Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon

Article excerpt

Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon Kathryn Lofton. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

If there is one thing American icon Oprah Winfrey is good at, it is telling a story. Her ability to establish a connection between subject and audience, build emotional attachment, and offer a chilling/heartwarming/ inspiring/hilarious conclusion (all in under an hour) is the basis on which her media empire is built. And her stories are spiritually therapeutic. Oprah is interested in you; in helping you find your true spirit and creating your best life.

Kathryn Lofton, in her recent book Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, is interested in a different kind of story. Lofton focuses on Oprah the brand (the "O"), not Oprah the woman. She identifies Oprah's abilities to reframe narratives and lives and in turn reframes Oprah, not as a chatty day-time television host, but as a central figure in the creation of the ethos of America. The book is a selecting and naming of the extensive products and production that we see when we look at Oprah Winfrey. And what Lofton sees (and her title attests to) is a cultural figure influ- enced by and participating in the dual historical tra- jectories of American religion and American consumerism.

Lofton traces the religious spark through six aspects of Oprah's empire: the book club, the make- over show, her international mission, her "spirit," and her association with prosperity gospel. She locates Oprah as the inheritor of religious tradition, citing the similarity of Oprah's Book Club with nineteenth- century religious reading clubs and the echo of Holiness-Pentecostal revivalist preachers in Oprah's discourse. In doing so, Lofton resists the easy categori- zations of Oprah as anti-religious establishment, New Age guru, or "spiritual" teacher.

Instead, Lofton argues that Oprah's empire repre- sents modern religion in America. It is a world where choice, product, and meaning are inextricably inter- twined. …