Oprah Winfrey: A Serious Woman

Why Oprah Winfrey understands women and the power of television better than anyone else

| March/April 2012

  • Oprah And Morehouse Men
    Morehouse Men paying tribute to Oprah.
    WIREIMAGE
  • Oprah And Nelson Mandela
    Oprah with Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s Qunu Village.
    REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS
  • Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy
    Cutting the ribbon outside the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls outside Johannesburg, South Africa.
    REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

  • Oprah And Morehouse Men
  • Oprah And Nelson Mandela
  • Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy

The three-episode finale of The Oprah Winfrey Show consisted of a two-part spectacular at the United Center in Chicago and a final sermon delivered from the show’s studio at Harpo Productions. Together, these three hours of television encompassed many of the program’s enduring concerns: celebrity, philanthropy, Dale Carnegie–style positive thinking, and—the true foundation of the show and its creator—the theology of the black Baptist Church that raised her. “To God be the glory” were her final words to us, a sentiment sure to inflame her critics (what a pompous way to sign off from an afternoon chat show!), and one that explains how this remarkable woman became one of the most influential figures in the private lives of millions of American women.

Despite the grandeur of the three-parter, despite its buckled-down determination to sum up a 25-year mission, the true genome of the project was revealed in a run-of-the-mill episode weeks earlier. No Aretha Franklin belting out “Amazing Grace” to thousands, no Diane Sawyer announcing the planting of 25,000 oak trees in Oprah’s name, no funny pictorial of tragic hairstyles—just Oprah sitting down and talking, woman-to-woman, about certain aspects of the female experience.

The guest was Shania Twain, the country-music star who has been in relative seclusion the past seven years, for reasons detailed in From This Moment On, the autobiography she had come on the show to promote. The book stands as a compendium of the life events about which Oprah and Oprah care most: deep childhood poverty made yet more harrowing by sexual molestation and domestic violence; the power of nothing more than a dream to change a life forever; the triumph of material success after a harsh beginning; the feminine joys to be found in buying and redecorating a beautiful house; the rotten tendency of bad men and false friends to run off with one another, leaving you brokenhearted and humiliated; the ability of such betrayals to cause you to lose your voice, leading to the realization that, no matter what, you must regain your voice.

I turned on the Shania episode late, and I was standing out of sight of the television, so I didn’t at first see that the guest Oprah was interviewing was a superstar. I assumed the woman speaking in such plain, heartbroken terms was a civilian. Her voice sounded thin and untrained, and the rush of words tumbled out quickly, as though she had only this one golden moment to tell her story to the world.



I found that I liked Twain, about whom I had known very little. Twain’s early years were shaped by the kind of domestic chaos that is at once a cause and a result of poverty. Her barely educated mother managed in the space of a decade to bear four children by three men. The man with whom Twain’s mother ended her romantic run, and with whom she remained in an unhappy marriage until their early death in a car crash, was a wife beater who nearly killed her many times—often in front of the terrified children. He was also a fully participating member of the human condition, so that along with his violence were streaks of kindness and generosity (even broke, he would bring home desserts and little treats for the kids), in a mix of the sort that leaves children perpetually confused.

During Twain’s adolescence, her stepfather would often come into her room at night and seethe at her for being a “bitch” and a “slut.” He would beat her with a belt and kick her. Yet, like many an abused child before her, she has grown up into an adult who has plenty of good things to say about her monster.

stephanie regan
2/29/2012 1:46:53 AM

i love oprah! this article is great! i have been a stay at home mom almost 20 years and watched very little t.v. but i always tried to see oprah. i still do things that she said to do! she is my mentor! i have not had t.v. for a while and have not seen her in a long time but this article makes me smile she is a wonderful person to look up to! i am thankful for her!


Milt Lee
2/27/2012 3:06:56 PM

I have heard this before about men not understanding how much a house means to a woman, and since I first heard it, I have been paying much more attention to it than I ever did before. I didn't know, and probably still don't know, but I can see it now. I am still working on the body image thing, but it's so true that men just look at things differently. And frankly I don't think it's to our advantage. I wish I had this understanding years ago, but there you are. I will keep working on it. Thanks for the very good article. I keep learning.


Joanne Steven
2/26/2012 4:14:08 PM

I have always struggled with liking Oprah Winfrey. I mean, what's not to admire? Yet, I always felt there was something distastefully narcissistic about her, and I have a problem with her method of throwing millions of dollars at complex social problems expecting a quick solution. Solutions that are very "top down", rather than grassroots and owned by the oppressed themselves. But your article has helped me have more compassion for her, and explains why she interacts with the world the way she does, explains her fierceness and her drive. Thank you.




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