Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon

Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon

Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon

Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon

Synopsis

"Today on Oprah," intoned the TV announcer, and all over America viewers tuned in to learn, empathize, and celebrate. In this book, Kathryn Lofton investigates the Oprah phenomenon and finds in Winfrey's empire--Harpo Productions, O Magazine, and her new television network--an uncanny reflection of religion in modern society. Lofton shows that when Oprah liked, needed, or believed something, she offered her audience nothing less than spiritual revolution, reinforced by practices that fuse consumer behavior, celebrity ambition, and religious idiom. In short, Oprah Winfrey is a media messiah for a secular age. Lofton's unique approach also situates the Oprah enterprise culturally, illuminating how Winfrey reflects and continues historical patterns of American religions.

Excerpt

What is Oprah? A noun. A name. A misspelling. Oprah is a person we know because of her publicity, a pioneer we recognize because of her accolades, and a personage we respect because of her embodied endurance, her passionate care, her industrious production. First and foremost, though, Oprah is a woman. An African American woman with a story broadcast by her own engines, with ideas inspired by her unceasing consumption, and with a self magnified by the media mechanics that make tabloid her every gesture. Before that broadcast, before that spectacle, she did possess particularity: a place of birth, a date of origin, a story of parentage, abuse, and utter destitution. The terms of her subsequent uplift are so ritually inspirational as to be mythic; the results of her rise are so idiosyncratic as to be impossible. What is Oprah? Oprah is an instance of American astonishment at what can be.

From the start, it should be clear: this Oprah is maybe not your Oprah. She is most likely nothing like the Oprah you recollect, the one who hugs and helps and heals the world, one sympathizing smile at a time. For the purposes of this work, the materiality of Oprah Winfrey—her body, her biography, and her singularity—is interesting only insofar as it documents and creates Oprah. Shifting from her to it is not easy, since Oprah is a professionally lovable sort of she. But the move is necessary if we are to know just what it is, exactly, that she sells. Because whatever Oprah is, it will be, in perpetuity, a product. This book examines a person who is also a product, a woman who blends, bends, and obliterates the line between private practice and public performance and whose aesthetics completely ignore what we have historically conceived as a great divide between what is properly religious and what is not. This is the space between the eighteenth-century itinerant preacher George Whitfield and the twentieth-century incorporation of Coca-Cola; it is the charisma between the formation of churches and the formation of empires. Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon argues that the products of Oprah Winfrey’s empire offer a description of religion in modern society. Within the religious pluralism of contemporary America, Oprah extols what she likes, what she needs, and what she believes. These decisions are not just product plugs but also proposals for a mass spiritual revolution, supplying forms of religious practice that fuse consumer behavior, celebrity ambition, and religious idiom. Through multiple media, Oprah sells us a story about ourselves.

Before we can understand the story she sells, however, the seller must be described. Inverted to Harpo, Oprah is a corporation, an employer of nearly a thousand people, a distributor of an internationally recognized brand.

Oprah, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah & Friends, Make the Connection,
Oprah’s Book Club, Use Your Life, Live Your Best Life, Oprah’s Favorite
Things, Wildest Dreams with Oprah, and Oprah Boutique are registered
trademarks of Harpo, Inc. Harpo is a registered trademark of Harpo Pro-
ductions, Inc. The Oprah Store, Oprah.com, Oprah’s Big Give, The Big Give,
Give Big or Go Home, Expert Minutes, the “Oprah” signature and the “O”
design are trademarks of Harpo, Inc. Oprah’s Angel Network®, Angel Net-
work, O Ambassadors, and the corresponding “O” design are trademarks of
Oprah’s Angel Network. Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls is a
trademark of The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Foundation. O, The
Oprah Magazine and O at Home are registered trademarks of Harpo Print,
LLC. All Rights Reserved.

These titles and imprints are not just trademarks. They are cultures of expression, a supply chain of self unmatched in the history of industry, celebrity, or charismatic authority. The kernel was a studio of televised rhetoric: The Oprah Winfrey Show. Not an object you could hold in your hands, but a process of conversation, a didactic community. This is what started it all, spiraling quickly into brand compulsion: The Oprah Winfrey Show entered national syndication in 1986, becoming the highest-rated talk show in television history. In 1988, Oprah established Harpo Studios, a production facility in Chicago. Produced by her production company, Harpo Productions . . .

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