As of 2011, The Oprah Winfrey Show is “... one of the longest-running daytime television talk shows in the United States, having run nationally since September 8, 1986, for over 24 seasons and over 5,000 episodes. The show’s last original episode will air on May 25, 2011, with reruns continuing until September 9, 2011.”
Millions of people around the globe will watch the final episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, drank a Moscow Mule in Oprah’s honor, and plead with her through the medium of their television screens, “Don’t leave us!”
But, she’s leaving, anyway. Not since the Beatles broke up has there been such a communal feeling of abandonment.
Sure, we can catch her occasional appearances on the OWN Network or on Broadway, but that’s like telling a little kid that even though Mommy’s moving out of the house to pursue her own selfish interests (hear that, Oprah?!), you can still see her on vacations and holidays. Not good enough!
So, with all this non-Oprah time on my hands, I figured I’d fill it by ruminating about Oprah, and what made her one of the most important female figures of the past quarter century.
There are the obvious accomplishments. Oprah didn’t just crack the glass ceiling, she smashed it into a million little pieces. She crafted a brand, started a school, built an empire. She launched a network, launched a charity, launched a book club—even helped launch a presidency. She’s not just one of the richest women in the world, she’s one of the richest people in the world. She’s a mogul, an idol, an icon.
That’s certainly impressive and unparalleled and inspirational—and completely beside the point. Or at least the point of this column.
Oprah’s achievements make her an incredible role model, especially for women and girls. Fortunately, she’s far from the only one who holds this position and, in fact, she ranked only 3rd in the USA Today/Gallup Poll of Most Admired Woman of 2010, behind Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.
During Oprah’s quarter-century presence in our lives, there have also been scores of other women who’ve earned a place on the “most influential” lists, including Barbara Walters, Madonna, J.K. Rowling, Condoleezza Rice, Angelina Jolie, Margaret Thatcher, Martha Stewart, Princess Diana, Aung San Suu Kyi, J. Lo, Meg Whitman, Christiane Amanpour, Mother Theresa, Venus and Serena Williams, Tina Fey, Lady Gaga, and so many more.
The importance of these female role models cannot be underestimated. They’ve advanced people’s perceptions of what a woman can be and what she can achieve by their very example. They’ve made it, if not commonplace, at least commonly accepted in many parts of the world that women can reach the very top echelons of business, politics, media, entertainment, sports, and humanitarianism.
In terms of a sphere of influence, however, Oprah reigns supreme. She’s not only changed society’s view of women through the power of her own life story and the causes she’s championed, she’s changed society at its core.
Oprah has turned predominantly female values into mainstream values.
What I mean is this: It’s widely accepted (and, yes, of course there are plenty of exceptions), that women are the keepers of the emotional realm. Women tend to believe it’s actually healthy to talk (and sometimes talk and talk and talk) about, well, just about anything. They also allow emotions to sometimes trump logic (even doing what Oprah refers to as “the ugly cry” on occasion). But, feelings—and certainly talking about feelings—were never given their proper due…until Oprah came along.
Strange as it may seem today in a culture saturated with tell-all memoirs and reality TV shows and Facebook posts, the list of taboo topics B.O. (Before Oprah) was endless. I don’t just mean you wouldn’t have announced certain things to the world; you might not have even told them to your best friend. And I’m not just referring to heavy-duty revelations like you were the victim of sexual abuse or you’re hooked on prescription painkillers. I mean the more typical ones, like you ate an entire package of Oreos in one sitting, or you felt depressed after giving birth to your child, or you can’t afford your monthly mortgage payments, or you’re afraid people won’t like because you’re _______ (fill in the blank). The shame was simply too great.
But by virtue of that most female of attributes—the gift of gab—Oprah made it so that nothing’s off limits for discussion. And certainly very few things are cause for deep-seated shame—for women or men. That, above all else, is Oprah’s legacy.
So, if you’re reading this, Oprah, I hope you realize that as far as we’ve come as a society, we still have a long way to go. As for me, I’m going to assume that the end of The Oprah Winfrey Show is a hoax (sort of like the whole “Paul is dead” thing). See you in September for the start of Season 26!
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.