Pop Talk: The Oprahfication of Oz
Oprah – with her 300 or so guests and 180-strong crew – hits our shores on December 7 as a formal guest of the government, in what's sure to be a frenzy of fandom, military escorts and media attention. As a precursor to her arrival, Network Ten aired a countdown special last night featuring Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman, with the Queen of Talk probing Urban about his alcoholism and finding peace.
Of course, we will turn a blind eye to the fact that the sweetener for Oprah's sleigh coming to town was less about her adoration of Aussies (she's never been here before) and more about cutting a deal with Tourism Australia and the Federal and NSW Government, an arrangement reminiscent of getting an invitation to the party because the birthday girl's mum is friends with your mum – whatever, now you've got an "in", you will dazzle her with your carefully selected outfit and cool gift of an Itty Bitty bin stuffed with lollies. Before long you will be BFFs!
Acknowledging the snobbery of intellectual types who might thumb a nose at Oprah's coming with an air of "slightly irritated superiority" (ah-hem), Sunday Telegraph reporter Claire Harvey nailed it when she wrote: "although it's easy to sneer at Oprah, there is no denying she understands her market better than we do. This one-woman, multimedia empire has captured and transformed middle America in every facet of popular culture, from publishing to popular psychology."
It seems she's captured middle Australia, too.
In her TV interview with Angela Bishop, Oprah pinpointed her popular appeal: "I just really feel that there's a commonality in the human experience and that is we all want to be heard... we all want to know that we're okay, we all want to be validated, we all want to be heard and to know that what we said meant something. I have always understood that... It doesn't matter who you are, how great you look, how great a performer you are, you still want to know, 'Is that okay?'"
Oprah unites people under her banner of self betterment, inspires us with her good deeds and comforts us with her transparent confessions: "For too long, I've allowed myself to manifest stress, exhaustion, disappointment, and anxiety as weight," she told readers of her magazine in February.
In an era when the icons of pop culture have more pull than the Pope (at least in the influential social media sphere), when organised religion has caused widespread disillusionment for its hypocrisy, it's little wonder the Church of Oprah has such an abundance of devotees, particularly women who identify with her brand of humanist superwomanhood.
Her show has been called a "group therapy session"; she has denounced rap lyrics that belittle women; she opened a school for girls in South Africa. She's the poster-woman for feminist consumerism, with each new purchase offset by a good deed.
To be validated by Oprah – by scoring a seat on her couch, an electoral endorsement, an editorial placement, a spot on her bookshelf, a seat in her audience, or to even participate in her media empire – is to be counted and to feel a part of a global collective that transcends class, culture and country borders (her show gets five million viewers a day in 140 countries). In this sense, she has usurped the role of the church, Christ and, arguably, God (who she is unsure about; "a higher power or God or whatever" is how she describes it).
"A number of years ago this new kind of celebrity emerged – the nirvana celebrity," says Christian author and pop culture commentator Mark Sayers. "These lifestyle editors come on the scene and what they do is they tell you the way forward. You're overwhelmed by choice, but here's Oprah...her magazine, her whole empire is based around telling you what to buy." (Arguably, every glossy and blog – this one included – is underpinned by the same filtering notion).
As I've written before, Oprah's brand of spiritualism is infinitely appealing: it is adaptable, malleable; there is room for interpretation; there are no strict rules to abide by; no one deity to answer to; and all roads lead to divinity. What you make of your life is up to you, so long as you are striving to be a good (better, best) person. The answers to everything are within you. You, you, you! The superego is where your fulfillment lies. And Oprah's multimedia empire – the TV show, the radio shows, the magazine, the website – exist to help you on your way to living "Your Best Life".
Kitty Kelley's biography Oprah – though oppressively long, often repetitive in theme and for the most part simply filling in gaps around what Oprah has already shared herself – gives us a glimpse into the motivations behind Oprah's awe-inspiring quest for self-betterment and fame, and her struggle with compulsive over-eating. The fractured relationship with her mother, the guilt over falling pregnant as a teen, the unrequited love... we all know the stories. But how can a woman so loved by the world not love herself?
"She may be admired by the world, but I know the truth," her father told Kelley. "So does God and so does Oprah. Two of us remain ashamed."
Ouch. There is nothing so unsettling as feeling you are unloved or unaccepted by your own family – but this does go some way to explaining Oprah's fixation on drawing out the minute details of other people's lives (in the special last night, she extracted from Keith Urban what it was that brought about his healing from alcohol addiction: namely, the realisation of love from the people around him), the over-sharing of her own life, and also one of the hallmarks of her enterprise: bestowing gifts on others to gain approval.
And here we are bestowing gifts on Oprah to win her approval. The parallels between Oprah and a country born of a convict past, which oppressed its native inhabitants (guilty!), still suffers the cultural cringe, desperately seeks acknowledgement on the international stage, built on Christian values (calls itself Christian) but who eschews Christ, wants to stand apart from the Mother Country (but secretly harbours a desire to gain its love and approval), and is consumed by a culture of materialism and food obsession, are uncanny.
I'm not sure who's the more insecure: Oprah or Oz.
Coming soon... a look at O The Oprah Magazine's December issue.
- Everyone loses their shit over Oprah's final favourite things @ Jezebel
- Mark Sayers: Oprah is coming!
- O The Oprah Magazine's 10th Anniversary Issue, the unauthorised biography and populist spirituality
- 5 Reasons to get... O The Oprah Magazine (February issue)
- Oprah mag ROI
- Get lifted with Oprah
- Oprah's brand of spirituality
- Oprah needs to give herself a break
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