Oprah’s Legacy, For Better and Worse

by Nancy French

I no longer wear pantyhose because Oprah Winfrey taught me that it was okay to shirk that old-fashioned trend.

She encouraged me never to order the same thing twice from a restaurant, a philosophy I kept up for several months (and did, by the way, find some interesting new foods I liked!).

Every spring when I clean out my closet, her voice rings in my ears: “If you’ve not worn it in a year, get rid of it.” (Though I do keep that one dress in the hopes that I simultaneously lose ten pounds and ’80s shoulder pads become popular again.)

Beyond this helpful girlfriend-to-girlfriend type of advice, she became our nation’s confidante. Over the past 25 years, how many times have you heard, “Oprah says…”? Everything to everyone, she was the sort of person you could imagine going shopping with or asking for relationship advice over a bowl of ice cream.

After Oprah was accused of maligning the cattle industry, she had a change of heart. This apparently terrible experience was when she realized she wanted to do more good in the world. “I’ve been guilty of doing trash TV and not thinking it was trash,” she said. Yale professor Kathryn Lofton said that this was when her show became less about the best type of lipstick to wear and underwent the corporate rebranding of “Change Your Life TV.”

And what did she do with this responsibility? She replaced the Christian cross with the more palatable “Christ consciousness,” introduced two-minute segments encouraging viewers to “remember their spirits,” created her wildly successful book club, and invited self help/new age gurus onto her show.

After 25 years of all of this spiritual enlightenment, she created a list of 20 things she knows “for sure.” These jewels include “You become what you believe,” “Trust your instincts. Intuition doesn’t lie,” and “Love yourself.”

In other words, she gave about as good advice as that friend from high school you haven’t seen in ten years. In fact, that old friend from high school probably got her talking points from years of sitting on the couch watching Oprah. When thinking about her legacy, it’s hard to calculate how much her five-times-a-week show has affected the lives of regular Americans. As Lofton wrote, “We now live in her world: one of first-person confessions, required makeovers, and spiritual consumption. The measure of her consequence will be not in whether or not she mattered to you, but whether the world you occupy looks more like hers than you know.”

Overall, I wish her the best, but regret her fragmented, contradictory, deceptive advice has become so ingrained into our minds and cultural consciousness. As a woman who no longer wears pantyhose, I have to assume that other women have applied her “your intuition doesn’t lie” philosophy to life and ended up with broken marriages, homes, and hearts.

And that’s much worse than any damage she may have done to the cattle industry.

— Nancy French is the author of the upcoming Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War and can be followed on Facebook here.

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