step in their personal destinies. As for religion, Winfrey has no allegiance to any single church and has rebuffed calls to select one. Though she calls herself a Christian, no hierarchical priesthood or particular dogma appeals. Instead, she has mingled her Bible past with appealing bits of Buddhism, interfaith theology, and various spiritual truisms. Communing with mainstream American women from a platform of individual rights, freedom from doctrine, gender liberation, soulful healing, and post-racial equality—what’s not to like about Winfrey’s effects?
In Oprah:The Gospel of an Icon, Lofton succeeds in the feat of critiquing and historicizing Winfrey without over-indulgence in the snobbism of a scholar who has, perhaps, no interest in guidance about what to read, what to wear, or what she “knows for sure” (Winfrey’s trademark phrase for her latest revelations).
Lofton is a scholar of religion, and she looks at Winfrey undeviatingly through those lenses—as an heiress of America’s Protestant reform movements and a continuation, even a gathering together, of their paradoxical course into the secular multiplicity, both relinquishing and preserving their holy shepherding. Winfrey, then, is much more than a show-woman; she is a transformational force. Lofton cautions fellow scholars that a too-narrow view of the proper topics for religious study may blind them to the spectacle of revival and conversion before their very eyes.
Lofton acknowledges that by no legal definition or self-definition is The Oprah Winfrey Show a religion. In fact, it is a business, almost wholly dependent on advertising sales. Winfrey does herald the gospel (“good news”) of Your Best Life Ever, based in “Spirit,” and always accessorized with the accoutrements of the good life. “I like to meditate,” she says, “in the tub with great bath products.” Is it fair enough to consider the cult of O tantamount to a new hybrid religion, one that blends personal messianic charisma with re-enchanted commodity fetishism? It does seem that it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck….
Winfrey helps Lofton here, proclaiming, “My show really is a ministry … I can’t tell you how many lives we’ve changed—or inspired to change.” True, it is common in the southern Black Christian tradition to affirm that every virtuous life is a ministry to others. But true as well, Winfrey (who was first called “The Preacher” as a small child) is exalted as the singular Leader. You don’t have to go join her congregation—in fact, you can’t leave your TV screen—to be enfolded; and, as Winfrey boasts, her ministry “doesn’t ask for money.” No collection plate is passed—just buy the advertised products, which Winfrey has selected for your choice. Presto-chango, the cost of donations to non-profit churches becomes the price of delightful purchases for yourself or your home.. The community is replaced by the TV set, followed by the shopping trip or, even more isolatingly, the online transaction.
I might add, since I would look at Winfrey also as an heiress of both the second wave of the women’s liberation movement and the civil rights movement, that the relieving idea of collective support in efforts against oppression often segues into the selfish yet stressful imperative of constant self-improvement to achieve personal success or happiness.
Winfrey got started in TV with sensationalism and trash talk, but in the 1990s she upgraded her show into the uplifting “Change Your Life TV.” Since then, the driving mission of her ministry has been to inspire belief in self, Spirit, and the power of intention. Her grandest exhibit is her own self, her meteoric rise (as if pre-destined), her own inestimable ability to think it and make it true. Perhaps Winfrey has trouble acknowledging her own fierce commitment to success, as well as talent, and seeks to attribute it to a force greater than herself.
Lofton puts Winfrey in the context of important currents of American religious history, especially the legacy of the New Thought movement of the nineteenth century that underlies the emergence of Pentecostal Christianity. New Thought adherents believe that they “co-create” their lives with an accessible and generous God, and the prosperity gospel they proclaim is the ancestor of Winfrey’s most notorious excess: her enthusiastic promotion of “the Secret,” the absurd campaign to convince her audience of the “law of attraction”—you attract what you think about, so think positively and good things must come to you.
In other chapters, Lofton dissects Winfrey’s entanglement in her own contradictions, as, for instance, in her book club, where she supports the love of good books (read, symbolically, “The Good Book,” scripture) but always by means of the self-referential identifier (herself, always, and by extension the author’s, the reader’s). Another chapter is devoted to her global mission to promote spiritual goodness abroad, especially in South Africa, too-often through instilling enthusiasm for her chosen “favorite things.”
Most chillingly, Lofton paints with pointillist precision the overlap of the Winfrey and the Obama messages: “Hope,” “Change you can believe in,” and “Yes, we can” could well be Winfrey’s own slogans. Winfrey was one of Obama’s earliest endorsers (“I think he is the One,” she said, after hearing him speak at the 2004 Democratic convention) and biggest donors. Michelle Obama is fixed in place as the idealized Winfrey woman, who everlastingly juggles work, exercise, motherhood, and style. Has the presidency been Oprahfied?
And if it has been, what’s wrong with that? Only that Oprahfication is the antithesis of collective action, structural reform, or the exertion of political will, substituting hope for change as a wish and a prayer.
As Obama stumbles against harsh realities, we are told by an apparently Oprahfied press, not so much that we must rally our forces, but that he must regain his “storyteller’s touch”—the “capacity to lift the country up and calm it down at the same time.” Is this the task of a president, or a preacher? Does the public, do we ourselves, expect to consume Obama as a male Oprah? Lofton ends her book on this note of their mystical, and perilous, merger—and our frightening complicity.
In an epilogue, Lofton teases the reader, asking “Why is Oprah the product being purchased rather than anything else? Why do we need her so much? This book names what we’re watching, but only intimates, through its emphasis on its religious invocations, the why.”
Why is Lofton so elusive, what is she getting at?
Is she suggesting nothing less than that Oprah Winfrey symbolizes the Second Coming of the Messiah, in the secular strip mall? Well, indeed, wouldn’t it be just like Christ, that trickster, to come back today as a black woman? Why wouldn’t the Messiah return as a TV host, rising up from a downtrodden background, suffering for us all—from the oppression of her unshakable weight, her loneliness and search for love, the betrayals by those closest to her, her liberation from sin and shame through confession, her post-Christian spiritual doctrines, her transmogrification of suffering into succor through the offering of sanctified objects (books, fashion, furnishings) that are the bread and the blood of her own soul?
Winfrey certainly does not declare this.. Nor do her viewers or readers or listeners. Neither does Kathryn Lofton directly state that The Great One is to be understood in this frame—except, most clearly yet obliquely, right up front, in her epigram, where she offers this haunting quote from Franz Rosenzweig:
The false Messiah is as old as the hope for the true Messiah.
He is the changing form of this changeless hope.
Then is Lofton saying that Winfrey (or rather her constructed persona, Oprah) is the false Messiah? Whether or not her business empire can be characterized as a new hybrid quasi-religion, Lofton is convincing in that, at the deepest level, Oprah leads her flock astray. In this she imputes much to Oprah that just as fairly originates in the commodity and celebrity culture that Winfrey so successfully works within. Who is to blame for our fall, the false Messiah(s) or the folly of the followers? Lofton knows better than to say.