So much more than mere talk

The Oprah Phenomenon
August 3, 2007

Sometimes I wish I could just sit and watch daytime TV. It is a gentle and undemanding existence, except for the talk show. Here are shattered lives offered up as entertainment. This is tragedy with the audience as chorus led by the presenter. Or rather freak show - the viewer invited to gawp at a morally incontinent underclass. The two main talk shows in England are hosted by Jeremy Kyle and Trisha Goddard. Kyle bullies his guests while Goddard oaxes them. Both owe a debt to Oprah Winfrey, the subject of this diverting collection of essays.

Winfrey is some woman. As if being a black child in racially segregated America were not bad enough she was also abused. But this was just another obstacle to overcome. Winfrey differs from ordinary mortals in having both brains and beauty. In 1971 she was crowned Miss Black Tennessee and also became the first African-American woman to anchor the news in Nashville. Soon she was hosting People Are Talking . It was such a huge hit that she was poached to front AM Chicago. Within a year, it had been renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show (1985).

From the beginning Winfrey redefined the talk-show format. Where Phil Donahue wagged a fatherly finger at his guests, she engaged the audience and talked to the camera like a friend. In particular, she does not present herself as an expert, but identifies with the viewers sharing their experiences.

Her willingness to talk about her problems - for example, her lack of self esteem - form the basis of her huge influence on her audience's views of everything from relationships to eye make-up. When she declared that fears of mad cow disease would prevent her from eating another burger, her fans followed suit. The Texas Beef Group sued and lost.

Jennifer Richardson's account of the trial is typical of the collection. It is an honest attempt to understand a phenomenon that transcends the conceptual categories of cultural criticism. Academia has yet to catch up with Oprah Winfrey, but the contributors all rise nobly to the challenge. The book is divided into three parts; race, television and print. Valerie Palmer-Mehta provides an engrossing account of how Winfrey overturns the conventional representations of black women in America: the servant, the matriarch, the welfare mother and the Jezebel.

But what about Winfrey's relation to white women? This is the subject of Linda Kay's very personal piece, "My Mom and Oprah Winfrey". Her conclusion is that Winfrey appeals to all races because she was determined to make something of her life.

Kay's essay also touches on an issue that goes right to the heart of the talk show format; the stress on personal responsibility for transforming lives shaped by social and political structures. If the contributors have one criticism of Winfrey, it is that she ignores these wider constraints on individual action. Maria McGrath explores this theme in her thoughtful piece, "Spiritual Talk", highlighting the limitations of Winfrey's use of New Age philosophy.

One of the things that makes Winfrey's show unique is its book club, which Sarah Robbins sees as an example of the "domestic literacy narrative". Roberta F. Hammet and Audrey Dentith chide Winfrey's book club for promoting conservative readings but acknowledge that it boosts literacy.

I once saw a woman on The Jeremy Kyle Show who was asked to read out the results of a lie detector test. She was barely literate and could hardly pronounce the word "truth". It was not television's most glorious moment. The British talk show could learn a lot from Oprah. She is not perfect but, as this fine collection shows, she is an inspiration to millions and does a lot of good.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

The Oprah Phenomenon

Editor - Jennifer Harris and Elwood Watson
Publisher - University Press of Kentucky
Pages - 328
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 9780813124261

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