Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The End of Oprah As We Knew Her

Today was the official end of Oprah!, the daytime talk show that has been a personal Mecca for millions of women in 150 countries. Oprah Winfrey was on the air for 25 consecutive years. She interviewed literally thousands of people. She gave away millions of dollars worth of merchandise to her live audiences (from her own money). She was unique in television – and because of her, the lives and relationships and professional achievements of her viewers were vastly improved.

In some circles, making fun of Oprah Winfrey is s.o.p., but I would guess that those people hardly watched Oprah!, if at all. People make fun of her as an institution, with her daily show and her magazine and her production company and her Everything Oprah – but I think they’re just jealous. People make fun of her fluctuating size, her ever-changing hair, her (often) odd choice of outfits, her interviews with celebrities, the fact that she gave Dr. Phil a platform (the one thing for which I perhaps don’t forgive her), her relationship with her best girlfriend Gayle King, her relationship with her longtime man Stedman Graham. But I think they’re just nitpicking, and in any case, I don’t care.

I was never a daily Oprah! watcher, but I was a frequent Oprah! watcher and I have enormous respect for what she has achieved in her own life, and what she’s helped others achieve in theirs. Whatever Oprah Winfrey was, is and will be – in her next incarnation as the brains behind the new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), those who have watched her frequently/regularly know that she is genuine, if nothing else. Her faith, gratitude, sympathy, empathy, and sense of purpose have been totally real.

And in the course of her 25 years, she has helped women (and men) cope with and heal, where necessary, the damage wrought by childhood sexual abuse; adult domestic abuse; drug/alcohol and other forms of addiction; the difficulties of intimate relationships, parenting, and just being a member of a family; care giving; handling finances; and, perhaps most important, achieving one’s best self through advanced education and/or taking personal and professional risks. She has also helped educate her global audiences about critical social issues, from the environment to poverty to the persecution of women worldwide. She provided a platform for broadening the world, and she gave her viewers concrete avenues by which they could help others and not a lot of people can say that.

Oprah has, in many ways, been the mainstream embodiment of the modern women’s movement. She was never overtly political; she transcended politics. She also transcended race, and as a result gave millions of white American women something they’d never had before: a black friend.

She encouraged people to read through her book club. She encouraged people to be grateful for the good things in their lives, and to express it to others and to themselves in gratitude journals. She encouraged people to be health(ier) through exercise, and through forming better relationships with food. Oprah has always been very self-conscious about her own weight and she certainly cheered on womankind in their efforts to diet successfully. I would have been happier if she had accepted herself at any/every size and encouraged others to do the same – but Oprah isn’t perfect, never claimed to be, and weight was/is her Achilles Heel. I don’t begrudge or judge her for that.

Watching Oprah today on her last show – one on which there were no guests, no gifts, no “gimmicks” of any kind, just Oprah talking straight and sweet about what the show has meant to her – I couldn’t help but think of the many times I’d watched her and felt I’d learned something new and useful, even important. I thought of how she made me laugh and cry and feel with utter openness. I thought about how brave she is, how giving, how wise – yes, wise. I’m going to miss Oprah! – but I know that for a long time to come, I’ll have Oprah, and when she’s gone, the whole world will have her legacy. That’s not chopped liver. That’s TV put to its best use. Congratulations, Oprah. Thank you. And good luck.

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