Oprah is appealing because her stories hide the role of political, economic and social structures in our lives. They make the American dream seem attainable
Oprah Winfrey in 2011. Photograph: Todd Williamson/WireImage
source: The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/may/09/oprah-winfrey-neoliberal-capitalist-thinkers
In Oprah Winfrey lore, one particular story is repeated over and over. When Oprah was 17, she won the Miss Fire Prevention Contest in Nashville, Tennessee. Until that year every winner had had a mane of red hair, but Oprah would prove to be a game changer.
The contest was the first of many successes for Oprah. She has won numerous Emmys, has been nominated for an Oscar, and appears on lists like Time’s 100 Most Influential People. In 2013, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She founded the Oprah Book Club, which is often credited with reviving Americans’ interest in reading. Her generosity and philanthropic spirit are legendary.
Oprah has legions of obsessive, devoted fans who write her letters and follow her into public restrooms. Oprah basks in their love: “I know people really, really, really love me, love me.” And she loves them right back. It’s part of her “higher calling”. She believes that she was put on this earth to lift people up, to help them “live their best life”. She encourages people to love themselves, believe in themselves, and follow their dreams.
Oprah is one of a new group of elite storytellers who present practical solutions to society’s problems that can be found within the logic of existing profit-driven structures of production and consumption. They promote market-based solutions to the problems of corporate power, technology, gender divides, environmental degradation, alienation and inequality.
Oprah’s popularity stems in part from her message of empathy, support, and love in an increasingly stressful, alienating society. Three decades of companies restructuring their operations by eliminating jobs (through attrition, technology, and outsourcing) and dismantling both organized labor and the welfare state have left workers in an extremely precarious situation.
Oprah in the early days of the show. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex
Today, new working-class jobs are primarily low-wage service jobs, and the perks that once went along with middle-of-the-road white-collar jobs have disappeared. Flexible, project-oriented, contingent work has become the norm, enabling companies to ratchet up their requirements for all workers except those at the very top. Meanwhile, the costs of education, housing, childcare, and health care have skyrocketed, making it yet more difficult for individuals and households to get by, never mind prosper.
In this climate of stress and uncertainty, Oprah tells us the stories of her life to help us understand our feelings, cope with difficulty and improve our lives. She presents her personal journey and metamorphosis from poor little girl in rural Mississippi to billionaire prophet as a model for overcoming adversity and finding “a sweet life”.
Oprah’s biographical tale has been managed, mulled over, and mauled in the public gaze for 30 years. She used her precocious intelligence and wit to channel the pain of abuse and poverty into building an empire. She was on television by the age of 19 and had her own show within a decade.
The 1970s feminist movement opened the door to the domestic, private sphere, and the show walked in a decade later, breaking new ground as a public space to discuss personal troubles affecting Americans, particularly women. Oprah broached topics (divorce, depression, alcoholism, child abuse, adultery, incest) that had never before been discussed with such candor and empathy on television.
The show’s evolution over the decades mirrored the evolution of Oprah’s own life. In its early years the show followed a “recovery model” in which guests and viewers were encouraged to overcome their problems through self-esteem building and learning to love themselves.
US President Barack Obama presents broadcast journalist Oprah Winfrey with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
But as copycat shows and criticisms of “trash talk” increased in the early 1990s, Oprah changed the show’s format. In 1994, Oprah declared that she was done with “victimization” and negativity: “It ’s time to move on from ‘We are dysfunctional’ to ‘What are we going to do about it?’” Oprah credited her decision to her own personal evolution: “People must grow and change” or “they will shrivel up” and “their souls will shrink”.
In an appearance on Larry King Live, Oprah acknowledged that she had become concerned about the message of her show and so had decided to embark on a new mission “to lift people up”. Themes of spirituality and empowerment displaced themes of personal pathology. For Oprah, the transformation was total: “Today I try to do well and be well with everyone I reach or encounter. I make sure to use my life for that which can be of goodwill. Yes, this has brought me great wealth. More important, it has fortified me spiritually and emotionally.”
A stream of self-help gurus have spent time on Oprah’s stage over the past decade and a half, all with the same message. You have choices in life. External conditions don’t determine your life. You do. It ’s all inside you, in your head, in your wishes and desires. Thoughts are destiny, so thinking positive thoughts will enable positive things to happen.
When bad things happen to us, it’s because we’re drawing them toward us with unhealthy thinking and behaviors. “Don’t complain about what you don’t have. Use what you’ve got. To do less than your best is a sin. Every single one of us has the power for greatness because greatness is determined by service—to yourself and others.” If we listen to that quiet “whisper” and fine-tune our “internal, moral, emotional GPS”, we too can learn the secret of success.
Janice Peck, in her work as professor of journalism and communication studies, has studied Oprah for years. She argues that to understand the Oprah phenomenon we must return to the ideas swirling around in the Gilded Age. Peck sees strong parallels in the mind-cure movement of the Gilded Age and Oprah’s evolving enterprise in the New Gilded Age, the era of neoliberalism. She argues that Oprah’s enterprise reinforces the neoliberal focus on the self: Oprah’s “enterprise [is] an ensemble of ideological practices that help legitimize a world of growing inequality and shrinking possibilities by promoting and embodying a configuration of self compatible with that world.”
Nothing captures this ensemble of ideological practices better than O Magazine, whose aim is to “help women see every experience and challenge as an opportunity to grow and discover their best self. To convince women that the real goal is becoming more of who they really are. To embrace their life.” O Magazine implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, identifies a range of problems in neoliberal capitalism and suggests ways for readers to adapt themselves to mitigate or overcome these problems.
Does your 60 hour-a-week desk job make your back hurt and leave you emotionally exhausted and stressed? Of course it does. Studies show that “death by office job” is real: people who sit at a desk all day are more likely to be obese, depressed, or just dead for no discernible reason. But you can dull these effects and improve your wellness with these O-approved strategies: Become more of an “out-of-the-box thinker” because creative people are healthier. Bring photos, posters, and “kitschy figurines” to decorate your workspace: “You’ll feel less emotionally exhausted and reduce burnout.” Write down three positive things that happened during your workday every night before leaving the office to “reduce stress and physical pain from work”.
Oprah is appealing precisely because her stories hide the role of political, economic, and social structures
In December 2013, O devoted a whole issue to anxiety and worry. The issue “conquers a lifetime ’s worth of anxieties and apprehensions”, an apt subject given rising levels of anxiety across the age spectrum.
In the issue, bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin present a list of books for the anxious, prescribing them instead of a “trip to the pharmacy”. Feeling claustrophobic because you’re too poor to move out of your parents’ house? Read Little House on the Prairie. Feeling stressed because your current project at work is ending and you don’t have another lined up? Read The Man Who Planted Trees. Worried that you won’t be able to pay the rent because you just lost your job? Read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. “Instead of feeling depressed, follow the lead hero Toru Okada, who, while jobless, embarks on a fantastic liberating journey that changes the way he thinks.”
Oprah recognizes the pervasiveness of anxiety and alienation in our society. But instead of examining the economic or political basis of these feelings, she advises us to turn our gaze inward and reconfigure ourselves to become more adaptable to the vagaries and stresses of the neoliberal moment.
Oprah is appealing precisely because her stories hide the role of political, economic, and social structures. In doing so, they make the American Dream seem attainable. If we just fix ourselves, we can achieve our goals. For some people, the American dream is attainable, but to understand the chances for everyone, we need to look dispassionately at the factors that shape success.
Oprah Winfrey gestures during the taping of “Oprah’s Surprise Spectacular” in Chicago May 17, 2011. Photograph: John Gress/Reuters
The current incarnation of the American Dream narrative holds that if you acquire enough cultural capital (skills and education) and social capital (connections, access to networks), you will be able to translate that capital into both economic capital (cash) and happiness. Cultural capital and social capital are seen as there for the taking (particularly with advances in internet technology), so the only additional necessary ingredients are pluck, passion, and persistence— all attributes that allegedly come from inside us.
The American dream is premised on the assumption that if you work hard, economic opportunity will present itself, and financial stability will follow, but the role of cultural and social capital in paving the road to wealth and fulfilment, or blocking it, may be just as important as economic capital. Some people are able to translate their skills, knowledge, and connections into economic opportunity and financial stability, and some are not—either because their skills, knowledge, and connections don’t seem to work as well, or they can’t acquire them in the first place because they’re too poor.
Today, the centrality of social and cultural capital is obscured (sometimes deliberately), as demonstrated in the implicit and explicit message of Oprah and her ideological colleagues. In their stories, and many others like them, cultural and social capital are easy to acquire. They tell us to get an education. Too poor? Take an online course. Go to Khan Academy. They tell us to meet people, build up our network. Don’t have any connected family members? Join LinkedIn.
It’s simple. Anyone can become anything. There’s no distinction between the quality and productivity of different people’s social and cultural capital. We’re all building our skills. We’re all networking.
This is a fiction. If all or most forms of social and cultural capital were equally valuable and accessible, we should see the effects of this in increased upward mobility and wealth created anew by new people in each generation rather than passed down and expanded from one generation to the next. The data do not demonstrate this upward mobility.
The US, in a sample of 13 wealthy countries, ranks highest in inequality and lowest in intergenerational earnings mobility. Wealth isn’t earned fresh in each new generation by plucky go-getters. It is passed down, preserved, and expanded through generous tax laws and the assiduous transmission of social and cultural capital.
The way Oprah tells us to get through it all and realize our dreams is always to adapt ourselves to the changing world, not to change the world we live in. We demand little or nothing from the system, from the collective apparatus of powerful people and institutions. We only make demands of ourselves.
We are the perfect, depoliticized, complacent neoliberal subjects.
And yet we’re not. The popularity of strategies for alleviating alienation rests on our deep, collective desire for meaning and creativity. Literary critic and political theorist Fredric Jameson would say that the Oprah stories, and others like them, are able to “manage our desires” only because they appeal to deep fantasies about how we want to live our lives. This, after all, is what the American dream narrative is about – not necessarily a description of life lived, but a vision of how life should be lived.
When the stories that manage our desires break their promises over and over, the stories themselves become fuel for change and open a space for new, radical stories. These new stories must feature collective demands that provide a critical perspective on the real limits to success in our society and foster a vision of life that does fulfill the desire for self-actualization.
- This is an extract from New Prophets of Capital by Nicole Aschoff, published by Verso Books.