Oprah Winfrey has been hailed as the most influential woman in the world; Time Magazine listed her among a handful who “shaped” both the twentieth and twenty first centuries, she ranks among the most admired women in America according to Gallup polling, and as part of a public poll, she was deemed the greatest American woman. Oprah’s predominance in public consciousness has continued for nearly three decades and it’s had a profound impact on today’s cultural atmosphere. Strange, some have been predicting her demise for years now, but given her longevity, it seems foolish to underestimate Oprah’s power.
A power that has, in one way, manifested itself through an “Oprahfication” of today’s society — our culture is more confession-based than ever before. Divulging information about our personal lives or insecurities would have been unheard of in a previous generation (outside of church confessional, at least) but in today’s world — one of reality television and a rotating sushi-bar of “celebrities” milking their fifteen minutes of fame — we readily share information with one another. Public therapy has become a norm in today’s generation and this can be, at least partially, credited to Oprah’s influence.
When she began The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1985, the public was immediately charmed. Oprah was not the typical figure you would see on television in more ways than one — she was overweight, black, and a woman. While these characteristics might have made her a risky personality for media executives to get behind, it was these very features that made Oprah more accessible to audiences; Oprah seemed to personify an average woman in America. Daytime audiences responded emphatically and swiftly, vaulting her show to the top of ratings-charts within months of its debut. This is the position it would stay for virtually all of the show’s duration.
Oprah’s show was a trailblazer, unafraid to tackle society’s taboos that many would prefer remain untouched. For instance, a 1990 episode focused on Truddi Chase, a woman who suffered from multiple personality disorder (now called DID; Dissociative Identity Disorder) and described her experience of having ninety two distinct personalities. Americans had likely never heard of this disorder, perhaps with the exception of the television movie Sybil, a 1976 television movie starring Sally Field as a woman with sixteen different personalities. The candid nature of the episode, which included Oprah breaking down in tears, was among the first notable “confessional” episodes.
While Oprah tackled a variety of issues during her show’s run, she always championed gay rights, particularly in earlier episodes. Episodes that frankly discussed homosexuality preceded even the Truddi Chase episode. Indeed, one of the main pillars of “Oprahfication” was an acceptance of gays in society.
In 1988, in honor of National Coming Out Day, members of Oprah’s studio audience stood up, stated their name and proudly asserted they were gay. Unprecedented for the time, gay acceptance would soon become a recurring element of the show. During a show on gay marriage in the 1990s, a discussion amongst the audience was occurring when a woman stood up and explained that she was tired of gays “flaunting their sex lives.” This was a common sentiment at a time when a steady undercurrent of heterosexism ran through American public opinion (of course, this is still a fairly common sentiment, and insidious heterosexism persists to this day). Oprah’s response elicited an enthused response, “You know what I’m tired of?” she asked. “Heterosexual males raping and sodomizing young girls. That’s what I’m tired of.”
Episodes where guests came on the show to discuss their feelings about traumatic experiences in their lives, whatever they may be, became common. As well, celebrities revealing intimate details about themselves seemed to happen organically — Oprah just had a way of causing famous people to “spill the beans.” All this occurred with a reported forty two million people watching weekly. These public revelations on The Oprah Winfrey Show were so commonplace they soon became commonplace in our everyday lives.
As they years drew on, her power seemed to be dissipating; ratings for her show were in a steady decline. Her public image, however, remained remarkably positive and carried with it some informal political, cultural, and economic leadership amongst Americans. Whenever she added a new book to her book club, sales for her selection still skyrocketed, even towards the end of her talk show’s run.
Perhaps the most significant demonstration of her preeminence came with her endorsement of Presidential contender Barack Obama. She gave speeches endorsing the candidate and made a number of joint appearances with him. After the 2008 election, two economists estimated that Oprah’s endorsement delivered Obama one million votes to the Democratic Party Primary and without her support, he would have lost to Hillary Clinton. Talk about power!
What had the most draining effect on her influence, however, was her decision to end her talk show after twenty five years and transfer her energy to a television network; OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. The network launched on the first day of 2011 but the jump was not an easy one — after initially promising ratings, they began to fall — and quickly.
As ratings tumbled and the money bled (330 million dollars since the networks inception), analysts were predicting an end to Oprah’s reign as the most influential woman on the planet. Surely it wasn’t a farfetched conclusion; after all, people were turning away from her new endeavor. Many questioned how one person could sustain their own television network. Maybe our society was finally moving away from its “Oprahfication.”
After the network’s six month milestone, Oprah took the reins and began to actively retool the network and strengthen its programming. In it’s first year on the air, OWN was largely irrelevant in the ratings and featured abysmal shows that drew little attention. Oprah then took advantage of the winning personality audiences fell in love with in 1985. She launched several new shows, starring in each, in the hopes of turning things around.
One of these shows was Oprah’s Next Chapter, a show where she traveled around the world, and interviewed notable people. Just when it seemed like she was down and out, Oprah launched her rebound. One the earliest episodes of her new show featured an interview with Whitney Houston’s family soon after the singer’s death. The emotionally charged episode reignited the confession culture in television and proved that the “Oprahfication” was not gone. The episode proved to be a ratings hit.
The success of Oprah’s Next Chapter began to lift the rest of the network up, in part because it was providing something crucial — publicity. Oprah began landing celebrity after celebrity and managed to make news during many of the interviews. More than ever, it seemed famous people were willing to disclose personal details about their lives or explain their recent scandals.
In the final months of 2012, it became known that world famous cyclist Lance Armstrong had been doping during all of his Tour De France victories and throughout much of his career. The news sent shock waves through the sporting community and had the public captivated. Armstrong remained silent as his medals were stripped from him and endorsers began backing away from him. His silence was broken when he decided to talk to Oprah Winfrey.
The two-part episode of Oprah’s Next Chapter was estimated to have been watched by 28 million worldwide; unheard of for a cable network show. Moreover, in the days leading up to the interview, front pages of newspapers like the Toronto Star were covering the interview. Oprah had managed to use her brand of public therapy to make her network relevant again; it’s predicted the network will at least break even for 2013.
Oprah’s story is undoubtedly unique — she managed to turn a talk show into an empire that spawned an entire television network. Not only that but her power is so widespread that she’s arguably changed the way we interact with one another. Personal matters are more likely to be brought up amongst friends than before her show premiered.
“Oprahfication” of society has been profound but can Oprah take sole responsibility for our more open lives? Surely not, but her contribution to this can not be denied. Moreover, she helped eliminate taboos plaguing the mainstream media, allowing people to talk about issues that affect them, issues that previously would have been swept under the carpet. Homosexuality, sexual abuse, mental illness, and a host of other issues have now entered the public discourse. An “Oprahfication” continues but it begs the question — when Oprah finally disappears will her effects be felt years after?
Personally, I believe so. We live in a society that has become increasingly open about ourselves as individuals. It’s a staggering level of ever increasing transparency that has been occurring for the past decade at least. If nothing else, you could argue that Oprah fulfilled a niche for the time and merely precipitated what would have naturally occurred within society. Regardless, her impact has been felt and will continue to be felt years to come.
The news of Oprah’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. As her network continues to gain steam, her influence on the public is just as strong. It seems the woman who has been donned “the most influential woman in the world” is here to stay.
Bradley Metlin is a first year social science student who loves politics, film, television, and anything pop culture. He spends his free time sobbing over his laptop in a fruitless search for a live stream of the Oprah Winfrey Network.