Why We'll Miss Oprah

November 29, 2009|By Sheri L. Parks

We miss her already.

When Oprah Winfrey announced that she would end her daily syndicated show in 2011 after 25 years, it was big news. According to her Web site, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" has been the No. 1 talk show for 23 consecutive seasons, seen by an estimated 42 million viewers a week in the United States and broadcast internationally in 134 countries. Access Hollywood called her "the most beloved woman in America," and she is routinely at the top of Forbes Magazine's most powerful media people. Deborah King, a guest on Fox News, said that Oprah "stands more than anyone I can think of for the protection and welfare of women around the world."

The thought of her leaving sent shock waves through the country. Yet Oprah, who got her talk-show start in 1976 at Baltimore's WJZ-TV, had hinted repeatedly that she was thinking of leaving. With each recent contract renewal, she wondered in public whether to continue.

Twenty-five years is a long time to work at any job these days. In television, it is almost unheard of. And she is only moving to cable. A whole channel. OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, a multi-platform company, is set to debut in January 2011 in more than 70 million homes on what is currently the Discovery Health Channel. It is a smart move: Cable is rapidly becoming the place to be in television, both with audiences and awards.

So why are we in mourning? Because she won't be where we have always known her to be at the time we expected her to be there. If that sounds like Mother worship, that's not too far off. When Oprah lost her weight the first time, an unhappy woman told her, "You were our mother."

Because her show airs during the day, it might be tempting to dismiss her impact. Tempting - but foolhardy. She helped to transform the public sphere of American life through what some have called the "Oprahfication" of our culture, by making it OK for grown people to be emotional in public, to talk about ourselves in ways that were deemed impolite before. She pulled conversations about our bodies, our private family troubles, our money (or lack of it) into the open. Our parents and grandparents smiled in public and suffered in private, even in times of national despair. The most prominent image of the Great Depression is the photograph Dorothea Lange took of Florence Owens Thompson, her face worn, her eyes weary yet stoically looking into the distance.

Oprah changed that by talking about her own body, her family, her past. She showed us other people's problems and brought in a parade of experts to help them. But the last words were always hers, the ones that reminded you that healing was always a viable option. Oprah taught America to face its own traumas, yet to know that with time comes the healing; after suffering can come redemption.

Hers is an ancient role. In cultures around the world, the "Dark Feminine" has been seen as the guide through trouble, delivering her charges to the other side, to safety, healing and redemption. Our popular culture picks up the ancient roles and delivers them to our television screens. So she stands for an image that runs deep in the collective mind and we believe, as Drake on Nick at Night's "Drake & Josh" show said, that "Oprah can do anything!"

When Oprah turns her gaze toward a person with problems, it means that they matter to her and she can make them and their problem matter to us. Her attention has consequences. Just ask the beef industry, when she casually mentioned that she was avoiding eating beef and sales plummeted so much that they sued her, unsuccessfully. Politicians, whose careers thrive or flounder based their ability to read and ride the wave of public opinion: Take note. After Oprah said that Barack Obama was "the one," a study at the University of Maryland figured out that Oprah's support garnered a million extra votes.

The last 10 years have been traumatic for Americans, with Sept. 11, two wars, Hurricane Katrina, record joblessness and home foreclosures. Trauma is a specialty of Oprah's. She brought on people who told their traumatic stories without shame. We see them heal, and we hope for ourselves.

So this traumatic time, Americans have not suffered in silence. We have shown our wounds and called out for help, because now it is seen, not as self pity, but the transformational path to the other side. Oprah taught us that.

Sheri L. Parks is an associate professor and co-director of graduate studies in the American Studies Department at the University of Maryland, College Park and author of "Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture," due to be published in March. Her e-mail is slp@umd.edu.

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