Modern times: You GO, girl

What we know for sure: As Oprah Winfrey, the queen of talk TV, abdicates her throne, she leaves us with a legacy of learning to live

When Oprah Winfrey announced early this winter that she would end her 25-year-old talk show in 2011, she broke down. The nose flared, the lips swallowed each other, the voice trembled. “These years with you, our viewers, have enriched my life beyond all measure,” she said. I, in the audience, choked up too. It was the snorfle heard around the world.

Of course, the global weeping and keening may have masked some cheering, too. Google “I hate Oprah” and duck from the avalanche of complaints against the superficial, hypocritical, money-grubbing, weight-gaining Antichrist that is Oprah. Her imprimatur made American author Jonathan Franzen so squirmy that he refused to allow his novel The Corrections to be part of her book club, which for a relatively unknown author is akin to stuffing fistfuls of money into a flaming garbage can, one he can use to keep his hands warm in impoverished obscurity.

Franzen may have panicked at being shoved into Oprah’s mainstream; he may, as a writer, disdain the phrase “Go, girl!” Perhaps he fancied himself in possession of higher brows, but he missed the point (and the opportunity): What’s cool about Oprah is how incredibly uncool she is. With a few reservations, I like Oprah and have returned to her show time and again since I was 16, for the simple reason that she is sincere, and sincerity is in short supply, on TV and in real life. After 9/11, irony was supposed to die, but like a rich, ailing relative, it soldiers on: The best comedy produced today is rooted in a satirical, outsider perspective — The Onion, Jon Stewart, 30 Rock. Even Barack Obama is a master of the wry comeback (he’s joked that his middle name is Steve). I gravitate towards everything on that list, but sometimes a woman needs a dose of authenticity — an unabashed effort to be true to the best part of one’s self.

Most TV now is reality TV — the deformed offspring of the early talk-show era that Oprah launched (and abandoned): the tawdry, Jerry Springer confessional relocated from soundstages to nightclubs and kitchens. But try to spot a smattering of sincerity on The Hills or The Bachelor. Claiming to be “real” while in fact scripted, these shows feature celebrity-seeking whiners posing as humans. The “characters” fake emotions and outbursts, feigning their lives for the joy of appearing on the cover of US magazine.

Oprah’s fame is the conclusion of a more old-fashioned story, the very American rise of a poor, black southern girl from poverty to wealth. Forbes estimates her net worth to be US$2.7 billion, as she exits her show to helm a new cable network. Oprah doesn’t suppress this extraordinary personal reality on air, but she makes it inconsequential. What she does best is draw out the stories of whoever is in that big buttery chair, and then responds viscerally. On the rare occasion when she’s had enough of a guest — like the guy who repeated the name of his book 5,000 times — she swoops down and cuts off the ramble. But most of the time, she listens and nods, murmurs and follows up; she responds like the audience, making us one and the same. Linguist and author Deborah Tannen wrote that Oprah is an ideal listener: “Ms. Winfrey transformed [the talk show] from report-talk, focused on information, to rapport-talk — the telling of secrets and personal troubles that drives many women’s friendships.” Oprah made a lousy co-anchor on the Baltimore nightly news, writes Tannen, because she cried when the news was sad, and laughed when it was funny. Either Oprah is one of the best actors of all time — and anyone who has seen Beloved knows that’s not true — or she’s for real, a person loyal to her own responses, faithful to her emotions. That’s rare in the manufactured landscape of TV.

Of course, authenticity can be a liability, and often Oprah’s optimism blinds her to absurdity. My least favourite Oprah is the gullible, star-struck one: “It’s my good friend, JULIA ROOOOOOOOBERTS!” That’s the Oprah who pimps bad, even dangerous science like Jenny McCarthy’s ill-informed war against vaccines, or Suzanne Somers’s claims for unregulated “bio-identical hormones.” Even the James Frey fiasco indicated the depths of Oprah’s naïveté. How could it genuinely never occur to her that the outsized posturing of his drug-addiction memoir was a fantasy? Because being deceived by charlatans is the curse of the sincere.

In her blog, now a book called Living Oprah, an American performance artist/yoga teacher named Robyn Okrant undertook a year-long “social experiment” following Oprah’s advice. If Oprah told her to eat her food with contemplation, she did. Leopard skin slippers? Check. Twenty-one-day cleanse? Check. Okrant wanted to know if it was, in fact, possible to Live Your Best Life (Oprah’s trademarked logo) simply by treating TV as prescriptive medicine. In the end, she spent a lot of money trying to awaken her life’s purpose and got really, really tired. The book is an elaborate illustration of the simple equation that blindly following celebrity = idiocy. Though Okrant ultimately admires Winfrey, she grew frustrated with the contradictions in the Oprah liturgy, writing: “I believe Oprah’s ultimate goal is to empower women and girls,” but “I think Oprah devalues us as women by focusing so much on our bodies.” Indeed, Oprah’s mixed messages can be dizzying: One day she’s gushing that The Secret will get you everything your greedy little heart desires, and the next she’s pleading for women to get informed on female circumcision in Somalia.

Perhaps this is the point. Almost by accident, in the pursuit of entertaining TV, Oprah’s show has articulated the modern struggle between our obsession with self-improvement and that inner voice that knows what really matters is selflessness. In recent years, Oprah has shifted her emphasis toward the latter. She made philanthropy fashionable to an audience in 140 countries. In 2007 alone, she donated $58 million to charity, including her own foundation to educate girls in South Africa. This Christmas, she skipped her “favourite things” episode — where the audience gets hysterical over free cinnamon buns and laser pointers — and around the same time ran a show about the For All Women Registry, an international project devoted to fighting poverty through the education of girls and women.

For these kinds of efforts, I can forgive Oprah her show’s inherent superficiality, the warm bath of sentimentality. During her exit announcement, Oprah said: “You all have graciously invited me into your living rooms, into your kitchens and into your lives.” That sounds like a relationship, which Oprah’s show has become, one that’s sometimes troubled but always intimate, and a quarter century long. I will miss her. Sincerely.