News & Politics

Oprah, Hollywood Heroine?

Forget the whole ridiculous notion of making Oprah Winfrey president. Am I the only one who finds it supremely ironic that she, of all people, should now, with a single speech at the Golden Globe Awards, be designated by public acclamation as the voice of the #metoo movement?

Think about it. The #metoo scandal is about two things: (1) the abuse of Hollywood power by a bunch of horny dirtbags and (2), whether you like it or not, the pliancy of innumerable young starlets who, over the decades, succumbed to those men’s advances because they thought it would make them rich and famous.

Hollywood power, Hollywood wealth, Hollywood fame: who, let’s face it, has celebrated these things more ardently than Oprah?

On social networks, a photo of her kissing Harvey Weinstein’s earlobe has been shared widely as proof of hypocrisy. But I don’t know: does the picture prove hypocrisy, or does it depict Oprah’s genuine high regard – “reverence” may be a tad too strong – for a man who, after all, until his recent fall from grace, embodied Hollywood power, wealth, and fame? It seems to me that she gave him that smooch not because she needed to suck up to him – Oprah doesn’t need to suck up to anybody – but for the same reason Ireland-enchanted tourists kiss the Blarney Stone, even though it’s dripping with thousands of other people’s germs.

Look at her talk show. She did more than just interview celebrities and plug their projects. She treated the stars as gods, the chosen people, the Elect, routinely holding up even the most vapid of them as geniuses, experts, role models. Hosting Will and Jada Pinkett Smith – a pair of egomaniacs who’d forced their grade-school kids into showbiz – Oprah presented them as ideal parents, qualified to dispense advice on raising a family. When she brought on Jenny McCarthy, Playboy Playmate turned MTV host turned sort-of-actress, Oprah not only let this pinhead spew her ignorant, dangerous theories about childhood vaccination but gave every sign of taking her seriously.

Similarly, when sitcom diva Suzanne Somers instructed menopausal Oprah viewers to take massive hormone doses to feel young again, Oprah relegated genuine medical specialists (who uniformly repudiated Somers’ prescriptions) to the studio audience, where they weren’t allowed to speak unless called on. The point was clear: Somers’ fame made her amateur counsel more valuable than that of real authorities.

To be fair, Oprah’s implicit endorsement of these Tinseltown twits’ crackpot ideas wasn’t rooted just in blind celebrity-worship. It also reflected an unsettling weakness for crank science generally. Think of it: at the height of her show’s influence, she could have interviewed – and made household names out of – any number of world-class surgeons, scientists, researchers. Instead she gave us “Dr. Oz,” a promoter of phony miracle cures. (Oprah ultimately gave him a TV show, onto which he invited fellow mountebanks so they could peddle their own shady nostrums.) And she gave us “Dr. Phil,” who, although unlicensed to practice either psychiatry or psychology, pretended to straighten out jumbled lives in an hour, minus commercial time. (Oprah set up Dr. Phil with a show, too, on which he took cash under the table for endorsing products.)

Another Oprah flim-flam man was John Gray – not the distinguished British philosopher, but the self-help guru who turned his bestseller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus into a lucrative racket whereby he licensed his psychoanalytical “techniques,” sold franchises to instant “therapists,” and collected royalties for every “patient” they suckered. Then there was Gary Zukav, who helped couples transform their marriages from “ancient archetypes” into “spiritual partnerships” and whose book The Seat of the Soul is, or was, one of Oprah’s “all-time favorites” (as of 2007, she still kept a copy of it beside her bed).

When Oprah wasn’t serving up junk science, she was selling New Age spirituality (although it’s admittedly hard to draw a clear line between the two). For a while there, almost every time I clicked past her show she seemed to be enthusiastically boosting yet another would-be spiritual master, cult leader, or metaphysical con man. Each of these shameless hustlers had a totally different answer to Life’s Questions, a fresh recipe for spiritual fulfillment – but she sold each and every one of them with what came off as total conviction. Oprah not only found the Holy Grail: she found it over and over again – same time, same channel!

Granted, in the midst of all this hogwash, there was an upside. By relentlessly preaching self-improvement, Oprah stirred in many of her viewers a belief in good old American can-doism – a determination to stop blaming others, take charge of their lives, and work hard to achieve their goals. Thumbs up. Too bad she directed her fans down so many dead-end paths. And too bad she routinely tangled up spiritual wholeness with material success – selling, in effect, the Prosperity Gospel.

Of course you can’t talk about Oprah without talking about prosperity. Rich as she is, she’s never satisfied (which, I guess, is one reason why she is as rich as she is). She was already a billionaire when she decided to buy into Weight Watchers and become its spokeswoman – even though she was already an unpaid poster girl for yo-yo dieting. She was, again, already a billionaire when she squeezed a few hundred million simoleons out of Sirius-XM in exchange for a channel on which, as it turned out, she rarely bothered to show up herself (except in reruns), instead packing its schedule with the likes of diet sage Bob Greene, “spiritual teacher” Marianne Williamson, Oprah pal Gayle King, and Oprah mentor Maya Angelou. For once, nobody cared, and at the end of 2014 Oprah Radio went off the air.

But no matter. Whatever you or I may think about her, for millions of women around the world Oprah is a hero. When she pitched a product as being one of “Oprah’s Favorite Things,” they bought it; when she recommended a book (usually middlebrow uplift) on her “Book Club,” they read it. Many observers have tried to explain her magic. Part of it lies in her gift for combining authority with intimacy, mixing seriousness with humor, and engendering in viewers an illusion of self-reliance while, in fact, instilling in them a near-addictive dependency upon her daily guidance. She’s an American original, but bears traces of a range of other American originals, from P.T. Barnum to Aimee Semple McPherson.

She’s also, to borrow a pair of terms from Shelby Steele, not a “challenger” in the mold of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton – blacks who exploit white guilt to get ahead – but a “bargainer.” Steele explains: “Bargainers make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America’s history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer’s race against him. And whites love this bargain – and feel affection for the bargainer – because it gives them racial innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist.”

Barack Obama, as presidential candidate, was a brilliant bargainer. But Oprah is even better at it than he was. She’s better at it than anybody, ever. Truth be told, she’s better at a lot of things than a lot of people. You don’t get to be the first black woman billionaire in history by being a schmuck. But she’s not presidential timber – and she’s definitely not the right face for the #metoo movement. On the contrary, I can easily imagine her scheming, even now, to be the first to interview Harvey Weinstein once he’s finished his “therapy,” claims to be “cured,” and wants to repent publicly and get back into the movie business. Is there any doubt that she’d be thrilled to sit down with him and pretend to buy his fake contrition?