The Ego of Oprah

One dare not upset Oprah Winfrey -- just ask author Jonathan Franzen.

Franzen's public diss of the big O's "usual" taste when she selected his highly-praised book The Corrections for her on-air book club now falls into the category of "When Good Authors Do Dumb Things". Her reaction to his statements -- the revoking of her invitation to appear on Oprah even after Franzen publicly and quite embarrassingly apologized -- seems, in the end, to say much about Ms. Winfrey and her personal whims and hypersensitivity.

If further proof is needed, note David Letterman's nightly, on-air appeals to be a guest on her show. Oprah seems to be the only one in the nation not in on the joke. To date,, she has said little publicly about Letterman's plea. Her lone statement about the running gag has been dismissive: "I don't really know what he's doing because I don't watch his show."

In both instances, it seems an odd, unforgiving stance for a woman who everyday on her hugely-popular talk show would like us to believe that she leads by example; that she "lives her best life" with the causes she supports, the movies she sees (or stars in), the books she reads, the exercise program she follows, the magazine she founded. And there are her frequent end-of-show segments where Oprah tells her viewers to look within, do some soul searching, light some candles and in her words, "remember your spirit". But Winfrey's recent, unforgiving and icy dismissal of Franzen and Letterman seems to show that even she isn't living by her own rhetoric.

Hey Oprah, maybe it's time to remember your spirit?

Unfortunately, hypocrisy is far from new to Oprah or her show. She prides herself today on taking the "high road" in daytime talkshows, steering clear of such Jerry Springer-esque topics as "My Teenager is Out of Control!" and "I'm Dating My Stepdad!." But in the early days -- before the book club and candles -- Winfrey's program pioneered such topics as "When Your Best Friend Steals Your Man" and its popular follow-up, "When a Family Member Steals Your Man". Winfrey even did her very own "Secret Crushes" show years ago, though it had a far less tragic outcome than the Jenny Jones show, which resulted in murder.

Not only did Oprah's program usher in newer, more personal (and interpersonal) subject matter for daytime, paving the way for Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, and gobs of imitators, Oprah's show was also the first to put human suffering right at center stage.

When The Oprah Winfrey Show premiered in the fall of 1985, Rolling Stone magazine labeled its host the "Wizard of Ooze", making fun of her tendency to fawn over guests, the rapid-response hugging of audience members, and desire to let everyone openly share their pain on air, so telegenically. Blubbering tears on-stage and among the audience became a prerequisite. As one early critic noted, "She exploits human emotion and calls it depth."

Following Oprah's lead, and due to increased competition, other programs from Geraldo to Maury to Ricki followed suit. Victims, villains, and on-air confrontations became the staple of all daytime talk shows. Today, an "expert" might not appear until the very last segment, minutes before the final credits roll. Sometimes a program dispenses with experts all together depending instead on the collective intelligence (!) of the studio audience to offer advice or over the top, less than constructive responses: applauding, yelling, pointing, and taking part in obligatory standing ovations before and after every commercial break. The role of the host therefore has also been downsized to include little more than trying to maintain some sense of order on stage as the increasingly loud and unruly guests (usually blood relatives) and audience members scream, point and cuss at each other.

The ever-decreasing airtime devoted to experts or for audience members to actually ask a question rather than act as a sound effect underscores how much these programs today are about spectacle rather than information. This is exactly why Winfrey and her program's producers have decided to depend less on their studio audiences. Except for the feverish standing ovation they give her at the beginning of each show, they truly fade into the backdrop once the show gets going.

But unfortunately the lack of meaningful audience involvement isn't a change for the better. At one time, Oprah's greatest gift was her ability to relate to her audience. With her see-saw struggle with weight, stories about her "best girlfriend" Gayle and other personal details, Oprah came across as one of us. But tuning into the show today, one encounters a person deeply out of touch with the concerns of "real" America, putting forth instead platitudes, dippy New Age logic, and Marie Antoinette-like advice. It's a sad triumph of style over substance. Are you having trouble making the rent? Well, light some candles and remember your spirit! Did you just get downsized? Buy this book and move on!

Winfrey and her Ego live in a world of their own.

Her highly successful O magazine further illustrates her epic distance from the reality of most Americans. The "O" periodical has become somewhat less elitist since its early issues, which suggested you dress up a "simple" pair of jeans with a $200 designer blouse. But it is still a self-indulgent exercise in navel-gazing. Each issue is devoted to some lofty topic: Truth, Creativity, Freedom, etc. There's always a two-page photo spread titled "Breathing Space", which encourages the reader to meditate on a picture of horses running in snow or the coast of Fiji. Throughout the magazine (like Martha Stewart's publication), Oprah -- whose musings open and close each issue -- is held up as the uber-ideal. What Oprah does, so should you -- from the books she reads to the pricey knickknacks she collects to the sketchy philosophy she follows. Perhaps most telling detail is that every issue of the two-year old magazine has featured Winfrey's own face on the cover of every single issue -- a level of self-promotion even Rosie O'Donnell and Martha Stewart have not insisted upon in their self-named monthlies.

The size of Oprah's ego was revealed further in recent comments to Harry Smith on A&E's Biography. In discussing Beloved -- her big-budget movie which flopped despite being tirelessly promoted on her show -- Winfrey spoke of being "devastated" and feeling "rejected" by its box office failure. It was all about her. And she blamed all of us. Beloved was a perfect movie and we were just too dumb to get it. Maybe that's why she doesn't talk to her audience that much anymore?

In an attempt to tackle substantive issues again, Oprah has recently been granting ample airtime to Cro-Magnon lifestyle-guru Dr. Phil McGraw. For those who don't know, Dr. Phil is a psychologist, "life strategist" and best-selling self-help author with a kind of "tough love minus the love" approach to people and their problems. Dr. Phil doesn't so much talk as shout, and standing six foot three, weighing in at over 230 pounds with his intimidating presence and take-no-prisoners-failure-isn't-an-option style, he comes across like the bastard son of Judge Judy and Bobby Knight.

Yet for some reason, viewers tune in to watch Dr. Phil visit Oprah (and us!) every Tuesday, as they insult callers and audience members who are brave enough (desperate enough?) to bring their personal problems to this forum. The put-downs from Dr. Phil are, he says, for their own good -- it's all in the name of his favorite catch-phrase: "getting real."

"Real" or not, Dr. Phil has certainly joined the newly popular genre of Insult Media. From radio personality Dr. Laura's callers to defendants on Judge Judy and contestants on Weakest Link, if you're on the air these days, you're likely to get dissed. Besides "get real", Dr. Phil is also famous for some other phrases that he incorporates into his on-air "therapy". Some of his favorites: You couldn't be more stupid if we cut your head off; I suppose you believe in the Easter bunny too? or And they buy that crap from you? Ph.D. notwithstanding, is there that big of a difference between Dr. Phil telling someone that they're "stupid" and an audience member on Ricki calling someone on stage a "'ho"?

Now that Oprah has finally has gone back to including her studio audience, this is what she gives them? (I suppose though, when you air all your dirty laundry for the nation to see and hear, you deserve whatever rapid-response insults you get.) And in case any of her viewers don't have the chance to be crushed by Dr. Phil on Tuesdays, fear not -- he's getting his own daytime talk show in the fall. Can hardly wait.

Unfortunately, when Dr. Phil's not on the show, Oprah goes back to many of her standard, trivial, touchy-feely topics. With such a vast audience and profound, far-reaching influence, it is almost tragic that her shows so often deal with the frivolous. Does more airtime really need to be devoted to another interview with Julia Roberts or another chance for Martha Stewart to promote her "Martha By Mail" catalog? However, it should be said that a sea of change has hit Oprah in recent months. Just like the events of 9/11 were a wake-up call to many of us, it also seems to have been one to her and her producers. She's ably discussed terrorism, modern air travel and has even gotten topical again. In the light of the Enron mess, Winfrey devoted an hour of her show to provide her audience with ways to find out if their investments are safe.

Granted, there's still a fair share of psychobabble, celebrity filler, and way too much Dr. Phil, but slowly, Oprah Winfrey is finally getting over herself and once again, "getting real".

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