The Long Goodbye: Oprah on Master Class

Oprah as a young woman

The central question I’ve been trying to answer throughout this series is: why is Oprah such a polarizing figure? Whenever her name comes up, I hear one of two responses: “I love her!” or “She bugs me.” But people (outside of this forum) have a hard time articulating the why. For me, that answer came into sharper focus after watching Oprah last week on OWN’s Master Class, her series featuring various masters in their respective fields reflecting on their lives.

It’s about the narrative.

Many of us are familiar with Oprah’s meteoric trajectory from a child born in poverty in Mississippi in 1954 to one of the world’s wealthiest and most recognizable public figures. She’s experienced racism, neglect, sexual abuse, and poverty. But she persevered by being smart, open, recognizing and going for an opportunity when she saw one, and working hard. This got her noticed by a few mentors who coached her along the way. It’s fun to hear about her climb from top student to local talk show host.

She also lays bare how her past drove her to become, well, Oprah: “Understanding what it feels like to not be wanted, has created for me a great desire to make everyone feel wanted and to know that they matter.”  Her disenfranchisement is not to be minimized, of course. And the message that with hard work and some luck, you can accomplish something in this country is one worth reinforcing again and again. It gives us hope.

But again, when it comes to that central question about Oprah, it’s about the narrative. More specifically, the way that she constructs it.

And Oprah’s narrative on her life is more concise: I’m special. She defines her path as being divinely predetermined, but the implementation is self-determined by her. “Nothing about my life is lucky,” she says. “Luck equals preparation meeting the moment of opportunity.”

For casual observers, this narrative is what seems to really bother people—Oprah’s not special per se (is she anymore special than a hero who is unsung?), though she is successful. She’s not a spiritual leader who has been divinely touched to help people become their best selves; she’s someone who got a talk show, is relatable and accessible, and who saw (in the ’80s) that she needed to tread higher ground if she was going to break away from the Jerry Springers and Sally Jesse Raphaels (her competitors in that time). When she made that adjustment to her formula, and also wove herself more into the show, that’s when she really took off.  Smart, not special. (And in my opinion, smart is just as admirable as special.)

There’s nothing wrong with creating your own narrative. Sometimes—as long as it’s not damaging—it’s what you need to get through the day. I think what irks people is that Oprah’s narrative (at least at present) is about Oprah’s divine specialness. It’s about putting herself at the center, while at the same time giving the credit to some sort of predetermined spiritual plan. It’s that the Oprah of today seems to have completely separated from that little girl born in January 1954 in the South, when she should be an extension. What do you think?

by Jennifer Tress
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10 Comments Have Been Posted

I think that you're right

I think a big problem today is that products are geared towards demographics. I've met erudite28 year old college grads who dislike avatar because they assumed that the product was for them, instead of teenagers.

This leads people to dislike products that don't reflect themselves but are sociologically responsible and a net good for the demographic being targeted. Avatar teaches teens about the plight of native people more effectively than anthropology 101. I have caught myself in the opposite situation, I enjoy the beat to a sexist-as-all-hell song but abhor the sociological impact that the piece of art has on others: Ludacris anybody? Oprah is in the former category, she explains things to my mother that only Oprah can, and I really appreciate the effect her existence has on American Sociology (i.e. she was the strongest daytime voice against the war in Iraq), but I do not seek to watch her show: it isn't for me.

I think that a lot of people have trouble parsing their personal sociological aesthetic from their personal artistic one, which leads to strange, sometimes diffident, hard-to-understand critiques of popular figures.

I would like to point out that a lot of people claim their distaste for her is something other that 1.) she's an assertive woman with strong ideas, and 2.) she's black. That turns certain people off who are savvy enough not to blame those aspects of their distaste out loud, who instead default to "it's her narrative."

Oprah's divine specialness

I have taped every episode of Oprah this year. Not because I like her show (I don't), but because I'm trying to understand her appeal before she leaves the air. She has managed to take what I think are mediocre interviewing skills and weave them into something that has been entertaining, inspirational, moving, and joyfully ridiculous...and sometimes downright stupid. But she remains iconic, if not interesting, and I think you are so right to say it is about the evolving narrative she has woven together for us, the viewer, to take in. She's the divine Miss O (with due repect to Bette) who has earthly human experiences and tragedies that make her feel like a sister or a friend. Approachable. Wise. Vulnerable.

I still don't enjoy her show, though there are moments where I've been swept up by the excitement and emotion. I think we all like to feel like we're part of something bigger than ourselves and Oprah has graced us ;) by allowing us to be a part of her narrative. I am sure that when she gets home she shrugs off most of her day like any other human, we just don't get to see that part so we continue to justify her narrative in our own heads.

Ha! Oprah has graced us...

But it's true isn't it? It's funny, but I often think: what is Oprah like at home? I'm sure she's like anybody else (except that she has a gazillion dollars).

My question...

... after watching this episode was, in *what* subject/discipline is this a Master Class? It's not about being a talk-show host, because she gives zero instruction on that. My conclusion is, it's a master class on being Oprah, but as you write above, she is the first to point out there can be no other Oprah... She is in that super-small group of people whom no one would now presume to give advice (because they want to curry favor/keep their jobs, but also because she does not take advice, as we've seen on the Behind the Scenes eps), and that shows in the choice of putting herself up as a master of something when really this was just a soft-focus biography special. It would be like if Martha did a show called "Baking the World's Best Pies" and then it was just all about Martha's life.

Oprah Conundrum

The narrative you've explained definitely is one aspect of the 'she bugs me' perspective. For me, I feel like Oprah is always trying to sell me something, whether it's actual consumer items, or a way of life that she deems important. Oprah has done a hell of a lot of socially progressive things in her career, which I totally give her credit for. Buuut, there is still part of me that is irked by the capitalist lifestyle she reinforces. Oprah, to me, has transcended being just a person, but a symbol of consumerism in America. And THAT bugs me.

Oprah has done many wonderful

Oprah has done many wonderful things, such as bringing several progressive new-thought teachers into people's awareness. In my opinion, her show provides a starting place for lots of mainstream folks to learn to care about themselves, appreciate themselves and seek a more enlightened life, in a way. But for those who are willing to dig deeper, there is a large controversy in her message: on one page of her magazine, she will remind us to love ourselves no matter what, and on the next page she will advertise anti-cellulite cream and "flattering" clothes.


It bothers me that Oprah has declared that God was the ultimate creator of who she is today, that she is wealthy as part of God's plan. By that logic, are people poor because God has chosen them to be so? I can appreciate that Oprah rose from nothing and had to work for what she has, but her tone is one of mememememeeee; she is constantly interrupting her interviewee to direct the conversaton back to something she'd experienced, or a profound thought she had, or to add her characteristic "AHA" moment to prompt her audience into clapping.

Reply to all

I just ran across this thread randomly. I think what all of you need to understand who are commenting about capitalism, is how to run a business. How is Oprah supposed to pay for the show? How does she make money? There are commercials fo r a reason on TV. THAT'S HOW YOU MAKE MONEY so STOP BEING IGNORANT. At least she actually tries to endorse products that she thinks are good with people and companies who she thinks are trying to improve lives or the world. YOU HAVE TO HAVE CAPITALISM TO PAY FOR THE SHOW AND EMPLOYEES. If you want to complain then please pay for her employees and for her to run the show and live. She is a business woman who seems to be trying to use other positive/progressive/caring businesses to HER BEST KNOWLEDGE. This is what I see. She never said being rich was part of God's plan. She has a fearless, strong faith that God can use her to do good, and God will provide her with everything, and uses her life to do what SHE THINKS is doing good for the world using HER talents. Everyone should learn from this and stop complaining. Look at your own lives. What kind of positive faith and intentions do you have or do you not? Do you use YOUR life and career to help others or make a positive impact on this world? When you don't know someone personally, you can easily judge, but if you take off the judgement and let her be, you can see clearly that her intentions are good but she is only human and makes mistakes. People need to stop judging each other and look at their own lives. Remember, when you point to someone there are 3 fingers pointing back at you. Look at the good in people, stop judging, live your life for the good and spend your time doing something positive. Don't add to the problems of the world. Be a solution, not another problem.

Oprah queen of pop

She is a great business woman, hard-working and self-serving.
Her success as a talk-show leader is undeniable.

But her power has gone to her head – to have the capacity to enlighten us!?

She is the queen of pop – psychology, theology, fashion, sociology etc. none based on academic knowledge. What may not be bad in itself, but not enough to enlighten people.

If this approach to sell her Oprah persona/world does not work she will find another twist to sell it to us.

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