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The Long Goodbye: Oprah's Ego? What Ego?

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On Sunday, December 5, Oprah Winfrey was among the five recipients of this year's Kennedy Center Honors. The Honors recognize an individual's "lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts–whether in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television."  Certainly, Oprah has had a profound impact on television over the last 25 years, but I'm not sure she reflects the criteria. Perhaps it's cynical, but it appears that Oprah was selected simply because she's Oprah.  

"It's amazing to look up and see the most powerful person in the world," said Chris Rock referencing Winfrey. "And she's sitting next to Barack Obama!"

It's not that Oprah's accomplishments don't astound. It's that she seems to get everything, and now in turn seems to believe she deserves it. "This feels like an official American citizenship in a very exclusive club of artists and contributors to the nation in a very special way," Oprah said. "It feels like an elevated kind of award and there aren't many in this category. They look at your work, your life work, who you are as a human being and the spirit of who you are as a human being. Not many honors look at that depth."  

Much of the press coverage of the event led with Oprah. 

Robin Givhan's article for the Washington Post reveals some incredible insights on Oprah and ego. When discussing the hyper worship of audience members as Oprah walks through the crowd at the beginning of each Oprah Show, she says: "…I could feel the energy saying: 'Look at me. Look at me.' I do feel that. I do sense that. I do try to give people what I think they want, if I can. In order to remain true to who you are, you have to be aware of it, but you can't buy into it."   

It's quite the paradox, to be a private person making herself available for public consumption. And to do that so publicly and for so long. Oprah is her own solar system by now. There are so many subsidiaries to her and she continues to draw people into her orbit. Plus, how many times can you hear "You are the most incredible person in the world!" before you start to believe it?  

"You see daughters my age looking at their mothers with tears in their eyes and you realize the center of their relationship is this woman. They say, 'Did you see Oprah today?' What a powerful effect she has on people's relationship with each other!" says her friend, actress Julia Roberts, in a telephone interview. "She's a remarkable human being."

I'm sorry Julia, what? You're saying that a generalized group of mothers and their daughters has Oprah at the center of their relationship? And to think I once wanted you to play the movie version of me...

Yet, with all of the praise, Oprah claims she's in check. "I'm absolutely a person who has not let ego run amok," she says. "I see the demands other people make. I see all the other stuff. I've had to say that—take it down a notch—to other people."

Gayle King says: "I realize that she's a 'bad mama jama' and she holds the clout and influence she does…but when you see someone in pajamas, you see the core of who she is."  (Not true! I have pajamas with Santas on them!  If they represent my core, then I have seriously veered off path in life.)

In Givhan's article, Oprah reveals an epiphany.  And it's about James Frey.  But also about Sarah Palin and whether to bow to pressure to book her.

"I remember sitting in my living room…where I meditate. James Frey came into my mind…do not make the same mistake you made with James Frey…I did not know what the mistake was…I went to take a shower. What does that mean? The word came to me: ego. People saw my full-blown ego at work.  I wasn't allowing him to be heard. I'd already judged him."

She apologized to Frey and booked Palin. Palin aside, it still begs the questions: If it really was about the absolution of ego, why not do it publicly? The flogging was public, but not the apology?

Given her status as a very public figure, it's no surprise that Oprah's ego is often evident in press coverage and on her show. The ways in which chooses to address (or dismiss) it are curious though, don't you think?

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Comments

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Oprah

Oprah is definitely a person worth discussing. She's legendary. She is world changing. Dare I say she got Obama elected? Ssshhh - hush your mouth girl! Lol -

I grew up one of the daughter's who had discussions about Oprah with her mother. I grew up watching her show, I bought her DVD collection of greatest shows, her coffee table hard backs and got subscriptions to O.

However, my thoughts over the years about our tendency to idolize and how it's such a dangerous concept and can have such an affect on our own lives, has had me re-think the Oprah movement.

Oprah-sized ego

Oprah is powerful. She is influential. She has had a tremendous impact on American society. She's not perfect, maybe not even my cup of tea, but she seems to be very happy with where she is in her career, her personal life and her place in the world.
I think Oprah is entitled to own her success, to be proud of it. I don't think it's productive, from a feminist perspective, to expect women who are successful and powerful and who are happy with their lives to pretend otherwise for the sake of modesty. What's wrong with being one of the most influential women in the world, knowing it and not being shy about the fact that you like it? That's not an ego run amok, it's just know who you are and that you're good at it.

She may not be the perfect powerful woman, but she is a force to be reckoned with in a media and business world mostly controlled by men. She is fit and she knows it. Let's not put Oprah down because she has an Oprah-sized-ego.

I applaud your second

I applaud your second paragraph! It is exactly what I was thinking when reading this article.

Oprah is a repulsive figure.

Oprah is a repulsive figure. She made her money from a Springer type freak show which has evolved into a celebrity cult. I lost all respect for John Stewart when I heard he went on her show, and when she became involved in the Rally to Restore Sanity: the irony was too rich even for me.

Oprah doesn't help people, she gives them a name for their particular sense of victimhood, and then calls it empowering. It's virtually a religious cult, and like people attending church they feel virtuous merely by being spectators, rather than actually doing anything. But they can talk about it with their girlfriend and feel good about themselves, and as Oprah keeps reminding them, they have to love themselves first, as though that's unusal today, and not a major cause of our problems. Of course major celebrities love her, they're as vacuous as she is, and she's always ready to promote their latest product: quid pro quo.

Her revolting New Age attempts at philosophy have taking dumbing-down to a whole new level, while at the same time her obsession with externals and the glorification of wealth and vanity perfectly illustrate the extraordinary hypocrisy of the woman. Yet the media love her, because she, like them, worships success, and epitomises the golden calf. She's not honest enough to come out as a Libertarian, even though she openly states that everything is about individual effort and glory, and background has no bearing on success. She perpetuates the hideous myth that anyone can become anything in America with a little hard work, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary, she hones in on particular examples to justify her own obsession with wealth. She admitted to voting for Reagan, what more callous a personality need I describe?

And gender politics? What gender politics?

She's elevated unqualified hangers on like "Dr" Phil, and has turned herself into a pimp for the publishing industry. As for a "black icon", she takes no genuine stands on any issue that may effect them, like the disproportionate numbers in prison or the need for single payer health care because she's terrified of losing business, and she doesn't care about that stuff anyway. As with her friend Obama, at times you genuinely get the feeling her race embarasses her. Race only comes up when it effects a particular narrative she's creating. She hasn't even dealt with the way black people are belittled by Hollywood for god sakes. But when she does deal with an issue it's usually because some idiotic celebrity is involved, who's also promoting something.

It's only about money and adulation for her, she bribes her audiences with products she's paid to endorse and somehow comes off like some sort of Great Earth Goddess. It's about time someone shouted "the Emperor is naked." She is pure unadulterated ego.

well put ...

... but I still need my Stewart/Colbert fix every night. I especially still need to watch The Daily Show in order to criticize the ignorant Olivia Munn the next time she's on there ... which will probably be sooner than later ... and also praise the too few times the truly awesome Kristin Schaal is on there ... her next appearance will probably be six months from now.

As for Oprah, while these critiques are so welcome and absolutely necessary, what differences will they really make? Chances are at least one of her "worshipers" will read this, head on over to her website and fire off a message letting her and everyone on her staff know of them. She will, in turn, get the message, come visit this site, look it over, and then she will come back to her world proceeding to just poo-poo us off and tell her "worshippers" on her show to stay away from this website/magazine because she personally finds the word "Bitch" offensive; which I recall her saying so more than once on her TV hour of worship, and will find any word said in this blog criticizing her (and her celebrity "friends") deeply insulting to her own narcissistic ego

My message to Oprah is this: In the real, sad world of chaos and inequality we put up living in, criticism is more necessary than ever. There are NO sacred cows and Oprah is NOT a sacred cow on a pedestal to be worshiped and fawned over, brainwashing the masses to consume and worship other "idols," not to mention things that humans do not really need to survive.

If Chelsea Handler can criticize Angelina Jolie in her standup comedy act, than we can criticize Oprah as we deem necessary.

Oprah needs to get over herself and put up with a critic of her vast media presence every once in awhile.

Oprah is a sorely needed topic of discussion on here. Thanks so much and keep on writing!

I'm sorry, but all I could

I'm sorry, but all I could think about while reading this article was how much it reminded me of the media's treatment of Hillary Clinton. How dare Oprah be a smart and successful person and know it?! Gasp. And people still love her!? Double gasp.

Honestly, what does this have to do with feminism? Other than the fact that many women look up to her because she has actually made it as a black female born in the 1950s when the cards were stacked against her.

I'm fascinated and fueled by the discussion here

When we started this blog, we really didn't know what to expect: how DO people feel about Oprah? This much is clear: there are strong opinions and they run the gamut. The intention of every piece of content on this site is to establish a critique on someone or something in popular culture - viewed through a feminist lens. As one commenter noted: should Oprah be a sacred cow? Should she be off limits simply because she is a successful woman? Especially given the fact that a significant portion of her career and energies is based on "putting herself out there." For the record: I am in awe of Oprah and her accomplishments - which in my mind are uniquely her own - I honestly can't think of anyone else who has achieved what she has. And they are all the more impressive considering her roots in class, her race and her gender.

This space was not created to take pot shots at Oprah (and I want you to keep me in check). This is a space to explore the following: BECAUSE Oprah has so much power...is she really using it for "good"? And, when wielding that power, does she ever lose focus and turn it inward to fulfill some selfish internal need, that in turn influences her viewers? In reference to the comparison with Hillary above, there is a big difference to me. Hillary's job is in politics. In pursuing her career, she received unfair attacks on her personal character, as opposed to her professional record. Oprah's job is being Oprah. Her personal character is now a commodity...put out for consumption by the big O herself.

Thank you so much for all the comments and keep them coming! Re: the comment about someone sending this to Oprah and her reading it...well that would certainly boost MY ego.

I have to agree that I don't

I have to agree that I don't see much substance to your criticism, except that she is "egotistical." Why wouldn't she be? I have personally never seen her show, but I do live in Chicago, and I did used to work at a book store downtown for several years, so I saw first hand the effect her book club had on people. I mean, these days, it's not many people that choose to read Tolstoy in their free time for fun. I hold books in pretty high esteem, and I was just tickled pink to see so many people taking copies of The Sound and the Fury home, knowing full well how difficult I had found that book in high school, and they were all perfectly confident that they would enjoy it. I had a lot of customers who told me they were intimidated by many of the classics, so I thought what she did for books, at least, was practically miraculous (even though I was pretty mystified by the people who tried to return battered copies of A Million Little Pieces because James Frey "is a liar").

I've never seen an episode of Dr. Phil, I maybe caught a few minutes of Dr. Oz and thought he was a little bit of a fraud, but still - when have you ever heard of a woman kingmaker? I'm sure there's probably plenty to criticize Oprah for, but for being egotistical? I don't think that's fair.

Megan, thank you so much

Megan, thank you so much for your comments. I really appreciate it. I'm in complete agreement about the power and positive influence Oprah has had on authors and readers. But what I'm trying to do here is scratch below the surface. You yourself say that you were "mystified by the people who tried to return battered copies of A Million Little Pieces because James Frey is a liar." That's the point in the conversation where people usually stop talking and just give Oprah a free pass.

As a book lover, I ask you: do you think that was fair? Similarly, do you think it was fair when Oprah cancelled Jonathan Frazen's appearance (for the Corrections, which was chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection in 2001) because he balked at having the Oprah Book Club sticker on his novel? He said: "I see this as my book, my creation, and I didn't want that logo of corporate ownership on it." For whatever reason, she cancelled his appearance and removed it from her club selection saying, "Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the dinner and we're moving on to the next book." I'm sure that statement made him REALLY comfortable! It seems to me that Oprah could have made this choice: fine...he doesn't want the sticker on his book, he doesn't have to have the sticker, but it's the selection I made and I'm sticking to it.

Also, I want to make sure I clarify: this series will not just explore Oprah and ego; hardly. However, with the Kennedy Center Honors, the coverage around it and Givhan's article about the Oprah and ego, I would be remiss if I avoided that topic here.

Thanks again!

Love to hate...

Good lord, am I ever enamored with this series already, if for no other reason than I like to read people dissect the Oprah. Have an intense dislike of her myself, so it always warms my grouchy heart to see a few other haters in the mix (anons, lookin' at you!).

My problem w/ Oprah (one of oh-so-many) is that her ego is seemingly at times all she is. Powerful influence? Tastemaker? Able to make or break celebrities? But WHY? SHE IS A TALK SHOW HOST.

From the WaPo article: "While other honorees are notable for the impact their body of work has had in specific fields, Winfrey's citation speaks of an amorphous but profound influence."

Gah!!

Let's also acknowledge that Oprah's rise from poverty to her life of multiple gated homes all over the country is perhaps the most striking example of how screwed up people are about class in the U.S. I'd argue there is no other signifier, way of being, identity marker -- whatever you want to call it -- that is so easily transcended and forgotten by people than poverty. She can live her life however she wants and clearly has no problem doing that, but it's shameful the way she trots out her rags-to-riches story as some sort of everywoman tale. Everywomen don't necessarily go and gate out the poor once they make it. Just sayin' that maybe a few token poor people on her show doesn't do much to address the very real problem that is poverty in the U.S. Just sayin' the savior may have a blind spot (or twelve), and calling your own art collection "hoity toity" does not make it go away or any less of an affront to some, you know? Some folks who do make the poor-to-sickeningly-rich leap don't opt into art collections in the first place. Then again, those people don't have their faces plastered on magazines named after themselves. She can be as proud of her accomplishments (which we all talk about rather abstractly, btw) and fans can be too, but the best, most intelligent, gifted and thoughtful people I have known in this life were also the most humble. Why has the "me era" that brought us technology to broadcast our every thought not ever considered that silently doing good work had its noble place?

So, to answer the question in JDTress's comment, is Oprah using her power for good: what's the definition of "good," and what's "good enough?" I'd personally argue she's neither, but I guess that's clear by now.

Also, did I miss something in the WaPo piece? How is booking Sarah Palin related to freaking out on James Frey? Because the Palin and Winfrey egos were unlikely to fit in the same room or...?

And re: Frey and Franzen, if those aren't ego moves on Oprah's part, I don't know what are. Both men are fantastic writers well worthy of much of the praise they receive, and frankly, the gendered way people take sides over Oprah v. men is atrociously stupid. Why is it okay to nearly ruin a man's career but we can't vilify her catty crap because she's a self-made woman? Does Franzen not write excellent women's stories as much as he writes about men? Wtf. And, if folks will recall, it wasn't Franzen causing the media dustup in the wake of declining the Oprah seal of approval. Who threw a fit? Certainly not him.

I knew you were a writer...

I had to check because your post is like a finished essay. Thanks so much for your comment. You make some excellent points (especially regarding our abstractness when it comes to the accomplishments) and raise some great questions. What is good and good enough? I suppose I was thinking abstractly about that as well...let me get back to you.

Re: the WaPo piece question...Oprah hadn't reached a decision on whether to book Sarah Palin on her show and was feeling a lot of pressure because of a threatened boycott from certain advertisers if she didn't. So...she meditated on it. And when she did, James Frey came to mind and she thought (I'm paraphrasing), don't make the same mistake with James Frey. And then: but what does that mean? Ego. Don't let your ego influence your decision about booking Sarah Palin.

So she booked Palin and called Frey to apologize.  That's what I got out of it.

Oprah Branding

I first started to become annoyed with Oprah during an Academy Awards show. It was the one David Letterman hosted where he played with Oprah and Uma Thurman in the audience - saying "Oprah" "Uma" "Oprah" "Uma" over and over. The camera showed Oprah was clearly not amused. Firstly, I don't know why she was so annoyed and secondly, what was she doing there in the first place? As far a I knew, she hadn't been in any recent movies nor was she currently producing. She was there because she was Oprah - starmaker? influencer? party giver? fan? I don't know. One time I would love to dress up in a beautiful gown, be pampered, walk the red carpet, see movie stars in person and see the show from the inside. I wondered why Oprah should be there any more than me? Is it just because she's super wealthy? At that point I just felt she was everywhere, inserting herself into things she really had no business doing. Plus the whole "Oprah as Brand" thing gets under my skin. I don't understand how and why one person can become a brand, like Kelloggs or Chevrolet or Kleenex. Maybe it's just my antipathy towards corporatist, capitalist America, but I'm sick of hearing about the importance of brands, and how people are now brands. Ugh. I'm an ex figure skater and have always sat down to watch the US National Figure Skating Championships with pleasure. Some time ago they became "The State Farm US Figure Skating Championships". Ugh again. So, a person as a brand just annoys me no matter who it is, but Oprah as brand really annoys me because she so clearly understands it and protects her brand at all costs.

Oprah in the closet?

I have heard from several reputable sources that Oprah is a lesbian. if it's true, her staying in the closet is a betrayal of women and gay people. And inviting Tom Cruise (who most everyone in Hollywood knows is gay) to trumpet his love for Katie on her show added insult to injury.

Rumors(?)

I never thought about Oprah's sexuality until she made that big hullabaloo a few years ago about how she's not dating her female best friend. I was, and still am, inclined to wonder where that defensiveness came from, especially considering that most the news blogs I read responded less like "Oh, the rumor's not true" and more like "Wait, Oprah was rumored to be dating a woman? Where was I?" If Oprah came out, though...oh my, can you imagine how much good it could do? My feelings about her (or her brand, I suppose) are as mixed as the next person, but if a talk show host is going to have this much power, I'm glad she's a woman of color who didn't come from wealth.

Oprah

You say "perhaps it's cynical". Perhaps?? Really? You sound downright angry. I'm wondering if it's really that proverbial green-eyed monster. Jealousy can make us ugly. You certainly don't have to like Oprah, but you lose the point you are trying to make because you sound so bitchy...oh, I guess that's the point, huh?

www.TheSpinsterliciousLife.com

"I'm absolutely a person who

"I'm absolutely a person who has not let ego run amok,"

I love this line!

So buying your own cable TV station so you can watch yourself 24 hours per day is not considered letting your ego run amok?

Thanks for this post, it's an

Thanks for this post, it's an interesting topic.

Every time i catch her show I am amazed what a terrible interviewer she is. She always puts words in the guests mouth and never lets them finish a sentence. She makes everything the person being interviewed say about herself.