Friday, March 13, 2009

Because "O" Said So

As is typical when I write anything negative about Oprah, I've received more than a few outraged comments, e-mails, and Facebook messages since Wednesday's quickie post decrying the Queen of All Media's decision to insert herself into the Chris Brown-Rihanna mess. It's for this reason that I figure I may as well rerun a piece I wrote way back in February of last year -- one that I hope explains my ongoing dislike for Oprah in a way that's articulate and mostly free from juvenile jokes about weight-gain. This piece originally ran in the Huffington Post under the title "Oprah's Big Oprah: You Will Be Inspired... or Else."

I suppose it's a statistical certainty that as an audience broadens, the likelihood increases that it will become contaminated by disciples of Oprah. This only makes sense given that, according to the latest figures, Oprah can claim outright ownership of the souls of one in every three women.

Until recently, I didn't face much bitter outrage when I chose to take a few light-hearted shots at Miss O; most readers of this site, understanding what they were getting themselves into by being here, either played along with my vilification, waited it out until I had something slightly less juvenile to say, or just went away.

But with new visitors come new points-of-view, and while I'm certainly grateful for (and to) every single reader, there's no getting around the fact that, more and more, I find myself in the crosshairs of those for whom a slight against Oprah is nothing less than blasphemy. The arguments are always the same: she's done so much for the world; she's a force for good; the ever-popular "you're just jealous"; and of course the gauntlet-throwdown that demands to know what I've done in my life that's worthwhile. (This is invariably followed with "besides insult people on a blog" -- the exclamatory "blog" oozing the kind of contempt and condescension usually reserved for words like "queer" or "NASCAR," depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line you happen to live.) Believe it or not, even the most invective-laced pro-Oprah diatribe will usually get the appropriate level of consideration on this end; if you take the time to write, whether I happen to agree with you or not, I'll at least take the time to hear what you have to say.

Something I've never done on this site -- or anywhere else for that matter -- is explain my sense of humor. I realize that understated irony and inside jokes were once considered a staple of my generation, but even among those who were raised at the same time and were subjected to essentially the same cultural stimuli as me, there are a hell of a lot of people who stare in confusion at things I find hilarious, and vice-versa.

In other words, I'm not going to even attempt to analyze why I think making fun of Oprah, or mistranslating "The Knut Song" so that it becomes a pro-Nazi anthem in honor of an aryan polar bear, or Mormonism in general is utterly hysterical. Most of the nonsense on this site can be classified under "jokes you either get or you don't." That said, there actually are a few very genuine reasons why I'm inclined to beat-up on Oprah on occasion; some of them have been detailed in past columns, so I'm not going to bother getting into them again. (At the core, I'll admit, is my belief that it's healthy to poke fun at sacred cows and authority figures because fearing them is oppressive -- and Oprah has somehow been anointed the ultimate authority figure in our culture).

One thing recently has caught my attention, though.

A few days ago, my wife and I were watching TV when a commercial flashed across the screen promoting Oprah's latest philanthrotainment extravaganza, Oprah's Big Give. The premise of the show apparently involves Oprah handing out a crap-load of money to those less-fortunate (anyone on Earth is eligible), but with a catch: they have to then turn around and spend the cash on those less-fortunate than them. At one point in the ad, Oprah leans into the camera as if sharing a delicious secret with the seven-million people ostensibly watching; she whispers the show's real twist -- that the team deemed to have done the "most good" with the money will win a million dollars. (I presume they get to keep that money.)

Needless to say, this mammoth monetary prize will come as a huge shock to the winning contestants provided they've never seen one of these shows before and have no idea who Oprah is.

While I won't argue with the good that Oprah's Big Give will probably do -- helping people who need it is inarguably laudable and maybe the end will always justify the means in a case like this -- it's the messianic bombast with which Oprah goes about every one of these altruistic endeavors that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I get that I'm considered more cynical than most, but I can't be the only one who notices that Oprah's good deeds, as with all her other deeds, never seem to be done outside the presence of a phalanx of cameras. A tendency toward philanthropy-as-photo-op alone should be enough to raise questions as to who benefits most each and every time Oprah decides to play Santa Claus. Likewise, there's the Oprah "brand" -- the one that ensures you never have to wonder, even for a second, who to thank for all the glorious largess. When Oprah inexorably attaches her name to books, magazines, self-help gurus, chefs, presidential candidates and so on, it's irritating but somewhat understandable -- it's just business; when she slaps that giant "O" on an act that, in theory, is supposed to be selfless -- in the case of the new show, making her name the very first thing in the title -- it automatically ceases to be completely free of self-interest. Quite the opposite.

By broadcasting every benevolent impulse to the world with all the subtlety of a WWE cage match, she ensures more great PR which strengthens her empire which brings in more money for her, the TV networks lucky enough to be associated with her -- basically everyone involved.

There's of course an argument to be made that Oprah's over-the-top brand of philanthropy inspires the masses and encourages them to go and do likewise. Once again, perhaps the end justify the means -- but it doesn't change the means. Oprah's still getting rich every time she pulls one of these stunts.

After the commercial was over the other night, I turned to my wife and asked her, "Do you like Oprah? I mean, am I the only jerk in the world who has a problem with her?"

Her response: "I look at Oprah the way I look at Christianity or the Grateful Dead. I don't necessarily have a problem with her, it's her idiot fans -- the ones who do whatever she says."

She's absolutely right. It's the Oprah Nation that elevates everything tagged with Oprah's name to zeitgeist levels, treats any silly whim of hers as gospel, and makes her millions in the process.

Oprah's multi-media hegemony is based on ensuring that the fans get what they want -- Oprah.

She's just making the best of the situation, which is all well and good -- until she starts making the best of someone else's bad situation.


Heather Hansma said...

At the risk of sounding like an asshole to secretaries nationwide, I look at people who watch Oprah the same way I look at people who listen to Nickelback: I don't respect their opinion on anything after that. If that is such a massive gap in your taste you clearly don't have sane opinons. Or maybe an evil mastermind is controlling their brains and I must save them. Hmm...

Chez said...

Yeah, that's kind of how I feel. A serious like for Oprah means you drop to zero on the Respect-O-Meter (which admittedly shouldn't bother you in the least, but if you're a fan of Oprah chances are you're overly concerned with what people think of you anyway, so go figure).

Heather said...

I've never watched her show but sometimes I do hear about it from others. If you aren't being altruistic when the cameras are off, that makes you a bit of a hypocrite. I'll be impressed when she goes down to Skid Row one night without the cameras and hands out blankets or something and we hear about it because one of those she helped tells someone about it.

Chez -- sacred cows? Jesus Chips. That is all.

kanye said...

"She's absolutely right. It's the Oprah Nation that elevates everything tagged with Oprah's name to zeitgeist levels, treats any silly whim of hers as gospel, and makes her millions in the process."

It's telling, how universal the truism is that that sentence elucidates; how ridiculously simple it is to substitute Oprah's name for another and still have it ring absolutely true.

Reagan...check. Celine Dion...yep. Ayn Rand...definitely.'s way too easy. Uncomfortably so.

Benoit from Ottawa said...

"I look at Oprah the way I look at Christianity or the Grateful Dead. I don't necessarily have a problem with her, it's her idiot fans -- the ones who do whatever she says."

Indeed. But, as you point out differently, neither Jesus nor the Dead* were in it for the money.

Your p.o.v. about O. closely resembles mine own, an outside opinion as I've never even seen more than 5 minutes of her show. Yet, like most Canadians (I surmise), I'm aware of her, of the "EVERYBODY GETS A NEW CAR!!!" episode, of the book club and its effects on sales, etc., etc.

I think you're right: real charity is not done in the glare of t.v. lights.

And it remains that if she is not bad, her corporate activities can't help but warp things, what with so much money bustling around, and given that people aren't stupid and will go for it...

(Hmm, I think I just repeated what you said.) (Oh well.)

*The Grateful Dead were, I think, the first to allow fans to privately tape the audio of their shows directly off the soundboard. Obviously not tight about copyright!

ShampaK said...

I just don't like Oprah. She made her money entertaining bored housewives mainly - telling them what to buy, what to do in their spare time, and that they should feel great about themselves. That she gives some of her money isn't that impressive. I mean, when you have that much money what difference does it make?