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Not Everyone Loves Oprah

On the final day of her talk show, a look at her complicated legacy.
 
 
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After 25 years on the air, Oprah’s very last episode of her daily talk show is airing today. It is the end of an era for a show that’s redefined media and transformed television. And I for one am not going to miss Oprah Winfrey at all.

First of all, she is not going anywhere. Did any of you really take Jay-Z seriously when he announced he was retiring from the studio a few years ago? It’s the same thing for me now. And while the end of her daily show marks the end of a cultural era, not only is Oprah not retiring, she is not even retreating from the massive platform she’s built for herself over the past few decades.

Oprah will move on to her eponymous cable channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network, which creates a deliciously appropriate acronym. Instead of just one hour of television a day, she will help program 24 hours of it. It will never be the same as her daily talk show, I know. But she will continue to publish her magazine, the covers of which she graces every month. Her daytime talk show may be over, but she will continue to be an omnipotent cultural presence. She will continue to make headlines every time she exhales, and every other time she’s seen cavorting with her best friend Gayle King.

Oprah is so firmly enmeshed in the cultural firmament that I don’t know how anyone could miss her. I myself was raised on a steady diet of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in a family of Oprah devotees, and even though I stopped watching the show regularly years ago, I find it impossible to escape her reach.

I can rattle off the most obscure Oprah trivia, details that have nothing to do with her show or the broad themes of her life’s work. How often do Oprah and Gayle talk on the phone? Who designed the hand stitched gold dress Oprah wore on the cover of O Magazine’s fifth anniversary issue? What’s Oprah’s favorite color? Who was Oprah’s teen crush? Answers: At least an hour every day, Narciso Rodriguez, sage green and Jackie Jackson of the Jackson 5.

I remember being on a date and unselfconsciously talking about Oprah like she and I were well-acquainted friends, and being a little surprised that not everyone knew Oprah the way I did. I’ve often mistaken my familiarity with Oprah for affection. But in truth I am both drawn to and ambivalent about her, and that is probably the real reason why I will not miss her talk show.

I’ve been disappointed plenty—I consider my ability to feel let down by Oprah (as well as the fact that it feels unnatural to call her anything but her first name) further proof of the intimacy she’s cultivated with her audience. I remember the “Diabetes: America’s Silent Killer” episode she did last year with Dr. Mehmet Oz, about how the disease plays out in the black community. The show was so irresponsible it felt offensive.

“Diabetes is a ticking time bomb,” Oprah said gravely during the introduction. “It’s a silent killer. It’s annihilating the African-American community. Literally, killing almost 100 of us every single day, in the African-American community.”

“It’s time to get out of denial.”

All true: Diabetes does indeed impact a disproportionate number of black Americans, who are both more likely to contract it and more likely to die from it. But in Oprah’s telling, the solution wasn’t fixing food deserts or increasing access to preventive health care or building parks in urban neighborhoods or any of those boring things. Rather, the epidemic calls for a healthy dose of shaming.

 
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