Why Oprah Winfrey understands women and the power of television better than anyone else
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.
Adding to Twain’s miseries, nobody in the household was concerned or lucid enough to protect her from the creepy old man in the neighborhood who lured her with candy and then molested her. She was just getting started in a singing career when her parents were killed, leaving her in charge of her three younger siblings. She moved them into a cabin near a remote holiday lodge where she got a job in a Vegas-style review, and from there she beavered away at her career while trying to raise a pack of brokenhearted adolescents.
And it is a testament to the kind of things that can and cannot break a woman that none of this sorrow and deprivation and cruelty caused Twain to lose her voice. The thing that shattered her, that had silenced her singing and sent her pursuing expert medical advice around the world, was not the violence or the sexual abuse. It was the betrayal by her husband, an event that occurred years after they had become multimillionaires. The affair, a garden-variety bit of midlife adultery involving a best friend, devastated her.
Oprah Winfrey viewers know that the host has a subspecialty in the husband-stealing best friend. Husband-stealing best friends are right up there with women who can’t give away a single pair of old shoes from a jam-packed closet and men who won’t do their fair share of the housework. But the true author of Shania’s suffering was a succession of malevolent men: the abusive stepfather, the molesting neighbor, the cheating husband. Oprah, more than any other broadcaster ever, understands the ways men can hurt women, and it is this knowledge—hard-earned and openly shared with her audience—that has allowed her to forge such a powerful bond with her fans. That she can move so easily between episodes about, on the one hand, rape and domestic violence and, on the other, shopping and decorating, demonstrates that she understands the full equation of the female experience. This understanding also accounts for the deep suspicion she arouses in so many men, who as a group tend to be wary of her, if not outright hostile. They’re not wrong to feel this way; she’s onto them. She has survived some of the worst they have to offer. Like Alice Walker, Oprah has been accused of hating men, black men in particular. But her attitude toward men is much more complicated and generous than they realize. It’s only when you fully apprehend the range and nature of the cruelty that men are capable of inflicting on women that you can truly appreciate its opposite. It has been Oprah’s bad and good fortune (she often says she would not on any condition change the circumstances of her young life) to have fully experienced the former.
One of the highlights of the finale at the United Center was a dazzling performance by Beyoncé of her song “Run the World (Girls).” The production was at once earnest and hammy, and no less affecting for being both; for all her sexuality, one of Beyoncé’s great talents is her ability to exude the breathless innocence of youth. To the accompaniment of “Pomp and Circumstance,” in an outfit of leotard and high heels that somehow managed to signal that her remarks were in the style of a commencement address, she announced: “Oprah Winfrey, because of you, women everywhere have graduated to a new level of understanding of what we are, of who we are, and, most importantly, who we can be . . . Oprah—we can run the world!” A team of backup dancers in black hot pants and red stilettos marched onstage, and Beyoncé handed each one a diploma, then launched into the song:
Who run the world? Girls!
Who run the world? Girls!
Like most grrrl-powered productions, it was sexy, exciting, and hollow. Girls don’t really run the world, and they’re not likely to—and certainly not in high heels and hot pants—anytime soon. But that didn’t matter, because the dancing was so sensational, and the star so electrifying, and Oprah so happily overcome by the moment. And the performance was obviously a tribute to something genuine: If girls aren’t poised for world domination, it’s not for lack of Oprah’s own efforts. Few people have undertaken such a lifelong, bighearted, and wide-ranging campaign of improving the lives of girls, especially poor black ones. The number, though, was a sizzling bit of fluff, as thoroughly entertaining as it was immediately forgotten.
But another moment in the evening will be remembered for a long time by everyone who saw it, whether in person or on television. It highlighted another of Oprah’s commitments, and one for which she is far less well known: her work on behalf of black men. Her friend Tyler Perry announced that some of the “Morehouse Men,” each a beneficiary of the $12 million endowment Oprah has established at their college, had come to honor her for the scholarships she gave them. The lights were lowered, a Broadway star began singing an inspirational song, and a dozen or so black men walked slowly to the front of the stage. Then more came, and soon there were 100, then the huge stage was filled with men, 300 of them. They stood there, solemnly, in a tableau stage-managed in such a way that it might have robbed them of their dignity—each man carried a white candle, an emblem that lent them the aspect of Norman Rockwell Christmas carolers—but they were not robbed of their dignity. They looked, all together, like a miracle. A video shown before the procession revealed that some of these men had been in gangs before going to Morehouse, some had fathers in prison, many had been living in poverty. Now they were doctors, lawyers, bankers, a Rhodes Scholar.
From the stage, Perry told Oprah, “You’ve often said that when you educate a black man, you empower families, you empower sons and daughters, and you change generations.” It was entirely different from Beyoncé’s salute, because it wasn’t the dizzy promise of a high-heeled hegemony; it was a statement of large, complex, and painful truth. Putting an end to the pathologies that have crippled poor black America is in the hands not of the community’s women but of its men. Oprah’s willingness to illustrate the destruction and violence that black men can visit on their families and also to reveal the ways they can transcend that pernicious pattern—and become upstanding family men and admired professionals—has always lent her mission something transgressive and important.
Because her politics are explicitly Democratic, and because she shines such a bright light on the ways poor black people have been victimized by forces beyond their control, she is derided by many conservatives. But to watch the segment on the Morehouse Men is to realize that on certain matters, she seems more like a Bill Bennett than a tax-and-spend victimologist: She espouses an up-by-your-bootstraps approach, urging poor men to get educated, work hard at their jobs, provide for and stand by their families, and lift up their communities.
“I have always known that I was born for greatness,” Oprah Winfrey infamously said in a 1988 interview with Barbara Walters that has dogged her ever since; “I just always knew. Just always knew.” It was the beginning of the Oprah Story, as her meanest critics have chosen to tell it. In the Oprah Story, the star is a megalomaniac who thinks her success with a syndicated afternoon talker proves that she has been called forth from the misty depths of God’s best ideas to lead a grateful people into new realms of human consciousness and right-fitting Spanx.
The Walters interview, conducted in Oprah’s Chicago apartment on a pair of vast white chaises, in a room filled with cut flowers and white candles—and marked by the dreamy, semi-oratorical style Oprah used then in her most heartfelt interviews—was the perfect platform for the Story’s initial launch. Born for greatness? This was a woman who dragged red wagons full of lard onstage to demonstrate how much weight she’d lost—only to gain it right back and to treat the disappointment as a national development.
Upholders of the Story find Oprah’s inclination to break into tears when she meets fellow celebrities mere narcissistic scene-stealing. Why in the world would a woman born in the Jim Crow South cry when she encountered Mary Tyler Moore if not to make sure the attention was on herself? Last, and most irritating to the Storytellers, is Oprah’s insistence that her protean success was the result not of hard work and a well-crafted business plan, but of nothing more than a thought, an idea, a dream. Well, actually—yes, that was pretty much what it took: an idea about herself, expressed as soon as she was capable of holding ideas, that failed her only once. And when she got her second chance (her one lucky break, if you can call it that), she took it.
Oprah Winfrey grew up as poor as a child can possibly be in modern America. Born to an unwed teenage mother in rural Mississippi, she spent her earliest years on her grandmother’s farm, in a house without electricity or running water and with an outhouse in the yard and a big pot for boiling clothes on the back porch. The cast of characters in her intimate circle changed often. When Oprah was small, her mother went north for work, leaving the child with the grandmother, who beat her regularly. Oprah recalls this experience without rancor. It was the way people raised kids in the South, she says; “she could beat me every day and never get tired.” Oprah would later move to Milwaukee to join her mother, and then to Nashville to live with her father. One of her two joys as a young child was church, where from the age of 3 she was performing little pieces in front of the congregation. “Little Miss Winfrey is here to do the recitation,” the preacher would say, and she would march up and recite scripture in her rich, powerful voice. Her other love was school, in particular the fourth grade, where her teacher, Mrs. Duncan, was the first person to recognize something special about this little girl. “She let me lead devotionals,” Oprah remembers, “and pass out the graham crackers.”
One legacy of her childhood of upheavals and broken connections, of lost friends and vanished relatives, is that Oprah loves reunions. She loves to surprise people on air by revealing that their lost family members or youthful sweethearts are not just figments of memory, but are real human beings, waiting in the wings, about to walk onstage and sew up the torn seam of their past. She has even arranged her own on-air reunions: One was with Mrs. Duncan herself. “I ran home on the first day,” Oprah told the audience about her fourth-grade year, “to tell my dad I had the best teacher that anybody could ever have.” And then, her voice already breaking, she asked her favorite teacher to come onstage and meet her, for the first time in 30 years.
Mrs. Duncan turned out to be a very proper Southern white lady with a bun and a blue suit, and she handled her moment of celebrity with the combination of graciousness and unflappable authority that once was common in schoolteachers. “Bless your heart,” she said, as Oprah gushed and wept; “bless your heart.”
Oprah had a hundred questions—Did Mrs. Duncan remember the way she had spent her recesses not playing, but collecting money for the missionaries? Did she remember if one of her friends had been in the class? No, Mrs. Duncan did not remember those things; “I’m sure Oprah remembers so many happinesses—more than I,” she said, in a tone at once formal and warm, addressing the audience members as though they were themselves a class of fourth-graders. She seemed to apprehend, perhaps on the counsel of a producer, that Oprah would ask for her memories of that 8-year-old, but the teacher’s responses—while they were delivered fondly—would have been more appropriate for a school report card than a hyperemotional reunion with a sobbing megastar. “You were such a fluent reader,” she told Oprah; “you grasped ideas readily”; “when a task was assigned, you would look around to make sure everyone was following through.”
They made an appealing pair, sitting together onstage; that Mrs. Duncan was not a fawner, that she did not love-bomb Oprah, or try to overstate her role in the magnate’s development, only underscored the transformative effect she’d had on that long-ago child. Oprah is a deeply emotional person, and must surely have been so as a little girl, all the more so because of the nature of her early years and the lack of reliable adults in her life. What Mrs. Duncan was able to do for her—even all these years later, when Oprah was calling for tissues, smearing her makeup, and working herself up into a high-pitched, childish voice—was to calm her down, help her manage her raging feelings into something settled and comfortable. “I don’t mean to put you on the spot,” Oprah said, a bit stiffly, when it turned out Mrs. Duncan didn’t recall the year nearly as well as she did. But the old teacher knew how to turn a disappointment into a happiness: She admitted, under mild pressure and with evident affection, that Oprah had been her favorite student. At this, Oprah Winfrey emitted a squeal of childlike pleasure and vindication. For a moment, it was possible to see what she must have looked like as an 8-year-old.
It’s a good thing that fourth grade was such a happy year for Oprah because that was the last year of her childhood. That summer, she was raped. She was a child of 9 and hardly understood what was happening to her, although she “knew it was bad,” she said many years later, “because it hurt so badly.” Afterward, while she was still bleeding and suffering, the man—her 19-year-old cousin—took her to the zoo and out for ice cream, and he told her to keep what had happened a secret, or she would be in terrible trouble.
“You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.” That’s what Celie, the narrator of Oprah’s favorite novel, The Color Purple, was told by her stepfather after he raped her. In fact, the works of all three of Oprah’s most revered writers—Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou—contain descriptions of child rapes that closely resemble what happened to Oprah. They tell stories of young girls existing in households filled with transient men—boarders, mothers’ boyfriends, stepfathers, visitors—and the great peril that comes with these men. “All my life I had to fight,” begins Sofia’s famous speech in The Color Purple; Sofia in The Color Purple was the role Oprah herself played in the movie version of the book, and she said the speech was such a clear reflection of her own experiences that she got it in one take: “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. Girl child ain’t safe in a family of mens.”
In Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove is raped—and impregnated—by her father, who catches sight of the girl washing dishes and is overcome with a savage combination of self-loathing and lust:
The doing of a wild and forbidden thing excited him, and a bolt of desire ran down his genitals. . . . The gigantic thrust he made into her then provoked the only sound she made—a hollow suck of air in the back of her throat. Like the rapid loss of air from a circus balloon.
“If you scream, I’m gonna kill you,” the man who raped Maya Angelou, then age 8, told her. If she told anyone what he’d done, he would kill her brother. “The act of rape on an 8-year-old body,” writes Angelou in her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot. [Afterward,] he dried me and handed me my bloomers. . . . Walking down the street, I felt the wet on my pants, and my hips seemed to be coming out of their sockets.
“You’re never the same again,” Oprah has said about the experience of being raped as a child, but there was more to come. She would be molested and raped, repeatedly, through early adolescence, by other grown men, including the boyfriend of a cousin who was living with Oprah’s mother, and by her favorite uncle. “It was just an ongoing, continuous thing,” she has said; “I started to think ‘This is the way life is.’ ” She became, as a very young adolescent, wildly promiscuous, getting into all kinds of trouble, including, at 14, becoming pregnant. “You can’t stay here,” her mother said, in a rare spasm of concern about the sexual propriety of her household, and so she was sent to live with her father. He was not apprised of his daughter’s condition, and Oprah had barely walked through the kitchen door before he announced the house rules: “I would rather see a daughter of mine floating down the Cumberland River than to bring shame on this family,” he said to her pointedly.
“He’s saying that to me, and I know that I am pregnant,” she remembers; “so I’m thinking, ‘Well, I’m just going to have to kill myself.’ ” She made some halfhearted attempts, swallowing detergent at one point, but without success. The little girl with such high hopes seemed to have come early to the end of the road, but then—imagine this as your one bit of good fortune—the baby died, a few weeks after birth. It was her second chance, the sudden, glorious rebirth of the dream. It was a straight line, pretty much, from there to Oprah’s success in school, at college, in her first jobs on radio and television, to her own show and the building of her empire.
How did she do it? How did she lift herself up from intense sorrow, abuse, and poverty? Well, as she has been trying to tell everyone who would listen to her for the past 25 years, she had an idea. A belief. She had it from the time she was 4 years old, watching her grandmother hang clothes on the line. “You’re gonna have to learn how to do this,” said her grandmother. No, I’m not, thought Oprah; my life won’t be like this. It was an idea she got partly from church, partly from the sermons and poems she memorized and recited—“Hattie Mae, that is the talkinest child,” people would tell her grandmother—each chosen for its powerfully uplifting quality: a little girl recently raped, but standing tall and blasting everyone with “Invictus”:
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
She got it from books, because she read the way many people who have been abused will read—in a deep, immersive way, impervious to the outside world, willing herself into the streets and bright living rooms and spirited discussions of the novels. Books are what got her though the sexual abuse: “I knew there was another kind of life,” she has said of that time. “I knew it because I’d read about it.” And she got her idea of herself—once she had moved into an apartment with electricity—from another source, the one that would make all the difference in her life.
Because into nearly every household in America, no matter how low or mean or outright evil, into each squalid nest and decent place pours the great, pure light of television. And there, sitting on the linoleum floor of her mother’s long-ago apartment, was Oprah Winfrey, her face tilted up to take it all in. She missed most of Diana Ross’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show because she was on the phone calling everyone—“Colored person on the television! Colored person on the television!” She was in that same apartment (the one where she was first raped) when she turned on the Academy Awards and saw Sidney Poitier stepping out of a limousine, and she ran to the telephone again: “Colored person stepping out of a limousine!”
She watched Leave It to Beaver, and in the absence of a cookie-baking mother, she dreamed on his. She got older, and she watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and she fell so in love with Mary and Lou and Ted, with Mary’s apartment and Mary’s life, that she would wash her hair before the show and leave the conditioner in for the whole 30 minutes, not washing it off until Bob Newhart came on, because she didn’t want to miss a second. She came of age as a television watcher in the days when every story on TV had a happy ending, when the idea of America as a place filled with kindly people was something that was mostly true—maybe even only true—on television. And she came of age when black people were just beginning to make their way into that magical, safe place.
And from there, she got an idea. So when she tells us she cried for two hours in the bath before she felt safe enough to attempt an interview with Diana Ross without sobbing the whole time, when she cries through an interview with Mary Tyler Moore, she’s not falling apart because she’s crazy about celebrities. She’s falling apart because these people, whom she had known only through television, are the link to the life she once led, and only narrowly escaped. Meeting them, being on a par with them, is the ultimate act of dreaming true; her tears are a response not just to that famous person, but to the glory of God.
There are certain things about women that men will never understand, in part because they have no interest in understanding them. They will never know how deeply we care about our houses—what a large role they play in our dreams for ourselves, how unhappy their shortcomings make us. Men think they understand the way our physical beauty—or lack of it, or assaults on it from age or extra weight—preys on our minds, but they don’t fully grasp the significance these things have for us. Nor can they understand the way physical comforts or simple luxuries—the fresh towel or the fat new cake of soap—can lift our spirits. And they will never know how much our lives are shaped around the fear of bad men and the harm they can bring us if we’re not careful, if we’re not banded together, if we’re not telling each other what to watch out for, what we’ve learned. We need each other’s counsel, and oftentimes it comes when we’re talking about other things, when we seem not to have much important on our minds at all.
The other day, I watched online as Oprah was interviewed at the offices of Facebook. She was responding to a series of “lightning round” questions—What did she like more, Beloved or The Color Purple? The journey or the destination? And then a silly question, a reference to what was an annual treat of the Oprah show, the “Favorite Things” episode, which featured her favorite products and clothes and inventions of the year. “What is your favorite Favorite Thing?” asked the moderator, in a teasing sort of way. The audience loved it, and Oprah sat back, clearly aware of the implications her answer would have; it seemed she was preparing a way of evading the question—but she wasn’t. She leaned forward in her chair and said—in all seriousness and sincerity—“The Breville panini maker.” Everyone laughed as if it was a joke, but it wasn’t a joke. The appliance—“which can also be used for bacon,” Oprah said, “and can be used for fish”—was the clear favorite, and she said its name again, a coronation: “The Breville panini maker.”
I wandered away from the computer, went to the kitchen, and took a newly disappointed look at my Griddler panini press. I lifted its top and wondered if it might be able to make bacon, but I immediately apprehended its shortcomings. For a couple of weird seconds, I had such a fierce desire for a Breville that I contemplated buying one and becoming a two-panini-press household. But then my better judgment took hold, and I hurried back to the computer. It had been a couple of months since I’d had this much time with Oprah Winfrey, and I was eager to hear what else she had to say.
Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land and To Hell with All That. Excerpted from The Atlantic (December 2011), a monthly magazine dedicated to bold voices that shape the national debate on politics, business, international affairs, and cultural trends.