Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery: An Essay on Popular Culture

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Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery: An Essay on Popular Culture

Eva Illouz. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

In a book of staggering breadth, depth, and detail, F.va Tllou7, successfully launches a vigorous defense of both popular culture and Oprah Winfrey while formulating her own critique of Oprah Winfrey's cultural enterprise and the practice of cultural criticism. Illouz achieves these feats by relying on extensive research, a tireless patience for minute detail, and a highly original methodological practice. Drawing on Oprah's website, O magazine, the novels chosen for Oprah's book club, and the TV show itself, Illouz demonstrates an astonishing understanding of the way Oprah, as a cultural and economic force, appeals to her global audience. In order to locate the meanings in these cultural text, Illouz steers away from an ideological or a strict discourse analysis in favor of a slightly more risky tack: reading Oprah's cultural empire through the very intentions that are deeply embedded in the empire -Oprah's own.

While acknowledging the dangers of the "intention" argument, Illouz successfully explains that Oprah's own intentions are deeply implicated into all aspects of her cultural production. Arguing that we cannot judge a cultural phenomenon such as the Oprah enterprise on outdated or arbitrary grounds dictated by the standards of "high" culture, Illouz persuasively argues that cultural critics must judge Oprah based on her own stated and implicit intention: to heal. Significantly, Illouz argues that Oprah in fact fails to live up to her oft-repeated intentions.

The "glamour of misery" referred to in the title of the book points to how the theme of suffering pervades the Oprah show, Web site, and magazine. Misery and suffering serve as the link, Illouz argues, between Oprah and her guests. Illouz wants to link Oprah's emphasis on the theme of suffering "and the institutions that have produced the forms of suffering she stages" (112). In other words, modernity itself has unleashed a laundry list of real forms of suffering, and telling stories about our suffering is one way of having a self in modernity. Moreover, Oprah's show, Web site, and magazine consistently deal with moral dilemmas of the modern age, exploring how one ought to behave in a world that is endlessly painful and difficult. Poverty, unemployment, stressful work conditions, and other modern material ills serve as the backdrop, then, for the moral predicaments of modern existence: autonomy, marriage, obligation, sexuality, friendship. Suffering, for Illouz, is "a cultural category in its own right, as a text rich in meanings" (111). Enter Oprah, who offers "powerful symbolic tools and rituals to alleviate" the uncertainties of modern life. Both the show and the Oprah Web site are tools of communication for those struggling with the suffering of everyday life. "In that sense, Oprah's texts offer themselves as cultural strategies to cope with chaos and meaninglessness" (116).

However, Illouz argues, Oprah's promotion of "self-help" is also the most difficult aspect of her enterprise. While Illouz beautifully defends Oprah against the charges of eroding the public sphere, voyeurism, and the commodification of sentiments, Illouz suggests that Oprah refuses to let any forms of suffering transform into anything other than a positive value, an uplifting experience, an opportunity to rewrite the life narrative. …