Words by Sebastian Smee, The Washington Post
Oprah euphoria. You know it. You’ve felt it. You’ve studied the faces of those folks in the studio audience. It’s the ecstasy of anticipation.
Is she – this can’t be happening – is she about to give me a new car? Will I also get to be a better me, have a better body, enjoy spicier conjugal relations? Be better read, happier, more productive, and less crushed and deformed by my past?
Oprah euphoria – that feeling you seek, with all your shaking soul – is defined by the realization that the answers to these questions might actually be “yes.” Proof? Here comes the new car! We’re all going on a trip to Australia, too? John Travolta is flying the plane? Yes! Those other items on your wish list may prove elusive. But Oprah’s power to make at least some of them come true is a testament to that most fundamental of American creeds: the possibility of personal transformation.
“Watching Oprah,” a new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, also is a testament – to Oprah, obviously, and her extraordinary story. But also to the rest of us, black and white, American and otherwise. It’s a testament to our culture’s transformation, to who we have become.
Is it strange, perhaps even a little concerning, that a woman who is the biggest single donor to this museum should be treated to an exhibition exclusively about her, and so soon after its opening? You bet it is. It’s not a good look.
Yet in the end, it’s hard to argue that Winfrey is undeserving of such an exhibition. She had the highest-rated talk show of all time. It aired all over the world for 25 years. No African-American woman – you could persuasively argue no man or woman of any race – has had a bigger effect on the culture at large over the past 30 years.
The exhibition includes Oprah Winfrey’s red suit that she wore on her show during the car giveaway. Image: Walter Larrimore, Smithsonian Institution
Like few others, and on a scale rarely matched, Winfrey has used her celebrity to do good. She got people reading again. She established a school in South Africa. She funded scholarships at historically black universities. She helped house people after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Her donations come to more than $400 million.
More than that, she has encouraged people to think and care about no end of important issues. People love her because they feel she listens to them. She is America’s confidante.
The exhibition has been nicely done. You walk from the first section, which evokes the America that Oprah grew up in, her upbringing and her early career, into a mock-up of the Chicago set of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” replete with couch, camera, production notes and green room. It is amazing to see sheets of paper with typed calls for guests: “ARE YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW SUFFERING WITH MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER? . . . IS YOUR FATHER DATING TOO SOON AFTER YOUR MOTHER’S DEATH? . . . ARE YOU AN ADULT WHO FEELS READY TO CONFRONT THE FATHER YOU FEEL ABANDONED YOU AS A CHILD? IF SO, CALL 591-9111.”
There follow displays about fashion and dieting (who can forget the time Winfrey walked onstage pulling a trolley loaded with animal fat, representing the weight she had lost on her infamous liquid protein diet?), Oprah’s Book Club, her work with Hollywood, the Oprah Winfrey Network and her years of philanthropy.
The exhibition does not ignore the criticism she has faced: for neglecting black issues on her show, for instance, and privileging the concerns of whites; for promoting unhealthful diets; and of course, for “Oprahfication,” which the Collins English Dictionary defines as “the perceived increase in people’s desire to discuss their personal problems, attributed to the influence of confessional television programs.”
But inevitably, as the museum show shifts from examining how America shaped Oprah to how Oprah shaped America, it begins to feel a little like a triumphal march, a sort of biographical bubble bath.
I predict there will be bottlenecks around the screens. A tidy Smithsonian display with judiciously edited wall texts and interesting memorabilia is well and good, but it can’t compare with watching Oprah in action.
Should your view of the montage of clips from her show be temporarily blocked, use the time to scan the list of topics Winfrey covered over the show’s 4,561 episodes. It covers an entire wall. The more you look at it, the more it comes to seem like a giant Rosetta stone holding the key to an entire epoch. You want to decode it. Mother/Daughter Jealousies. Legendary Sex Symbol Raquel Welch. Do Nice Guys Finish Last? Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. When Your Best Friend Is a Bigot. Office Romances. I Raised a Rapist. Russian Brides. My Child Beats Me Up. Surviving an Unhappy Childhood. Serious Household Hazards. Tom Cruise.
Ah, Tom Cruise. You look again at the couch. It’s like Proust’s madeleine.
Like many transcendently famous people, Winfrey has the aura of a freshly hatched superhero. Her actual story is more incredible. She was born in rural Mississippi in 1954, the same year Brown v. Board of Education was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Her ancestors were slaves, her grandparents farmers. She was raped by a cousin at age 9, molested repeatedly, sent to a juvenile detention home at 13, made pregnant at 14. She gave birth to a premature baby who died.
Winfrey’s Daytime Emmy Award for outstanding talk-service show host for “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” 1986-1987. Image: Leah L. Jones, National Museum of African American History and Culture
She would later speak forcefully, and with vulnerable intimacy, about the long-term effects of trauma, including the connection between trauma and eating issues. People listened. Her honesty gave people around the world permission – and shotfuls of courage – to speak up about similar experiences, similar struggles. The #MeToo movement is hard to imagine without Winfrey’s precedent.
As a child, Winfrey spent more time in church than any place besides home. She read spirituals and sermons in front of rapt congregations. She was a big reader. She loved Maya Angelou, who later became a friend and mentor.
Growing up, she saw few black people on TV. Those she did see certainly weren’t hosting prime-time shows on major networks.
Somehow, from all this, Winfrey built a career not just as a trailblazer in the fight for racial equality but also as one of the greatest television personalities in the history of the medium, and an entrepreneur of genius to boot.
“The Oprah Winfrey Show” was not the first TV talk show to hit it big. Phil Donahue’s show preceded it. But Winfrey quickly outmatched Donahue, triggering intense competition and no end of copycat shows. As much as any phenomenon I can think of, her show shaped the cults of celebrity, theatrical confession and self-improvement that together define America in the eyes of much of the world.
Along with that has come prurience, the hyper-dramatization of petty gripes, the disappearance of decorum. Winfrey is not personally responsible for all that. She rode a wave, you could argue, that was already breaking. In the meantime, she set a standard for listening with interest, care and dignity, and for responding with empathy, intelligence and generosity. There are things that people used not to talk about. Things that needed to be talked about. Winfrey helped make that happen. The positive effect this has had on countless lives should not be underestimated.
“This show allows people to realize the power they have to change their lives,” Winfrey said of her show. It’s hard to think of a better, healthier, more American message. But Winfrey herself was always the change agent. And something about the image she cultivated seemed to encourage an imperceptible slide from the ideal of self-help to the belief that it was Oprah, ultimately, who would do the helping. She sensed, perhaps, that we do not always want to help ourselves. We want to be helped. We want love.
As her show switched its focus from celebrities and issues to self-improvement, Winfrey assumed, according to one wall text, “a more authoritative role on her show, becoming less of an everywoman, and more of an icon.”
That, of course, is another classic American gear shift, which has paved the way to more than one presidency. There is something undeniably queenly about Winfrey today. You are always aware, watching her, of the ruthlessness behind the emotion – the coolheaded smarts behind the sentiment. She felt chosen, she has said, by God. She has been through plenty of fires. There is something regal and untouchable about her now. Look how calmly she dispenses her gifts.
Feature image: Harpo, Inc./George Burns