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The Long Goodbye: Oprah Showers Australia with Diamonds and Pearls

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As Feministing highlighted leading up to the trip to Oz, many Australians weren't exactly thrilled with the prospect of Oprah coming to town—but you wouldn't have guessed that from the throngs of people who came to her shows there this week. And what a show she gave: Hugh Jackman came in on a zip line (and busted his ass up), Russell Crowe took her sailing, thousands of diamond necklaces were given away. There were many fun moments within this mainly done-to-death travelogue (Opera House, vegemite, koalas and the Outback). Oprah is an entertainer, after all, and she's really, really good at it.

But it's the seemingly insatiable need to present herself as so much more that is at the crux of the Oprah paradox.

Take for instance the surprises she heaped on people. It wasn't enough that several high-wattage celebrities took the stage. She also gave away diamond necklaces to 6,000 audience members one day, and pearl necklaces to another group of 6,000 the next. Each—of course—accompanied with a silver O engraved with Oprah's Final Season "to remember this day, to remember this time." This after she explained that it takes oysters two years to produce one pearl.

Some gifts were altruistic.  She provided laptops to school students and teachers and gave $250,000 to a couple who could use it, but I couldn't help viewing that instance with a cynical eye. The couple's bills were already being paid by church and community members, but instead of focusing on the spirit of that generosity, she had to bring the couple on stage, swoop in hero-style and say, "Quit your jobs! Here's a quarter million dollars (also brought to you by X-Box 360)."

Giving to those who need it is not wrong, nor is giving something material for the pure pleasure of it. It's just that these gifts are soooo over-the-top lavish, it starts to create a weird relationship between Oprah and her fans, at least for this viewer. If I went to an Oprah Show taping, I'm pretty sure I'd expect to be given something now, because the materialism this season has been that rampant.

This unbridled gift-giving implies to me a deep need to be liked; Oprah seems to seek constant validation—in Australia she surprises a pregnant mom super fan and says, "It's me! It's me! It's Oprah!" to the shocked woman—and creates frequent situations that allow her to have those validating moments, which she then broadcasts to millions of people. You know, the usual.

Yet Oprah doesn't doesn't acknowledge this part of herself, even when asked directly. The day after seeing U2 in concert, Oprah brings Bono out on stage and says "You are a rock star! Does it feel huge?" Bono says, "It is an other worldly feeling. To need 60,000 people screaming your name every night to feel normal is probably not normal. I hope I know that. I think I know that," and then he turns to Oprah and gestures towards the crowd, "but what's this like your majesty-ness?"

"Did you see my [big red] O on the [Sydney Harbor] bridge?" she replies and moves on.

Let me just point out, Oprah looks like a blast to hang out with. If I got a free trip to Australia where I got to take field trips with Oprah, I'm pretty sure I'd say yes. That's not my beef. My interest lies in the inherent contradiction that is Oprah herself. She proselytizes the virtues of being "one's best self," but the message from today's Oprah is that the peak of that achievement is extravagance. The peak is a regatta with numerous sails reading "Oprah's Final Season." Several times, at various mixers, Oprah addressed the 300 U.S. viewers who traveled to Oz with her. She stands with a mic, and says to them, "I did it, I came from Mississippi and I couldn't find a key chain with my name on it and now look...I've got a regatta with my name on it. You can too!"

But really, not everyone can. And shouldn't finding your "best self" be about something more, anyway?

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Comments

10 comments have been made. Post a comment.

What is with all of the Oprah

What is with all of the Oprah hate? You'd think a feminist blog would be proud of a woman being as influential as Oprah, but no. Every article is to point her out as selfish, egotistical and silly. I'd expect that from more male oriented blogs. It would be one thing if it was done with a critical or reflecting tone but it more often comes off as petty and biting.

Hm...

Hi Lisa,

Thanks for your comments. However, I disagree with you about "Oprah hate." Just in this post alone Jen points out that Oprah is a wonderful entertainer who is generous and looks like she'd be a lot of fun. The fact that she goes on to question the nature of some of Oprah's more lavish gift-giving doesn't mean she hates Oprah or that she's being petty—just that she's thinking critically about some of Oprah's motivations.

Of course it's wonderful for Oprah that she enjoys so much success and influence, but just because she's a woman that doesn't mean that we as feminists should be proud of all of her actions. I for one think that hanging your name on the Sydney Harbor Bridge to mark the arrival of your television crew—not to mention engraving your name on thousands of precious jewels and a regatta and whatever else Oprah's put her name on in Australia—is an act worth interrogating.

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

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Oprah is a polarizing figure

Lisa, thanks for you comments. What I've discovered through this series is that Oprah is a polarizing, complex public figure. Opinions/emotions run the gamut from love and admiration and protection to annoyance, resentment and wonderment. When Oprah comes up in conversation, almost immediately people respond with either: "I love her!" or "I can't stand that woman!" What I'm trying to explore here is the "why." Why does she elicit these myriad responses?

Love this series

Hey Jen - Really enjoy this series. I have similar conflicting opinions on Oprah, and you break them down very well in each article. I used to watch her show religiously until she just started getting on my nerves with her overbearing Oprahness. But I still respect what she's done and her ability to entertain, just as you describe in this series.

I think a comment like Lisa's

I think a comment like Lisa's has to be part of the discussion on Oprah, just as I think that it's fair to examine Oprah's relationship with her public, as the writer here does. As an African American woman who's made a success of herself, Oprah is often under scrutiny for the wrong reasons, whether those reasons are motivated by racism, sexism, or other prejudices. As a person who's carved out a larger-than-life image for herself, however, it's only fair to expect that Oprah's actions can and should be examined and/or critiqued as appropriate--so long as that criticism is just. The point of fighting prejudice, after all, is that we all are allowed equal consideration and are all equally accountable for our actions. Public figures do come under scrutiny, and it's appropriate that we scrutinize the scrutiny, too, as a way to ensure it remains fair.

I enjoyed reading the article, JD, and found it well considered and thought provoking. I'm wondering whether it would not have gained a little something had you addressed Oprah on her own terms, even if only briefly, toward the end: That is, I share in your perspective on Oprah's materialism, but as someone who comes from a background of poverty, I think I would want to see an acknowledgment of the special significance of Oprah's message in relation to those among her audience who come from disenfranchised backgrounds. Oprah couches her message in these "over-the-top" symbols, true. But her "over-the-topness" can be read as a measure of her desire to broadcast what she stands for (her having come from nothing) all the louder. That it all gets away from her and that perhaps she's lost touch with her roots is interesting and worth questioning, as you do here. I do wish I'd seen more of a compassionate nod to the idea that the roots of Oprah's benevolence are (to all appearances) very much entrenched in a place of pain from disenfranchisement. Simply saying that Oprah is needy sort of just begs the question.

Also thought provoking...

Thanks Lissette, I think the point you're driving home - having come from a place of poverty, Oprah may feel compelled to be over the top in a very loud (and maybe even subconscious way) - is very insightful. Coming from a similar class background, I know there are material markers that can say to us: "wow, I've achieved something." And it's all the more significant because of other disenfranchising factors (sex, race). The extravagance that appears to be Oprah's "best self" just seems so narrowly wrapped up in materialism or lavishness that ultimately the core message gets lost for me.

Really appreciate your take and comments!

Thanks, JD. I posted a link

Thanks, JD. I posted a link to your article on my FB wall and will be sure and try to catch up on the rest of this series soon. Good reading!

Good post and comments!

With my highly contradictory feelings about Oprah, I appreciate this article and the questions raised in the comments.

the farewell season

Watching the show, it struck me that Oprah is quite the character. She has stated that it's exhausting giving 150% of herself to her show as she does, but that she owes her viewers that much. So I think that everything she does she tries to do it with as much energy and bang! as possible.

I think that the gaudiness of this season has a lot to do with the fact that it's the last season. I think it's a win/win situation for Oprah and Australia because Oprah gets to make a grand gesture and Australia gets a lot of press, and tourists.

Her comment about the regatta made sense to me. It must be awe inspiring to go from having nothing, being raped, etc. to being such a huge, billionaire public figure and having your name be everywhere. I think she was simply reflecting, and that there was a deeper message in what she was saying.

And yes, I wish that the Australia adventure had more depth. It has its moments, where Oprah doesn't seem like a character, but for the most parts its been very superficial. But I'll continue watching because I take it all with a grain of salt, and because I'll miss the show when it's over.

Hypocrisy Inc.

Personally i find the entire Oprah phenomenon offensive. The ideas she pushes on her show are the usual "Me,Me,Me" ethos I've come to know and loathe. Sure, she dresses it up with some altruism, but mostly she peddles shallowness and materialism while promoting herself as a quasi-religious figure. And speaking of the altruism, isn't it amazing how often it's someone else's? As i recall, all those cars she gave away came from the car company, yet people acted as if she had done a good turn. And then there's the fact that she has yet to join Gates' and Buffet's philanthropic billionaires group...