Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture

Article excerpt

* Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture. Trystan T. Cotton and Kimberly Springer, eds. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. 188 pp. $50 hbk.

The ubiquitous Oprah Winfrey is a global media icon. Her syndicated daytime talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, is the highest-rated talk show in American television history, and when it ends in September 2011 will have aired for a quarter-century. Her Book Club recommendations virtually guarantee best-sellerdom for authors. Harpo, Inc., her production company, is behind films, television shows, satelUte radio programs, and O: The Oprah Magazine. In January 2011 she launched her own 24/7 cable network She even dispenses miUions of dollars through Oprah's Angel Network philanthropy. Regardless of her platform, Oprah's message is positive, inspirational, and spiritual as she exhorts her fans to, "Live your best life."

So what's not to like?

Well, according to Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture, Oprah's message of personal empowerment and New Age self-help may prove upUfting to individual fans, but it often ends up being a depoliticized, deracialized, non-threatening balm that fails to address the systemic and institutionalized cultural oppression at the root of many people's problems. At the same time, Oprah fails to credit the social movements and forces that helped propel her rise from her hardscrabble Mississippi beginnings to preside over her current media juggernaut. From a communication theory standpoint, Oprah's message matters because given her media empire's worldwide hegemonic reach, she is the ultimate agenda setter, telling people not what to think but what to think about.

Co-editors Trystan Cotton, an African American studies professor at CaUfornia State-Stanislaus, and Kimberly Springer, a senior lecturer in the American Studies Department at King's College London, pull together eleven chapters written by fifteen contributors - mostly American and European academics, ranging from doctoral students to department heads. Stories of Oprah examines Oprah's impact on topics as wide-ranging as race, feminism, philanthropy, self-help, teen-age sexuaUty, and the 9/11 attacks and subsequent war in Iraq. Springer argues that the book shows that "it is possible to admire and even envy the accomplishments of an American cultural icon while mamtaining a critical perspective that asks for more than what is presented on the surface by the Oprah Culture Industry."

WhUe acknowledging Oprah's power and accompUshments, many of the contributors claim she shirks a larger duty to address deeper problems that might cause her audience - or advertisers - to reject her. PoUtical science Ph.D. candidate Jennifer Rexroat writes that Oprah, as a de facto feminist, "refuses to pigeonhole herself as an explicitly identified feminist because of the many problematic and often pejorative associations made by numerous Americans with the feminist label." Adriana Katzew and Lilia de Katzew explain Oprah's failure to serve as a role model to many Chicanas by noting "a cultural gap that comes across in Oprah's message when her measure of happiness and self-fulfillment for women does not take into account the specific ethnic and cultural life-worlds of diverse women - specifically that of Chicanas," many of whom deal with poverty, powerlessness, and other problems. …