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The Oprah Phenomenon

Jennifer Harris

Publication Year: 2007

Her image is iconic: Oprah Winfrey has built an empire on her ability to connect with and inspire her audience. No longer just a name, “Oprah” has become a brand representing the talk show host’s unique style of self-actualizing individualism. The cultural and economic power wielded by Winfrey merits critical evaluation. The contributors to The Oprah Phenomenon examine the origins of her public image and its substantial influence on politics, entertainment, and popular opinion. Contributors address praise from her many supporters and weigh criticisms from her detractors. Winfrey’s ability to create a feeling of intimacy with her audience has long been cited as one of the foundations of her popularity. She has repeatedly made national headlines by engaging and informing her audience with respect to her personal relationships to race, gender, feminism, and New Age culture. The Oprah Phenomenon explores these relationships in detail. At the root of Winfrey’s message to her vast audience is her assertion that anyone can be a success regardless of background or upbringing. The contributors scrutinize this message: What does this success entail? Is the motivation behind self-actualization, in fact, merely the hope of replicating Winfrey’s purchasing power? Is it just a prescription to buy the products she recommends and heed the advice of people she admires, or is it a lifestyle change of meaningful spiritual benefit? The Oprah Phenomenon asks these and many other difficult questions to promote a greater understanding of Winfrey’s influence on the American consciousness. Elwood Watson, associate professor of history at East Tennessee State University, is the editor of several books, including “There She Is, Miss America”: The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant and Searching The Soul of Ally McBeal: Critical Essays.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky


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pp. vii-viii

To speak of Oprah Winfrey is to speak in superlatives. She’s the richest this, the most powerful that; the first this, the greatest influence on that. What Caesar was to geography, it would seem, Winfrey is to turn-of-the-twenty-first-century culture. Commentators refer to the “Oprahfication” of America much like historians refer to the hellenization of Europe and Asia under Alexander.

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Introduction: Oprah Winfrey as Subject and Spectacle

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pp. 1-31

For a brief moment in 2002, President George W. Bush faced one of his most savvy media opponents to date: Oprah Winfrey. According to the White House, Winfrey declined to join an official U.S. delegation scheduled to tour the schools of Afghanistan and draw attention to the subordinate role of Afghani women, claiming “she didn’t have the time.”1 The news item was quickly disseminated, as befitting anything ...

Part I: Oprah Winfrey and Race

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pp. 33

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The Specter of Oprah Winfrey: Critical Black Female Spectatorship

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pp. 35-49

Theorists of black visual spectatorship have long considered the spectacular modes of observation practiced by African Americans with regard to popular representations of themselves. Whether black people’s engagement with their imagery has been acquiescent or resistant, reconstructive or revisionary, critics agree that black people are experts at looking for themselves and at themselves in visual media.

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My Mom and Oprah Winfrey: Her Appeal to White Women

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pp. 51-64

In the mid-1980s I was a single white female (SWF) working as a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune. I lived in a condominium in downtown Chicago with a view of Lake Michigan. I did not own a car, walked everywhere, and reveled in my status as a city girl. My mother, who had raised three kids in a New Jersey suburb and was recently widowed, visited Chicago regularly.

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The “Oprahization” of America: The Man Show and the Redefinition of Black Femininity

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pp. 65-84

The hit Comedy Central series The Man Show debuted on June 16, 1999, to ratings that broke all records for the channel. The introductory program was titled “The Oprahization of America,” and original hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla had this to say about talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and contemporary social relationships in the United States:

Part II: Oprah Winfrey on the Stage

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pp. 85

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Oprah Winfrey and Women’s Autobiography: A Televisual Performance of the Therapeutic Self

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pp. 87-99

It has become somewhat commonplace to suggest that the genre of talk shows has blurred the private and public spheres by exposing to public view secrets hitherto confined to the bedroom (or whispered into the ear of a professional). However, the process by which the private is made public is still largely unclear. To become a public form of speech, a private utterance must undergo a transformation, that is, be recoded ...

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From Fasting toward Self-Acceptance: Oprah Winfrey and Weight Loss in American Culture

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pp. 101-123

In 2002 Oprah Winfrey stated, “I did a head-to-toe assessment, and though there was plenty of room for improvement, I no longer hated any part of myself, including the cellulite. I thought, This is the body you’ve been given—love what you’ve got.”1 The story of Winfrey’s dramatic rise to stardom is widely known. An African American woman born into rural poverty, shuttled from one relative to another, and the ...

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Spiritual Talk: The Oprah Winfrey Show and the Popularization of the New Age

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pp. 125-145

Nineteen ninety-four was an important year for Oprah Winfrey. In anticipation of her upcoming fortieth birthday, she began a radical program of self-transformation. To gain control over her lifelong battle with weight, she decided to abandon all fad diets for a more consistent plan of healthy eating and a strict daily running schedule. In a Ladies’ Home Journal interview in November 1994, Winfrey reflected on her commitment to her new exercise regime:

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Oprah Winfrey and Spirituality

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pp. 147-163

The public persona of Oprah Winfrey is a richly textured and complex mosaic composed of artist, philanthropist, television host, actress, author, publisher, producer, advocate, filmmaker, teacher, businesswoman, and media-pop icon. Many critical works that address Winfrey consider her performance of these roles within the context of gender studies, media studies, or both.

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Phenomenon on Trial: Reading Rhetoric at Texas Beef v. Oprah Winfrey

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pp. 165-187

In January 1998 a conglomerate of cattle producers from Texas sued talk-show host Oprah Winfrey for comments she made on her show about the safety of the U.S. beef supply. Like many good stories, this one could begin with, “In the beginning was the Word.”1 At every turn, the trial lends itself to a rhetorical critique: it was an event born of, centered on, and sustained by the word. It began with what Winfrey said, to whom, and where, and it insists on being about what people ...

Part III: Oprah Winfrey on the Page

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pp. 189

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Oprah’s Book Club and the American Dream

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pp. 191-205

In their essay “America Dreamin’: Discoursing Liberally on The Oprah Winfrey Show” Debbie Epstein and Deborah Lynn Steinberg assert that although the show identifies the failures and limitations of the American Dream for women and African Americans and, to a lesser extent, for the lower classes, in the end, it recuperates this classic mythology by affirming that self-actualization is indeed the key to social and economic success.

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Some Lessons before Dying: Gender, Morality, and the Missing Critical Discourse in Oprah’s Book Club

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pp. 207-226

As educators, feminists, cultural critics, and lovers of reading for pleasure, we are fascinated by Oprah’s Book Club. Oprah Winfrey’s ability to call attention to the work of otherwise marginalized authors and to promote a widened readership of their novels among a largely conventional fiction-reading public—as she did in the original incarnation of the book club—is remarkable.

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Making Corrections to Oprah’s Book Club: Reclaiming Literary Power for Gendered Literacy Management

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pp. 227-257

In the fall of 2001, the juggernaut of Oprah Winfrey’s original book club hit a roadblock. Up until that time, Winfrey’s television-based reading community had been humming steadily along, generating unprecedented sales for every book she selected while garnering zealous participation from fans, as well as praise from organizations such as the American Library Association. Oprah’s Book Club had been big news ...

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Knowing for Sure: Epistemologies of the Autonomous Self in O, the Oprah Magazine

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pp. 259-276

A common popular narrative of female empowerment is the story of the woman who goes looking for personal satisfaction and “completion” in others and, after much disappointment, only truly finds it in herself. This narrative suggests a vague link to American popular conceptions of feminism, which for some includes the political, ethical, and cultural ideologies that argue for women’s self-determination.1

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Oprah Winfrey’s Branding of Personal Empowerment

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pp. 277-292

Fresh from the successful launch of Oprah’s Book Club and the continued success of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey launched O, the Oprah Magazine in May–June 2000. In that premier issue, Oprah Winfrey proclaimed her desire to guide her readers toward personal empowerment while linking their success to her own self-empowerment: “This is the defining question of my life: How do you use your life to best serve yourself and extend that to the world?


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pp. 293-295


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pp. 297-303

E-ISBN-13: 9780813172132
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813124261

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2007