The Long Goodbye: Oprah's Mark on Pop Culture
This week, after 25 years on the air, we say goodbye to the Oprah Winfrey Show, a juggernaut that has shaped the popular culture landscape perhaps more than anything else on TV.
As an enthusiastic promoter of popular mainstream arts—namely music, books, television shows, and movies—Oprah significantly upped the exposure of many things through the unique three-way connection she facilitated between herself, the artists, and her viewers. Even the most well-known celebrities fought their awe when sitting down with the queen of talk. And it is precisely this dynamic that drew us in. Even though Oprah is a universally recognized icon in her own right, she presented herself as being so open and at ease with who she is you could practically see the artists—even famous ones—wanting to follow suit (sometimes to extreme effect).
She not only introduced us to artists, she humanized them (Stars! They’re Just Like Us!), making viewers feel more connected to Oprah herself and the people and products she was promoting, which translated to sales and, arguably, a new way of selling.
For her fervent viewers (who are mostly women), Oprah has provided guidance on what to wear, feel, think, eat and buy in order to be their best selves (Robyn Okrant even wrote a book about that phenomenon and her participation in it). For young girls and women—especially non-white and lower-income women—she is a tangible manifestation of the mantra: if I can dream it, I can achieve it. For the career woman she is a model: someone who put her goals first, and forewent marriage and children to make them happen. For nearly all American women, she has at one point in our lives, been a connector, or at least a lively water cooler topic. She is viewed as a sort of cultural mother, sister, survivor, mentor, friend, and therapist—and not only by us non-famous gals.
When Steven Speilberg was casting The Color Purple, who did he choose to play the part of Sofia, the strong, but ultimately broken wife of Harpo? Oprah.
When Ellen DeGeneres broadcast her coming-out episode in April 1997 (a pop culture milestone itself), who did she cast as her therapist? Oprah again (time codes :036 and 3:10).
Of course, she has also provided fodder for the snarkosphere, as evidenced by this video clip from The Soup:
For those who adore her, this is blasphemy. But for those who have a hard time reconciling the more humble Oprah from the '80s and '90s with today’s more over-the-top Oprah, it provides a space to unite. This may have little to do with Oprah herself, however, and more to do with America's pop culture values, which generally lead us to build a person up to an impossible ideal, and then tear her down when she inevitably falters.
Oprah and her guests’ appearances are discussed and analyzed, often in public—through the mainstream press and via her own media empire, which includes O Magazine her new 24-hour cable network OWN—and the ending of the Oprah Winfrey Show has been big news. We don’t know what the last episodes will bring, but if the media reports are any indication, it will include mega-star tribute after tribute.
I started watching the show daily this season because for most of my life, Oprah has been present and I wanted to see what her departure might mean (but as this series’ title indicates, she’s not really saying goodbye). I have mixed feelings about Oprah, which I’ve written about here over the last few months, and which vacillate between the outlooks presented above. That being said, no one can deny her impact on pop culture, which has been going strong for a quarter of a century now.
All of that aside, if I found myself sitting next to Oprah on an airplane, I’m pretty sure I’d act exactly like this:
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