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?