When Oprah Was On
Reading her impact


Today marks the final episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Has it been a net gain or loss for American culture? National Review Online asked some discerning culture watchers.


Charlotte Allen

Back in 2002, I wrote an article for The Women’s Quarterly in which I deemed Oprah Winfrey “A-O-Kay.” Sure, I found her “O-dious” liberal politics a trial: always Ruth Bader Ginsburg on her show and never Sandra Day O’Connor (although, to be fair, Oprah did invite Condoleezza Rice). And why did a woman raised in the ardent Christianity of her beloved grandmother feel compelled to host every peddler of New Age woo to wander across her TV stage?

Still, I found many reasons to like Oprah Winfrey. I liked the way she had, through brains and guts, transcended a ghastly childhood that featured a promiscuous mother and a pregnancy at age 14 whose culmination was the death of her newborn son. I liked that her father, Vernon Winfrey, stepped into this farrago with tough love and curfews to turn his daughter into an A-student and avid reader. I liked Oprah’s warm, real personality underneath the carapace of stagey glitz — and her interviewees responded similarly. I liked the good taste and high standards that she and her magazine, O, fostered. Above all, I liked the classy way she dealt with that overhyped brat-author, Jonathan Franzen, gently disinviting him from her show after he pronounced it “schmaltzy.”

But as nine years passed since my article, the distressing aspects of Oprah Winfrey became more pronounced, to the point that they began to crowd out the aspects I admired. The politics — couldn’t she have admired Barack Obama’s drive to become America’s first black president without becoming his shill? The New Age stuff — what was this with “The Secret”? Even Oprah’s once-lovely clothes took a turn toward the over-the-top. Her show began to slip ever so slightly but ever so inexorably downward in the ratings. I wish Oprah well, but I think that that the shrewdest decision that she has made in her shrewdly designed career was to quit when she could at least maintain the illusion that she was ahead.

Charlotte Allen is writer in Washington, D.C.


Lisa Schiffren

The influence of Oprah Winfrey’s TV show on American culture this quarter century has been vast and transformative, for good (some) and ill (more).

In 1986, the nation’s daytime sob-sister of note was Phil Donohue, whose often emotional, personal,  “new, sensitive male” shtick was easily dismissed in Ronald Reagan’s America, where manly virtues and style had not been entirely deconstructed and metro-sexualized. You could still envision a good man who was strong but silent. Crying was a career ender, and over-sharing was not done by serious people.

Enter Oprah. Her personal confessions, tears, and overflowing emotions (delivered articulately enough to suggest preparation), changed the style of casual discourse — and, ultimately, political speech too.

Of course, the feminization of American culture had been underway for a century, episodically, before she showed up. Historian Ann Douglas had ascribed it (partly) to an alliance between victimized women and preachers, attempting to sissify a rugged pioneer culture (e.g. Prohibition or the peace movement).

On her show, Oprah got to be the hurt woman and the preacher. She talked about depression, weight, and sexual abuse, in a manner familiar to women from the intense, intimate confidences of deep female friendship. Those agonies and confessions won the love and allegiance of millions of American women, who were a little lost at whatever point in their lives they were home, watching. It worked because, in the same show, she’d go from victim to healer, offering a female version of the deeply American boot-strapper archetype.

The triumph of her style has helped de-stigmatize real victimization — which is a clear good. Alas, it has made life that much harder for conservatives and others who prefer the rational to the emotional, who don’t think that understanding necessarily equals forgiveness, and who think that there are constraints to material reality, even if there aren’t with love and forgiveness.

— Lisa Schiffren is a writer in New York.


Glenn T. Stanton

I can’t believe what I am about to do. As a white, evangelical, politically and theologically conservative male, I am going to effusively praise Oprah Winfrey.

Yes, she is a cohabiting, syncretizing, spiritual freelancer who thought Barack Obama was “The One.”. But I do think her show has been a wholesale benefit to American culture.

First, she was never Jerry Springer. She never used her guests. Unlike Donahue, she didn’t scoff at faith. She was civil, the only interviewer not on Fox to give President Bush a respectful interview on his book tour. She got people to believe in their abilities and possibilities without being a paper-thin prosperity-gospel preacher. As a father of four daughters, I like that she is a confident leader who is secure in her womanhood. She got lots of people reading decent books. She cared about her brand, making sure it was pro-community and mostly family-friendly.

And these are all good things for our culture, even if we strongly disagree on bigger issues.

Glenn T. Stanton is the director for Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family and author of Secure Daughters, Confident Sons.


Suzanne Venker

Most Americans know Oprah Winfrey is liberal — and those who ever questioned it got a dose of reality in the last presidential election. What many people don’t know is that Oprah is not content to just be liberal — she wants to make America liberal, too. That’s what her 25-year run was all about.

There are two left-wing mantras Oprah lives by, and she repeats them often. One is that when people know better, they do better — which implies that education is all people need to make good decisions. The second is that all people are inherently good. In a recent interview about OWN, her new network, Oprah reiterated her philosophy; “I’m concerned about the bigger overall picture: my belief that people are basically good.”

In addition to swearing by these mantras, Oprah kneels at the altar of moral relativism — where people determine for themselves what is morally right based on how they feel about it. To Oprah, the only commandment that matters is the one she and the media elite made up: Thou Shalt Not Judge.

This worldview — that education is the answer to ethical behavior, that all people are intrinsically good, that morality is subjective — is what Oprah’s programs are built upon. Her goal isn’t to expose actual truth — but truth as she sees it. As Kitty Kelley writes in her biography, something Oprah used to say was, “I am the instrument of God. I am his messenger. My show is my ministry.”

So as the Hollywood elite say a tearful goodbye to their personal God, Americans should keep Oprah’s influence in perspective. Behind every Oprah Winfrey Show was a goal: to promote a leftist point of view. It was planned. It was orchestrated. And, unfortunately, it was successful. 

Suzanne Venker is co-author, with Phyllis Schafly, of The Flipside of Feminism