First let’s start with storytelling. Human beings are all storytellers, and story telling or narratives are important ways we make sense of our everyday reality. Oprah Winfrey is one of the most popular and well-known storytellers in the West, and probably the world. Her stories carry a lot of weight in how many people come to understand things like happiness, health and work.
At first glance, and perhaps second and third glance too, Oprah’s stories do not seem problematic. On the contrary they often seem like keen insights and practical solutions for how to navigate the world and feel empowered.
For fans of Oprah many of these stories are quite familiar. There is the oft-told account of how Oprah herself made it and overcame insurmountable odds. There’s the story that Oprah tells that she is doing God’s work. There are Oprah’s stories about her many philanthropic efforts and giving back. There are Oprah’s many stories about the power of the individual to overcome any obstacles in their life.
Oprah is also very good at empathy and making viewers, readers and listeners of her stories feel like they are supported and loved by her. Her story telling style is quick to confirm how hard life has got for many. And she always acknowledges the stresses, anxiety and uncertainty of the this world to her fans, and uses her own life experiences as evidence that if you listen to what she says, and follow what she did, you can improve your life too. If only life were that simple.
Oprah’s message whether it is about your job, love life, personal relationships, dreams or whatever else stresses that the solutions you are looking for come from within you, and if you don’t believe Oprah, she offers you her life or some other feel good story, motivational anecdotes or life guru’s tale that supports her viewpoint.
Yet the issues of dead-ends jobs, the reasons for crime, the social destruction of poverty, the depression of alienation, the solutions to ecological degradation and the problems of massive economic inequalities across Western societies cannot be solved by Oprah’s suggested individual strategies for success. And never will.
Oprah provides a smokescreen against the real reasons for societal problems and rather than asking for people to use their individual powers to come together and ask for political change her solutions ask individuals to modify themselves rather than modifying the system.
There is no assessment or acknowledgement that most of the obstacles people face in their lives have nothing to do with their mental attitude or working harder and everything to do with history and biography. Instead Oprah suggests your lot in life is far more to do with your own shortcomings and attitude than anything else.
No matter that Oprah’s message is accepted and believed by 100s of millions of people around the world, it is still a bold face lie. Yet with so many believers Oprah’s prophecies and the story about the world her industry builds should worry us all.
Essentially Oprah, for all her good intentions, and those like here such as Joel Osteen and are turning their fans into depoliticised and atomistic individuals who no longer recognise the world’s problems as structural and systematic as most social science demonstrates it is and instead believe that in fixing themselves the world around them will change. Or put another way instead of wanting to change the system they believe the solution to the world’s problems comes from changing themselves.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of social and political change. By becoming hollowed out political subjects, disinterested in voting, politics, collectivism or the truth about global inequalities we have been seduced by ideology and storytelling, to protect the wealth and lifestyles or those with immense privilege.
Oprah in this sense is still an angel like her fans believe, but she is an angel on the side of the powerful. She seduces her fans with stories that play to the stories they believe about the world, rather than truths about the world. She makes fans believe that the reasons why certain opportunities and life outcomes are denied to them and beyond them is because of shortcomings within themselves, even if such explanations are incorrect and misleading.
Oprah of course is not the reason for the world’s social problems, but she is a storytelling mythmaker who’s tales support the status quo and hamper our abilities to change it. It would be nice if we all lived in a world where a positive attitude and hard work support social mobility, but that just isn’t true.