Among the few people who are recognized by just one name, Oprah probably stands out as the most recognizable – her magazine identifies her by a single initial. She has won multiple Emmy Awards for her daily television show, and she is rich beyond imagining. Forbes magazine identified her as the richest African-American of the 20th century and the world’s only black billionaire. She has consistently ranked among America’s 400 richest people.
Life magazine has ranked Oprah as the most influential woman of her generation. Time magazine describes her as one of only four people in history to have shaped both the 20th and 21st centuries. Both CNN and Time named Oprah “arguably the world’s most powerful woman.” Vanity Fair magazine asserted that she “has more influence on the culture” than anyone except, perhaps, the Pope. A public poll in 2005 identified Oprah the “greatest woman in American history.” Business Week ranked her as the greatest black philanthropist in American history.
Oprah founded the most successful start-up publication in history, O, the Oprah Magazine; she co-founded a women’s cable television network, Oxygen; she has co-authored five books; and she formed a production company, Harpo Productions. In addition, Oprah is an Academy Award-nominated actress and movie producer.
Beyond the financial success and the celebrity status, though, is a phenomenon for which there is little precedent. The cover story of the first Newsweek magazine of 2001 was “The Age of Oprah.” The headline proclaimed, “She’s changing more lives than ever.” In 2002, Christianity Today wrote about “The Church of O,” describing Oprah’s influence as a spiritual leader as “church-free spirituality.”
Oprah centers her career on finding meaning for life’s journey, and today, through her varied forums, she offers her make-it-happen-for-yourself philosophy to the pagan Post-Modern culture searching for meaning and direction. According to Newsweek, the purpose of O, the Oprah Magazine is to “encourage readers to revamp their souls the way Martha Stewart helps them revamp their kitchens.”
Oprah’s non-threatening, back-and-forth kind of conversation with celebrities and women across America and her transparent attitude toward her personal struggles with issues like childhood abuse and weight control have established an intimacy with her predominantly female audience of 14 million viewers and two million readers that goes beyond celebrity.
Oprah raised more than three million dollars for Katrina victims and used her Web site to help capture four accused child predators. Her Web site averages more than 100 million page views and more than three million users per month.
Oprah’s philanthropy centers on her “Angel Network,” a charity that seeks to “make a difference in the lives” of underprivileged people. In addition, she contributes to girls’ education in South Africa and young black men’s college education in the U.S.
In contrast to other talk shows and women’s magazines that seek out the lowest common denominator in personal behavior, Oprah has targeted women who want to take charge of their lives, who want to have successful relationships, who long for a sense of self-esteem and who desire meaning outside of themselves. In her quest to reach others where they are, Oprah offers a brand of spirituality that sets feeling as its center. She once said that she was “guided by a higher calling.” Oprah, however, defines the calling as a feeling, not a reasoned voice. “If it doesn’t feel right to me, I don’t do it.”
Oprah’s philosophically bland spirituality focuses on her audience feeling good about themselves and their possibilities; it teaches them to believe they can do better without placing any limits or demands on themselves. It also appeals to the human desire to be in control of your own destiny. Acknowledgement of the “goodness of life” by writing entries in a “Gratitude Journal” is an indicator of the fact that even if they haven’t yet arrived, at least they are headed in some positive, if ill-defined, direction. But is she? Are they?
Oprah has certainly connected with her target audience! Not since 1963 and the release of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique has anyone so captured the heart of America’s women. But what a look back over the decades reveals is that no matter who brings the optimistic, feel-good, “you-can-do-it” message, and no matter what may be missing in the messenger’s own life, there are vast numbers of women who are searching for “more,” whatever that might mean. Some, who feel empty, would call it meaning or purpose or strength for life’s challenges. Those who are crushed long for a reason to hope; they want something to rekindle their dreams. Others, merely wounded by the slings and arrows of life but with hopes that still flicker, seek the inner resources to try yet again to become all they can be.
Oprah’s fame, fortune and professional success give her views about life tremendous allure, provided you don’t look too far beneath the surface. She rekindles hope and renews the spirit of those who have given up on their dreams, but some women whose attempts at self-reform have fallen short time and time again recognize the limitations of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Some women recognize the necessity for a theological framework to ground faith. Those women doubt that “feeling good” is a sufficient roadmap for spirituality. Others see their immense need of redemption and transformation; they recognize that the gospel of “being positive” comes up short, that faith in faith alone does not bring us home to the Truth, the Way, the Life – the One called Emmanuel, God with us.
Janice Shaw Crouse is Director and Senior Fellow of Concerned Women for America’s Beverly LaHaye Institute.
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