The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era

The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era

The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era

The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era


Over the last two decades Oprah Winfrey's journey has taken her from talk show queen to-as Time Magazine has asserted-"one of the most important figures in popular culture." Through her talk show, magazine, website, seminars, charity work, and public appearances, her influence in the social, economic, and political arenas of American life is considerable and until now, largely unexamined. In The Age of Oprah, media scholar and journalist Janice Peck traces Winfrey's growing cultural impact and illustrates the fascinating parallels between her road to fame and fortune and the political-economic rise of neoliberalism in this country. While seeking to understand Oprah's ascent to the near- iconic status that she enjoys today, Peck's book provides a fascinating window into the intersection of American politics and culture over the past quarter century.


In April 2006, Oprah Winfrey introduced an episode of her talk show thus: “Today, a topic so taboo, so controversial, my producers had a hard time getting people to even talk about this” (Oprah Winfrey Show, April 21, 2006). Given the genre’s reputation for sensationalism, we might assume the program was poised to reveal bizarre neuroses or sexual obsessions, were it not that the very ubiquity of TV talk shows has rendered such matters utterly mundane. Instead, the topic “so taboo” no one wanted to touch it was “class in America.”

Apparently inspired by a New York Times series from 2005 titled “Class Matters,” the show’s opening segment suggested a serious treatment of issues of class inequality: clips of experts citing the growing gap between rich and poor, shots of Hurricane Katrina victims crying for help, and Winfrey’s own statement that “nearly 40 percent of all the country’s wealth is being held by the richest 1 percent.” The fact that one of the guests was Robert Reich, U.S. secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, underscored the solemn tone as he spoke of declining manufacturing jobs, a shrinking middle class, mounting economic anxiety, and millions of Americans who are “working very hard” but still “not making it” (ibid.) in what some are now calling the “new gilded age” (Uchitelle 2007).

But even as Reich called into question the viability of the “American dream,” Winfrey reaffirmed it. She referred to a New York Times poll where “80 percent” of those surveyed said they “believe you can go from rags to riches in America”; followed it up with a video clip of a young woman convinced she would acquire “the big house, fantasy engagement ring, and nice cars” because “if you work hard, you can achieve anything”; and finally declared herself not only “a believer in the American dream of rags to riches” but living proof of its veracity. Although Reich dutifully decreed his host “a great model for America,” he pressed on with his argument that success and failure are not simply matters of individual effort. “Part of it is luck,” he said, “part of it is connection, part yself lucky at all.” Nor, she added, did she consider Bill Gates lucky, even though Gates had told her he considers himself a fortunate man.

That a woman now worth $2.5 billion and ranked number 462 on Forbes’ list of world billionaires would be a cheerleader for the “American dream” is not terribly surprising . . .

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