The Secret of Oprah's Success
Her biography. But not the one in Kitty Kelley's book.
It's no accident Winfrey's show comes on at 4 p.m., at just the moment an afternoon sags and the desolating powers of a wasted day are most acute. "I am the instrument of God," she has said. "I am his messenger. My show is my ministry." The woman who comes on at 4 to minister, to shepherd and rescue the dying day, brings with her an extraordinary life story, a biography that, by power of historical association, with slavery and Jim Crow, hallows the self's contest against unreliable husbands, fathers, siblings. But her gift extends further: The drama of self-ownership so central to the literature of black women is Winfrey's Trojan horse. Even as she introduced the adversities of her friend Maya Angelou to an overwhelmingly white and middle-class audience, the press was reporting on her astonishing moneymaking prowess, as inseparable from the brand image as her origins in poverty. (She made $31 million in 1987; the figure is now easily 10 times that.)
It's great work, if you can get it. Win your viewers' trust, offer them asylum from an increasingly pitiless and negligent world, ennoble their suffering with the halo of Civil Rights, then tell them, over and over, that, as Winfrey herself identifies the show's abiding message, "It doesn't matter how victimized any of us have been, we're all responsible for our lives." Wounding them with the spectacle of your own success, against every deprivation, you then engage them in a decades-long circus of self-help as therapeutic catharsis and healing. "My intent always is to own myself and every part of myself I can," she has said of Harpo, her own production company. "Owning myself is a way to be myself." The up-from-slavery theater jock and the baby boomer extraordinaire now speak as one.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.