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Oprah's Big Oprah: You Will Be Inspired... or Else

03/03/2008 04:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Of all the things in life for which I'm thankful, I'm not sure any one
is as precious to me as the fact that my wife doesn't give a crap
about Oprah. It's actually a big deal when you consider that,
according to the latest figures, Oprah can now claim outright
ownership of the souls of one in every three women.

Until recently, I didn't face much bitter indignation when I chose to
write stuff that poked fun at the Divine Miss "O"; most visitors to my
little corner of the internet, understanding what they were getting
themselves into by being there, either played along with my
light-hearted mockery, waited it out until I had something slightly
less juvenile to say, or just went away.

But with a broadening audience comes new points-of-view, and there's
no getting around the fact that, more and more, I find myself in the
crosshairs of those for whom a slight against Oprah is nothing less
than blasphemy. The arguments are always the same: she's done so much
for the world; she's a force for good; the ever-popular "you're just
jealous"; and of course the gauntlet-throwdown that demands to know
what I've done in my life that's worthwhile. (This is
invariably followed with "besides make crude jokes on a blog"
-- the exclamatory "blog" oozing the kind of contempt and
condescension usually reserved for words like "queer" or "NASCAR,"
depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line you happen to live.)

I admit that I've never understood the allure of Oprah.

In addition to the fact that the eternal subversive in me demands that
no authority figure be beyond reproach -- and let's face it, Oprah has
been anointed the ultimate authority on anything and everything in our
culture -- I really am of the opinion that her affinity for annexing
even the most authentically vital art, repackaging it as she sees fit,
then spitting it back out to her legion of frenzied,
28-Days-Later-style zombie soccer-mom acolytes is nothing more than a
gruesome form of self-obsession. Of course we are talking
about a woman who blithely puts her own face on the cover of every
issue of her magazine, so, go figure.

But while the arguments challenging the Oprah-as-Jesus sententia could
fill a studio audience, it's the talk show queen's brand new venture
that, ironically, just might highlight the strongest of them.

A few days ago, my wife and I were watching TV when a commercial
flashed across the screen promoting Oprah's latest philanthrotainment
extravaganza, Oprah's Big Give -- which premiered last night
on ABC. The premise of the show involves Oprah handing out a truckload
of money to those less fortunate than her (anyone basically), but with
a catch: the nouveau riche then have to turn around and spend the cash
on those less fortunate than them. At one point in the ad,
Oprah leans into the camera as if sharing a delicious secret with the
seven-million people ostensibly watching; she whispers the show's
real twist -- that when it's all over, the person deemed to
have done the "most good" with the grant will win a million dollars.
(I presume he or she gets to keep that money.)

Needless to say, this mammoth monetary prize will come as a huge shock
to the winner, provided he or she has never seen one of these
shows before and has no idea who Oprah is.

While I won't argue with the good that Oprah's Big Give will
probably do -- helping people who need it is inarguably commendable
and maybe the end will always justify the means in a case like this --
it's the messianic bombast with which Oprah goes about every one of
these altruistic endeavors that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I get
that I'm considered more cynical than most, but I can't be the only
one who notices that Oprah's good deeds, as with all her other deeds,
never seem to be done outside the presence of a phalanx of cameras. A
tendency toward philanthropy-as-photo-op alone should be enough to
raise questions as to who benefits most each and every time Oprah
decides to play Santa Claus. Likewise, there's the Oprah "brand" --
the one that ensures you never have to wonder, even for a second, who
to thank for all the glorious largess. When Oprah inexorably attaches
her name to books, magazines, self-help gurus, chefs, presidential
candidates and so on, it's irritating but somewhat understandable from
a business point of view; when she slaps that giant "O" on an act
that, in theory, is supposed to be selfless -- in the case of the new
show, making her name the very first thing in the title -- it
automatically ceases to be completely free of self-interest. Quite the
opposite.

By broadcasting every benevolent impulse to the world with all the
subtlety of a WWE cage match, she ensures more great PR which
strengthens her empire which brings in more money for her, the TV
networks lucky enough to be associated with her -- basically everyone
involved.

There's of course an argument to be made that Oprah's over-the-top
brand of philanthropy inspires the masses and encourages them to go
and do likewise. Once again, perhaps the end justifies the means -- but
it doesn't change the means. Oprah's still getting rich every
time she pulls one of these stunts.

After the commercial was over the other night, I turned to my wife and
asked her, "Do you like Oprah? I mean, am I the only jerk in the world
who has a problem with her?"

Her response: "I look at Oprah the way I look at Christianity or the
Grateful Dead. I don't necessarily have a problem with her, it's her
fans -- the ones who do whatever she says."

She's absolutely right. It's the Oprah Nation that elevates everything
tagged with Oprah's name to zeitgeist levels, treats any silly whim of
hers as gospel, and makes her millions in the process.

Oprah's multi-media hegemony is based on ensuring that the fans get
what they want -- Oprah.

She's just making the best of the situation, which is all well and
good -- until she starts making the best of someone else's
bad situation.