Oprah's No Good, Very Bad Few Months
After decades of raising questions about our national baggage, Oprah has recently become the center of controversy herself.
I don't know if there's a meme that has so neatly fused a celebrity's persona, personal history, and current turmoil as much as this 24-second viral video of Oprah falling on stage this past Saturday in Los Angeles. During a stop on her 2020 Vision tour, she's in full mid-aughts The Secret mode, saying "you have to name it to claim it" and articulating her personal definition of wellness ("all things in balance") as she stalks the stage in a cream pantsuit, ambient New Age music playing while abstract lava lamp shapes shift on a screen behind her. At the exact moment she says "balance doesn't mean all things are equal or at peace at all times," she teeters on her heels, stumbles, and then tumbles, as if pushed. “Woo!” she exclaims as she falls, and then sits up for a final punchline, "Wrong shoes!"
Immediately after the footage circulated, the jokes began: The fall has been viewed millions of times, remixed into a hip-hop song, and commented on by thousands in the Shade Room and on TMZ. “Michael and Kobe blew a gust of wind. Balance," commented Snoop Dogg. 50 Cent, who has a history of feuding with and criticizing the mogul, made a video mocking the fall and posted on Instagram that "Michael Jackson's ghost trip[ped] her."
On the surface, the timing of the key word "balance" with a slip makes the clip a generically funny meme. But given recent controversies, the footage syncs scandal with coincidence. The symbolism is pretty layered: Oprah’s been in the news for what some people claim are efforts to tarnish Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson’s legacies; she fell in Los Angeles, where city icon Bryant recently died and where Jackson died more than a decade ago. There’s also the length of the video in seconds — a number that's everywhere in American culture right now because it was on Bryant's jersey: 24. Then there's the fall itself, easily synonymous with decline or diminished hubris. How did we get here?
On February 7, Oprah appeared on Hoda & Jenna to promote her tour. In the span of a few minutes, Oprah went from comforting a sobbing Hoda Kotb, who lavished praise onto the media mogul, to barely containing her tears over the treatment of her best friend, CBS This Morning anchor Gayle King, after videos from the journalist’s interview with WNBA legend Lisa Leslie, which included questions about Kobe Bryant’s 2003 rape case, were shared online. In a clip from a larger interview that went viral on social media, King asked Leslie whether the sexual assault allegations against Bryant complicated his legacy in the context of their personal friendship. When Leslie explained that they didn’t, King pressed on with a similar question in a way that some deemed insensitive given the timing of the interview, mere days after Bryant’s death, and also because Bryant’s alleged victim had dropped the charges (after what some have considered victim-blaming by Bryant’s legal team). After the clip circulated online, King was roundly excoriated. “She is not doing well,” Oprah told Kotb, choking up. “She is not doing well because she [now] has death threats and has to now travel with security...and she’s feeling very much attacked.”
Attacked is putting it mildly. King had also been the recipient of public eviscerations from black celebrities like Snoop Dogg, who questioned King and Oprah’s motives for interrogating the legacy of prominent black men like Bryant and Michael Jackson (more on that later), asking “Why are y’all attacking us? We your people.” He also threatened King — “Respect the family and back off, bitch, before we come get you.” — and called her a “dog-head bitch.” (He later apologized.) Snoop also directed his ire at Oprah for her 2019 interview with Michael Jackson’s alleged victims, posting a picture of her with Harvey Weinstein partly captioned “Fuck u and Gayle. Free Bill Cosby.” Bill Cosby, or someone running his official Twitter account, thanked Snoop for his defense, and nodded to the injustice he claims he’s suffered from at the hands of women like King and Oprah. “It’s so sad and disappointing that successful Black Women are being used to tarnish the image and legacy of successful Black Men, even in death,” Cosby’s Instagram account added. Boosie and Mo’Nique were among the other black celebrities who called King a race traitor.
Oprah’s appearance on the talk show was a far cry from the triumphant spectacle she made at the 2018 Golden Globes when she received a lifetime achievement award. In the tone and timbre of a practiced orator, she thanked the Hollywood Foreign Press Association because “it is the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice, to tyrants and victims, and secrets and lies.” The HFPA is a famously opaque group of journalists — no one knows exactly who comprises the group and their choices are generally regarded as odd — but nonetheless, her point was well taken: We need the press now more than ever. “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories we tell. And this year, we became the story.” The “we” pertained to the sexual assault reckoning in the entertainment industry. Almost instantaneously, after her speech went viral, there were calls for Oprah to run for president in 2020, which she graciously turned down.
The threads of that speech are incredibly resonant and ironic today. Because in an unexpected echo to her Golden Globes remarks, Oprah is herself now the story. Since the beginning of the year, she’s been at the center of several controversies, all having to do with her handling of scandals associated with her and her brand. In early January, on the eve of its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, she pulled out of executive producing On the Record, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s documentary on the alleged sexual harassment and misconduct of her one-time Super Soul Sunday guest Russell Simmons. In a December 2019 Instagram post, Simmons wrote that he found Oprah’s involvement in the documentary “troubling” and that he felt “single[d] out.” (In a statement to the Hollywood Reporter, Oprah said that she believes “there is more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured” and that she and the filmmakers “are not aligned in that creative vision.”)
Later that month, controversy surrounding Oprah’s latest book club pick, American Dirt, hit the publishing world. Written by Jeanine Cummins, the novel has been the talk of American publishing due to what many have called the book’s stereotypical portrait of Mexican immigrants, the author’s reshifting of her ethnic background, and a distasteful rollout that included barbed wire centerpieces at a party for the book. The novel’s publisher, Flatiron Books, canceled the American Dirt book tour, amid allegations that Cummins and booksellers had received threats. On Instagram, Oprah said that although she’d loved the book and initially misunderstood the hoopla surrounding it, she had spent days “listening to members of the Latinx community, to get a greater understanding of their concerns” and mentioned a televised forum she was organizing about the controversy, which she intends to stream on Apple TV+ on Friday. The backlash was swift: Cassie da Costa at the Daily Beast asked if Oprah’s empire was in trouble. Over at Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams wondered whether Oprah’s lost her touch. #DignidadLiteraria, a social movement composed of Latinx writers who’d vocally critiqued Cummins and Flatiron Books, wrote an open letter to Oprah and derided the planned televised conversation as an “all-sides” discussion.
And now, Gayle King’s Kobe controversy, while not directly related to anything Oprah did, highlighted a few of those buzzwords Oprah had triumphantly emphasized at the Golden Globes: women’s empowerment (and disempowerment) and the effect of using one’s platform to interrogate power.
To be clear, King would have faced criticism for that interview regardless, especially given the sensitivity and timing of the subject, social media’s inflammatory nature, and some people’s dedication to defending famous men at all costs. But it was her association with Oprah that took the Leslie interview from what, at its harshest, might’ve been perceived as a one-off mistake or a wide-ranging conversation marred by social media bait — as King claimed was the case — to “proof” of an ongoing conspiracy to disrespect and defile the legacies of black men. For once, King’s relationship with Oprah was not perceived as an asset.
Suddenly Oprah’s upper-echelon status, her powerful influence in the American publishing industry, and her former associations with moguls like Simmons and Harvey Weinstein were uniting to make her a subject of frustration, or at least confusion, for some. What’s really being exposed in all of these perceived missteps is the American publishing industry’s blighted practices, the incestuousness of American celebrity, and the black community’s internal conflicts. But even so, now, throwback videos of her interrogating Toni Braxton to tears live on Instagram Explore pages alongside images of her smiling with Harvey Weinstein. How is it that, two years after the zeitgeist basically begged her to run for president, Oprah's reputation has taken a seemingly significant hit?
Oprah has always existed in the interstice of America’s dirty laundry, or rather, as a symbol of how well the country was reckoning with and excising it, so it’s not surprising that one day she’d eventually go from facilitating discussions about national baggage on her famous talk show to being at the center of them.
The early iteration of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which premiered in 1986, was all about dirty laundry, both personal and national. It had to be. At the beginning of her career, in Baltimore, Oprah cohosted the wholesome People Are Talking, a human-interest daytime show, which featured cute, milquetoast stories about quintuplets and the power of brotherly love. She ultimately realized she’d need to leave to have the kind of career she wanted. Her transition to Chicago, first as host of AM Chicago in 1984 and later in her titular talk show, marked a wider audience, a more ambitious role, and, subsequently, a change in the kind of material she’d engage with.
In the tradition of daytime talk shows of the era (Donahue, Sally, Geraldo), The Oprah Winfrey Show was edgy and often showcased important social issues. The first episode was about how to find and/or keep a spouse, against the backdrop of ’80s “having it all” discourse. Future shows explored a range of controversial topics in much the same way as that first one did, albeit with more polish and scope. One of the most famous episodes from that early era featured Oprah taking her show to Forsyth County, Georgia, in 1987, a place where, up until that point, no black people had lived for 75 years. Another, from 1992, was an anti-racism experiment designed by activist and educator Jane Elliott in the midst of widespread dialogue about Rodney King and the LA riots. On her show, Oprah also confessed her own experience of surviving sexual abuse as a child, an admission that furthered the ’80s dialogues about child sexual abuse and culminated in the National Child Protection Act of 1993, aka the “Oprah Bill.”
The show and, to a larger extent, Oprah became conduits for a kind of untapped energy: The chaos and moralizing soapbox of the pre-internet, pre-reality TV American id, where letting it all hang out, so to speak, made for exciting television. At that point, daytime talk shows were proto-reality TV, and coarse speech and confrontation provided dramatic tension (it’s no coincidence that VH1’s reality show The Surreal Life featured an end-of-season talk show called Dirty Laundry, hosted by Sally Jessy Raphael, Oprah’s ’80s contemporary). More refined than tabloid talk shows by Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, and Ricki Lake, which came later, The Oprah Winfrey Show was nonetheless a sophisticated space to talk freely, within certain constraints — summed up by Oprah’s remarks to a groaning audience as a Forsyth County resident spouted his racism, “Please let him speak. He has a right to speak.”
The show and, to a larger extent, Oprah became conduits for a kind of untapped energy: The chaos and moralizing soapbox of the pre-internet, pre-reality TV American id, where letting it all hang out, so to speak, made for exciting television.
As Horace Newcomb writes in his introduction to Television Talk: A History of the TV Talk Show, it was an era when talk shows were viewed as “democratic” and “a welcome change from the prime-time fantasies of perfection and happy endings” that “brought into the spotlight what those at the ‘bottom’ or on the ‘fringes’ of ‘civil society’ have known all along.” Every dark, shocking secret, every racist, sexist utterance, was like a collective purge, helping to unburden the (mostly white) masses of their dysfunction, anxieties, and subconscious desires, through the very thin scrim of entertainment. In addition to being a place to be seen and heard, The Oprah Winfrey Show, like other daytime talk shows, was a site for Americans to see the country’s flawed population at play and to test out their perceptions of social ideas: white nationalism, multiculturalism, feminism, “alternative lifestyles,” to use the lingo of the day. As laid out in Television Talk, Oprah and her contemporaries served as “catalyst, mediator, teacher, preacher, counselor, confessor, or ombudsman in the midst of contesting views and personalities on their shows.” Indeed, some of the highest-rated episodes in the show’s history feature exposure of all kinds from sociological to historical. Take for example, Oprah confronting a tabloid writer who shared her phone number, her forum on Rodney King, and an episode where members of a black family discussed their decision to pass for white. These shows were where the country’s dirty laundry aired, and Oprah became synonymous with the process.
While she was building her fame as a talk show host, Oprah was also making a name for herself as an actor. Despite requiring separate skills, both acting and hosting her talk show were connected by the act of unburdening: Two of Oprah’s early acting roles were controversial for their proximity to the same kind of exposure she facilitated on her show. The Color Purple (1985) and The Women of Brewster Place (1989) were adapted from novels, both published in 1982, by Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor, respectively. Featuring plots about black women persevering in spite of the abusive men in their lives, both books had been criticized by prominent black men like Ishmael Reed for what they perceived to be bias against black men.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Walker and Naylor, along with Michele Wallace, and a host of other black women writers identified as feminist or womanist, were accused of airing black America’s dirty laundry in their books. (Reed, who called the The Color Purple “a Nazi conspiracy,” would go onto publish a book of essays, 1993’s Airing Dirty Laundry, that featured his polemics on the subject.) The adaptations — The Color Purple in theaters and The Women of Brewster Place on the small screen — reignited the controversies their source material incited. Oprah was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1986 for her role as Sophia in The Color Purple and found herself having to defend the film against charges it demonized black men, including the admonitions of a young Spike Lee, who said that the film was “done with hate.” In January 1986, Oprah told the New York Times, “'This movie is not trying to represent the history of black people in this country any more than 'The Godfather' was trying to represent the history of Italian-Americans. In this case, it's one woman's story.”
That year, Oprah’s appearance on Saturday Night Live became controversial for a cold open where showrunner Lorne Michaels asks Oprah to participate in stereotypical, Jim Crow–era buffoonery. The video seems to have been scrubbed from the internet (if it was ever uploaded in the first place) and even documented mentions of it are hard to find. There is this A.V. Club account of the cold open, which is worth quoting in full because of its thorough recounting of the clip:
The [1985-86] season is full of cringe-inducing moments with disturbing racial connotations, but none is more skin-crawling than a cold open of an Oprah Winfrey-hosted episode that begins with Lorne Michaels asking Winfrey why she’s not in her Aunt Jemima costume. (Nothing creepy or disturbing about that!) Winfrey goes on to tell Michaels she won’t be doing any sketches involving maids, Bre’r Rabbit, or Winfrey in drag as William “The Refrigerator” Perry. [Danitra Vance, the only black woman cast member on SNL at the time], her hair styled like Winfrey’s character in The Color Purple, then gives Michaels (whom she addresses as “Mr. Lorne”) his coffee and, when Michaels asks Vance what he should do about Winfrey’s rebelliousness, she replies he should “beat her.” The joke is that it’s Michaels who ends up getting his ass kicked while Winfrey’s dignity is affirmed. But the cold open serves as an ugly reminder, as if any were needed, that the only roles the show’s all-white writing staff could come up with for Vance entailed the kind of ugly stereotypes Winfrey purposefully refuses to play.
Oprah is pitted against Vance’s character, just as Sophia’s fierceness was juxtaposed with Celie’s timidity in The Color Purple. The cold open, meant to be a dark joke on America’s history of racist imagery and a nod to a pivotal scene in the film, instead was a metacommentary on the perpetuation of that discrimination on SNL. (Vance’s limited roles were often stereotypical and her best-known character, Cabrini Green Harlem Watts Jackson, was a 17-year-old mother of two pegged as an expert on teen pregnancy.) Oprah’s participation in the sketch is fascinating, in that it’s sort of the beginning of the way the media casted her as exceptional. The sketch seemed to be saying, in other words, while stereotyping is not good enough for Oprah, it’s good enough for Vance and black women comedic actors like her. And the SNL cold open is also evidence of the ways in which that, at the time, the white gaze (perhaps including or excluding the white eyes in her audience) manipulated Oprah’s image, or helped to associate it with a kind of soothing refusal to engage in nasty stereotypes, while nonetheless still playing along.
In the late ’80s and ’90s, Oprah and her show became national phenomenons, boosted by iconography (the infamous image of a svelte Oprah pulling a wagon of fat, which became the highest-rated episode in the show’s history), access (notably, she scored the first interview with Michael Jackson after his 1993 child sexual abuse trial), and triumph (her 1998 win against Texas cattle owners in the infamous "mad cow" libel case). Slowly but surely, Oprah’s image further coalesced with a brand, one big enough to defeat both one of the nation’s largest industries and its powerful lobby. While her intended audience of suburban women would always make her somewhat mainstream, and she’d continue to break barriers with her ownership of The Oprah Show and its historically high ratings, the sense of disruption or subversion that characterized her early entrance into America’s national culture began to fade away.
By the mid-’90s, she was no longer a kind of insurgent figure, coming out of nowhere to score an Academy Award nomination for her first acting role, or replacing Phil Donahue at the top of the talk show hierarchy almost overnight, or as a first-time host embarrassing SNL for its bad impulses, or fearlessly walking into a town of white supremacists. As she became a fixture in the national consciousness, all of that wily, experimental energy she represented calcified a bit too. This shift was marked in a few ways — one being the change of Oprah’s spatial position on the show. She went from hovering in the audience with a mic to being center stage, on the couch with her guests. The transition was also manifested in the show’s title. Just as the move from AM Chicago to The Oprah Winfrey Show signaled a change in Oprah’s social currency, the shift into the informal name The Oprah Show marked Oprah’s move into mononym status in the larger culture.
This new one-name Oprah is the one you’d easily find immortalized on billboards, and magazine covers, and murals in black neighborhoods — a headshot of hers painted alongside portraits of Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Michael Jordan. In fact ’90s-era Jordan is probably the closest analog of ’90s Oprah: a black star who parlayed their revolutionary impact in a chosen field into a global brand which mitigated that rebelliousness. This is not to say that Oprah (or Jordan) had sold out, or to claim anything as simplistic as that, but it seems worth mentioning the twinned destinies of those two black Midwesterners, representing the crossover (in more ways than one for Jordan), 30 years after Berry Gordy aggressively promoted the concept in Detroit, with Motown. This mainstream codification would continue into the late 1990s. But aside from quotes questionably attributed to him, Jordan hasn’t really faced the kind of public scorn Oprah has for migrating mainstream. Compare their harshest viral avatars, and you’ll see a double standard: He’s got the Crying Jordan meme, while she has the viral conspiracy memes of her hugging and kissing Harvey Weinstein.
As The Oprah Show became America’s highest-rated daytime talk show in 1987, and Oprah gained even more ownership of the show’s distribution in the late ’90s, the program’s subject matter widened from shocking social confrontations to spirituality. The impulse to unpack macro, societal problems gave way to a more interpersonal focus, characterized by highly individual marketing phrases like “live your best life.” The move was ostensibly a loaded one — away from airing dirty laundry and toward spiritual cleansing. Indeed, as she introduced mainstream audiences to figures like Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and concepts like that of The Secret, in the ’90s and early aughts, it seems like all of the sociopolitical tensions of the Oprah Show’s early years gave way to a focus on the internal transcendence and reconciliation of her audience. (Oprah’s pattern of introducing America to gurus and future talk show hosts was a precursor to her shows Super Soul Sunday and Oprah’s Master Class, which both premiered in 2011.)
Although she continued to act and produce, most notably in 1998’s Beloved, Oprah’s primary public role was of celebrity whisperer and shrewd business executive. In 1996, she launched Oprah’s Book Club representing an even deeper enmeshment of her show, and brand, with commerce. The first title was kidnapped-kid epic The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard, whose plot echoed the kind of topic frequently featured on The Oprah Show. Another early pick, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, appeared to bridge her earlier advocacy of works by black women authors with this new era of her career as a curator.
After the book club’s launch, the image of Oprah as rescuer coalesced, both as spiritual guru and savior of the American publishing industry. While the book club has featured work by many black authors (several titles by Morrison, Ayana Mathis, Colson Whitehead, Tayari Jones, and Ta-Nehisi Coates), the most prominent moments of its run up until the American Dirt controversy involved the selection of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. The bookends of Oprah’s public advocacy for works like The Color Purple and American Dirt represent a shift in her role in the exchange of commerce, from ardent fan to gatekeeper and mogul, but also the ongoing debate about who gets to write what, a conversation that’s also evolved since the 1980s. The American publishing industry’s obliviousness, legacy of discrimination, and limited inclusion of Latinx writers, was, if not a secret, surely underdiscussed in mainstream circles until the recent discourse around American Dirt. And, if Oprah hadn’t selected the novel for her book club, we might not all be having this conversation. Here again, as before, Oprah’s played a role in prompting long-neglected discussions, even if this latest dialogue involves questioning her judgment.
It seems like Oprah has been navigating a question many black women find themselves asking, a question epitomized by Morrison in Song of Solomon: “Can’t I love what I criticize?”
In March 2019, after the American broadcast of Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland, Oprah hosted an interview special with the documentary’s subjects Wade Robson and James Safechuck. The film detailed Safechuck and Robson’s allegations that Michael Jackson sexually abused them for years in the ’80s and ’90s, and sparked a reassessment of Jackson’s legacy. After the special aired, Oprah said she’d received more “hateration” for the interview than anything she’d done in her career since her appearance on Ellen’s coming out episode in 1997. Some of that criticism came from black celebrities, who lambasted her for betraying the access and trust Jackson had given her in 1993, by featuring his alleged victims. Later that year, on the heels of this interview, 50 Cent accused her of only going after black men in the #MeToo era. During the special, Oprah herself seemed to predict the criticism she’d face, telling Robson and Safechuck, “Y’all are going to get it. I’m going to get it. We’re all going to get it.”
Perhaps Oprah’s accurate anticipation of the backlash is informed by a remembrance of those ’80s battles, and of the way black women throughout history have been punished for being outspoken. Notable black women have always negotiated the tension of how to engage black men in public, from Pauline Hopkins being forced out of the Coloured American Magazine in 1904 after Booker T. Washington disagreed with her defiant editorial strategies; to Zora Neale Hurston’s "heated, vitriolic exchange" with Richard Wright (and Ralph Ellison and Alain Locke) over her choice to explore sexuality and use black vernacular in her fiction; to C. Delores Tucker, whose campaign — often considered a crusade — against violent, misogynistic rap lyrics, and her dispute with Death Row Records, was a feature of 1990s rap discourse; to Dee Barnes, who Dr. Dre viciously physically assaulted in 1991 for merely featuring Ice Cube, who Dre was beefing with, on her TV show. Oprah admitted that Russell Simmons and his supporters had pressured her to remove herself from the On the Record documentary, but that, in the end, it was her own conscience that prompted her to leave the project. It seems like Oprah has been navigating a question many black women find themselves asking, a question epitomized by Morrison in Song of Solomon: “Can’t I love what I criticize?”
Oprah’s always been an interlocutor of America’s dirty laundry, and it seems, given her still-high profile, that the Queen of Talk’s major influence will continue to prompt necessary discourse. Only now both Oprah’s initial disruptiveness and current entrenchment as a member of the establishment are coming together in an unwieldy fashion. It’s no surprise that some of the same criticism that Oprah’s now facing from black men (Snoop Dogg, Bill Cosby, internet hordes) and some black women (Mo’Nique and Ari Lennox, who later apologized) about her supposed mistreatment of black men is a retread of the sort of backlash she faced for participating in and advocating on behalf of The Color Purple and The Women of Brewster Place. Some things don’t change.
Yet that misguided criticism also coincides with a legitimate critique of the kind of books she’s now supporting. The fact that the conversation Oprah taped on February 13 will air on Apple TV+ is an interesting echo of the televised conversations about The Color Purple that aired on Donahue, the Oprah Show’s old competitor, when daytime talk shows still hosted important cultural conversations. And in yet another reverberation of her legacy, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Facebook talk show Red Table Talk (which is executive-produced by an alum of the Oprah Show) featured a conversation with Snoop Dogg about “the culture of disrespect between black men and black women.”
Although Oprah has since abdicated her talk show perch, and her famous beige sofa, she's become synonymous with both the therapeutic and confessional connotations of the couch. She’s built a life on her ability to ask questions well, and so has Gayle King. It's been disheartening to see the ways in which they've been torn apart for doing just that. But if Oprah's career has taught us anything, it's that you don't get the important stuff (recognition, fame, fortune, criticism, both justified and not) without asking the kinds of provocative questions that developed that career in the first place. ●
Niela Orr is a writer from Philadelphia. A former BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellow, she is a columnist for the Baffler and an interviews editor for the Believer. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Elle, and McSweeney’s Quarterly.