The end of a staple in American pop culture culminated last week with the Oprah Winfrey show calling it a day.
After 25 years, pop culture icon Oprah Winfrey ended her daily talk show to concentrate on her cable channel, OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network). But it wasn’t just the end of a talk show; it was the end of an era. People want to talk about Oprah just being a talk show hostess … in fact, they called her the “Queen of Daytime Television.”
But, was it as simple as that? What made the Oprah phenomenon an “effect” on society in and of itself? The Oprah effect made people instant stars, bestsellers, box-office hits and her last miracle–a president of the United States.
Winfrey’s “favorite things” made products fly off the shelves. Her generosity changed lives. Her candor often challenged our sensibilities beyond what we were prepared to venture. Winfrey wasn’t just entertainment.
Why was America so emotional last week about saying goodbye to a talk show hostess? And why are experts now saying our mania is about to turn to depression (a deep “O”-pression) around 3 p.m.? Is it that serious? Obviously, it is. The O effect has a grab on us all. Even men (more on this in a minute).
No other television personality, with the possible exception of Walter Cronkite, who was called “the most trusted man in America” during his 19 years as the anchor of the CBS 6 o’clock News, had (has) the American trust like Oprah.
Winfrey is to our generation what Walter Cronkite was to our grandparents’ and parents’ generations. Cronkite made the dinner hour the most prized reporting job in America. When Cronkite teared up on the air in announcing President John Kennedy’s death, the national mourning period began.
When Oprah teared up over the years, no matter whether the tragedy was public or personal, America cried with her. Oprah reinvented daytime television. So much so, daytime soap operas didn’t stand a chance. She outlasted (some of ) them and her talk show competition.
Popular culture scholars as well as sociologists, psychologists and historians are analyzing this in serious context. While Winfrey’s following is largely women, even men are part of this mania that makes all stop and pay attention. Many a man has gotten into an argument (or intense discussion) with his woman, or women period, over what “Oprah Winfrey said.”
So many of us had to start watching Oprah for ourselves. Largely to defend ourselves …. What made this woman such a powerful social (and political) force?
Popular culture in our society reflects social norms that are adapted by most in our society. From language to music to behavior, pop culture sets the tone for Madison Avenue and Wall Street. In America, we are free “to be.”
Oprah Winfrey was us. From the start, she made it popular to just be yourself. Or just “to be.” Oprah challenged our views about marriage and relationships. Oprah challenged our views about sexuality. And starting with her own relationships (Stedman and Gail), Oprah left you wondering whatever you chose to wonder.
Her relationships were what they were, and what others thought were left “to be.” The pop culture buzz for “just being oneself” is being “authentic.” Oprah presented authenticity on her show everyday, giving authentic people the opportunity to be themselves, and challenged anything that appeared to be inauthentic.
Winfrey embraced the sick, the poor, the abused, the abased, the aggrieved and rationalized with the arrogant, the decadent, the disturbed and the disgraced. Whether it was majesty or misery, Oprah found the silver lining that made us all feel better by the end of the show. Even her dissatisfaction with herself became a study in self-acceptance.
She even challenged Rap, and kept it real as real could get. In fact, Oprah was “keepin’ it real” before it became a pop culture term. She defined it.
People make jokes about Oprah’s money, but rarely is one of her wealth so commonly accepted. Another phenomenon that is hard to explain. She is of the people, but not of the people. She built schools, sent more than 64,000 students to college and found creative ways to share her wealth. A constant demonstration that she was of the people ….
And when the people were looking for a leader of the nation, so was she. Oprah Winfrey had never peddled her influence for political gain in the past, but she did not resist weighing in on the future of the country at a critical juncture, even at the risk of alienating her audience. Some thought they would “boycott” Oprah. Guess what? Like Teflon, Winfrey walked away with not a scratch. It was then we understood the power of O. While she’s not going far, America is going to miss answering that daily question. What question is that?
“What was Oprah talkin’ about today?”
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, “Real Eyez: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture.” He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com or on Twitter at @dranthonysamad.
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