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Oprah’s Divine Comedy
They were discussing thighs. The woman was wearing a blue garish printed veil, the uncovered face revealed a touch of kohl in her dark eyes. She was telling her host that what Moroccan men are most attracted to in women are thighs ? they like them thick. The Oprah Winfrey show was now not a secret watch in parts of the Arab world; she was hosting it there. As the young woman held forth, Oprah went on a relentless examination of a part of the female anatomy. It was obvious she thought she was breaking some barrier when thighs, men, women and ideas about pulchritude have existed since the existence of civilisation.
Oprah is about breaking imagined barriers.
She has bid farewell to the show after 25 years. What sustained it for this long? Much of what was revealed is what we hear in everyday life, what we experience and what we don’t. Yet, using these same ideas she created an alterative universe. However real the reality in her shows was it was reality amplified by auto-suggestion.
A more comprehensive reading would suggest that the show could be divided into three main ideas.
Excessiveness was an important part of the exercise. Laughter and tears were loud and flowing. There would be distended stomachs, bruises more purple than prose. As in Roman feasts, where people went on an eating binge and then vomited to start feasting again, true stories were retched out. Humorist Josh Billings’ take is apt here: "As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand."
Without the abundance, there would have been a need for the core. Oprah was about the circuitous route; the essence lay in the maze.
Her personality lent itself rather well to such profligacy, from her girth to the big hair, the big heart, the large camaraderie. But, her projection of little people in fact showed up their littleness. Their foibles and warts were huge as compared to their personalities. They were here in the Confession Box. The studio had an almost-church like atmosphere where the host played priest and choir girl by turns, until the Moses-like denouement.
She did pretty outlandish things, was outspoken, and dressed the part. It camouflaged the traditionalist inside her. It made her craving for infallibility as self-conscious as her vulnerability: "Though I am grateful for the blessings of wealth, it hasn’t changed who I am. My feet are still on the ground. I’m just wearing better shoes."
And those better shoes came from many a soiled feet that entered the hallowed show. She appeared to tell them that they could do it, but would they have that opportunity?
Misery was flaunted on the red carpet and posed for the cameras ? its couture more discussed than its merits. People on the Oprah show seemed to regurgitate the deviant without owning them. There was a disconnect between the teller and the telling. Even if none of it was stage-managed, one could decipher an element of training, of being ushered into a hall of shame in hushed whispers. It is not difficult for people to sense what is expected. While for the ordinary person this seemed like a purging of evil, an exorcism, celebrities were given to believe that this would humanise them.
There was no mirror more qualified than Oprah. At the grand finale she said, "But I’m truly amazed that I, who started out in rural Mississippi in 1954, when the vision for a black girl was limited to being either a maid or a teacher in a segregated school, could end up here. It is no coincidence that a lonely little girl who felt not a lot of love, even though my parents and grandparents did the best they could ? it is no coincidence that I grew up to feel genuine kindness, affection, validation and trust from millions of you all over the world. From you whose names I will never know, I learned what love is. You and this show have been the great love of my life."
This is true, but most of the recognition talks about her blackness: the first black billionaire, the greatest black philanthropist, the richest African-American of the 20th century. Has black society altered and has the perception about blacks changed? The ‘teacher-segregated school’ is also what the Oprah Winfrey show is about. There was this bubble of sorrow and with every pinprick of a query it would burst. The sorrow would not disappear because it wasn’t there in the first place. The internalisation was left untouched. The balm and the gauze were for this bubble that settled like dew. The show worked as well as faith-healing, people limping back to normal and basking in the warmth of the arc lights and then out in the cold holding on to their crutches. Art had imitated life, but not limited it.
The simulation analogy can be best explained in the totalitarian philosophy as expounded by George Orwell: "It not only forbids you to express ? even to think ? certain thoughts, but it dictates what you shall think, it creates an ideology for you, it tries to govern your emotional life as well as setting up a code of conduct. And as far as possible it isolates you from the outside world, it shuts you up in an artificial universe in which you have not standards of comparison."
Oprah had set herself up as a role model, when the millions who were with her were like the Beatles acolytes were for John Lennon. He was one of them but he remained Lennon. She employed the classic Lennon anthem as her modus operandi: Imagine.
Is imagining about hope or about despair? Had there been happy stories, then the Oprah show would have wound up long ago. It is important to ask here whether the hates/loves/desires that dare not take their name have brought about any change. Iconoclasm is a much-abused term. The populist need not be iconoclastic. A show may be a hit, but what kind of impact does it have, has it altered the way people think, feel?
One cannot state that, "Oh, this was just a TV show." It was not. It became a cult, and cults have some responsibility. Oprah did what she could, but it was the Big O, a few seconds of happy numbness. She treated her staff well, she took her audience on holidays. These are freebies. The stereotype of the Mamma. The world is full of varied ideas and varied behaviour, so it is disconcerting that she did not push the envelope, except when stuffing it with a few dollar bills to assuage guilt and express gratitude.
In fact, archetypes were trussed up and embarrassingly displayed. The brazen wore little and the demure played their part. The obsession with the body only consolidated set views even if they were to debunk them. Alternative sexuality was given the worst possible treatment when she invited an ‘Indian prince’ who is out of the closet. He came in regal finery that he has no right to as a representative of India, which has done away with royalty. The gall of having someone in a position of power, however titular, to convey the views of the gay community was such an Oprah thing to do. You cannot just be a misery maven, you’ve got to lay it thick and be king.
She had a banquet but offered fast food. This was part of the show’s attraction. The host knew what she was doing, even if some of it was subliminal. A broken soul, broken self-worth, fighting for convictions ? these brought fear, a persecution complex and arrogance. The arrogance of humility: "What we’re all striving for is authenticity, a spirit-to-spirit connection."
A spiritual connection does not look for authenticity, which is tied to the strings of dynamic facts and changing alliances within the mainstream. You cannot talk about the facetiousness of fame when you are a product of such evanescent celebrity. It is not the legitimisation that makes for icons but the potential of returning to their ruthless roots. Winfrey did attempt that, but by default, by just blowing up the cocoon a bit more. She reached the world and out at the world, yet her confinement was narrower than it appears. "There is one expanding horror in American life," believed Norman Mailer, that cogent chronicler of the American’s internal dilemma. "It is that our long odyssey toward liberty, democracy and freedom-for-all may be achieved in such a way that utopia remains forever closed, and we live in freedom and hell, debased of style, not individual from one another, void of courage, our fear rationalized away."
Such fears on the show were stamped and sealed like factory-produced wares. The potency was in the reaction to the pinch and the pitch. She took the ready-made material and gave it a new language and identity. Pop analysis tends to label such people revolutionaries when all they do is to recreate. To continue with it for a quarter of a century is commendable, but not impossible. That is why Oprah Winfrey will be remembered as a fine juggler, not a magician.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/