OMG: Oprah Winfrey, Pop Religion, and the Temple of our Familiar

Oprah Over at The Immanent Frame, a few pieces on Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon and an interview with Lofton about her new book. Daphne Brooks:

If, like me, you’ve filled up your sabbatical time this year logging countless hours of watching The Oprah Winfrey Show’s Season 25: The Farewell Season, as well as its behind-the-scenes sister show on OWN, the Queen of All Media’s brand new cable network, then you’ll probably find it hard to select just one favorite moment from a season so awash with the spectacular celebration, tender adoration, (self-) righteous vindication, and tearful adulation of the most successful woman ever to work in the television industry. How to choose between the mega-“my favorite things” two-day gift giving extravaganza (an event that our lady of sumptuous philanthropy likened to the beauty of good things happening to good people) and the “come-to-Jesus” estranged friends truth-and-reconciliation episodes featuring Whoopi Goldberg and former self-help protégé Iyanla Vanzant?

But the scene that stands out in my memory, and the scene that crystallizes the arguments of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, Kathryn Lofton’s arresting new study of “the good news” delivered and commodified by the “symbolic figure” that is Winfrey, is one in which the talk show host looked out tearfully across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia and registered her awe at seeing a garnet red “O” emblazoned in lights at the center of that country’s national landmark. O-vercome with emotion, Winfrey turned the magnitude of that gesture into a teachable moment with her audience the following day, by describing how this was the symbol of what it means to work hard and dream big.

And so O goes. As Lofton brilliantly observes (and I quote at length here, as it is my favorite passage in the book),

She is capitalist and capital; she is a commodity and consumer. Oprah is a product, but Oprah’s product is not individual objects. Her patents are not mechanical innovations or engineering improvements. She does not design fabric or copyright personal recipes. Rather, her taste is her product. Her O is what sells. The O is her signature, her initial, and her trademark. It is a sound, a reminder of her televised exclaimations: “Oh, no.” “Oh, yes.” “Oh, please.” “Oh, I never.” “Oh!” “Oh?” “Oh.” Awed, orgasmic, thrilled, worried and converted, an O is the noise of emotional presence and ready delight (what I feel right now, right here, before this new thing, new experience, or new encounter—Oh!) should not confuse the consumer with its earthy sheen. The O is never unscheduled or chaotic. It is cadence. For every girly (womanly, interviewing, ministerial, listening, awakening) “oh,” there is a corporate O labeling a magazine, a book, a bracelet, or a piece of stereo equipment. The O circles her consumer selections with her emboss, bequeathing her halo upon her beloved choices. The O envelops the commodities that she has chosen expressly for herself and now, expressly for you. She is a pitchwoman of her own consumption; her consumption is her commodity.

I have been enveloped by the O for some twenty-five years now, at once seduced, delighted, and irritated by—and yet drawn to—the image of a profoundly self-assured, brash, and at times entertainingly ego-driven baby-boomer African American woman who climbed the ladder of extreme wealth, fame, and social and cultural power in the post-Civil Rights era just as I was coming into intellectual and political consciousness as a black feminist scholar in the 1980s and ’90s. For me, Oprah Winfrey took the “temple of my familiar” (to borrow a line from brilliant novelist Alice Walker, a Winfrey “legend,” whose Color Purple opened a key chapter in her own self-professed spiritual awakening odyssey)—multicultural, middle-class woman-centered popular culture—and transformed that experience into universalized self-reckoning and a mega-million dollar empire.