On Monday, July 31st, in the year 2000, Bee Salazar won fifty
thousand dollars on Oprah Winfrey's Angel Network. Years ago,
Winfrey promised her viewers not to go the sensationalist
route of talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show and
The Jenny Jones Show; instead, she provides her viewers
with what she calls "change your life television."
To reward people who have changed their lives and who serve
as excellent role models for us to change our lives, Winfrey,
with the assistance of viewer contributions and matching corporate
contributions from people like Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, gave
these angels fifty thousand dollars every Monday on The
Oprah Winfrey Show (recently, she has increased the amount
to one hundred thousand dollars a week).
Salazar, we are told, had no talent other than making peanut
butter and jelly sandwiches. With this lone skill, she started
Bee's Kids and currently provides after school care for over
two hundred children. When Winfrey presented the check, she
told Salazar that she had taken her own life to a higher level,
a level to which we all should take our lives. Impressed by
Salazar's devotion and informed that Salazar needed a van
to take the kids to their doctor's appointments and to the
library, Chevy donated a Chevy Venture mini-van to Bee's Kids.
This nurturance of the female spirit, this positive energy
directed toward women's real lives has been showing up everywhere
in feminine culture. The pessimistic tone of Susan Faludi's
Backlash and Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth, the
suicidal endings of Kate Chopin's The Awakening and
Callie Khouri's Thelma and Louise have been eclipsed
by a new optimism, a new utopian impulse. We have seen it
on the pages of our finer American women writers, writers
like Toni Morrison, Ana Castillo, and Amy Tan, we have seen
it on the pages of our popular culture pulp fiction novelists
like Olivia Goldsmith. It is, as we have said, everywhere
in American culture, especially that which is female-produced.
We see it in our self help books, in our science fiction,
in our hit films, in our Pulitzer Prize winning plays, even
in our talk shows.
Salazar, through Bee's Kids, and Winfrey, through her television
show, her website www.oprah.com,
and her magazine, The Oprah Magazine, are working to
solve the problems they see in the world around them, find
personal enlightenment, help others find enlightenment, empower
women, and build a loving community. Later on the July 31st
show, for example, Winfrey began a series called "Lifestyle
Makeovers," the kind of topic that causes critics like
Eva Illouz to refer to talk shows as the "therapeutic
genre." Not the traditional external beauty makeovers,
these makeovers were intended to transform, or make over,
the mind and spirit. In other words, they were makeovers from
the inside out. Overwhelmed by family, society, and work obligations,
Maria, the guest, said she, "like so many other women,"
had "lost" herself in a "crisis of the spirit."
Cheryl Richardson, the expert and author of Take Time for
Your Life, advised Maria to practice "extreme self
care," to make an "absolute yes list," and
thereby to undergo a "revolution of the spirit"
which would then allow her to be a better wife, mother, employee,
and person. When faced with guilt over the seeming selfishness
of "extreme self care," Maria, and the audience,
were urged to consider the oxygen mask analogy: if you put
the oxygen mask on others in the plane before you put it on
yourself, then you will pass out from lack of oxygen; however,
if you put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then you will
be able to help others all the more. Richardson offered other
advice to Maria like "reconnect with yourself by doing
something you love," work on a "shift in consciousness,"
"practice being still," and "ask for help once
On her August 1st, 2000, episode, Winfrey presented "Female
Firsts" in which she treated viewers to interviews with
people like Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston
Marathon. Most of us have seen the picture of the marathon
coordinator trying to tackle Switzer and tear off her number--which,
incidentally, was 261. Switzer informed the Winfrey audience
that she turned to her coach at that moment and said, "I
will cross the finish line even if I have to do it on my hands
and knees." Switzer did cross that finish line, albeit
disqualified by the marathon coordinator, and now she works
with Avon to create opportunities for women in sports. They
call their joint venture Avon International Running, and together
they sponsor races all over the world. Concurrently, Switzer
has written a book Running and Walking for Women over Forty.
Winfrey also interviewed Tori McClure who was the first woman
to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean (it took her eighty-five
days). McClure offered such inspiring aphorisms as "we
all face oceans; we all face storms; we all have marathons";
we must "close the distance between possibility and fact."
Even more inspiring was the story that McClure had failed
in her attempt a year earlier, but she persevered, trained,
and worked to come back and re-attempt the voyage, this time
to great success.
Segueing the audience into and out of the commercials were
videotaped segments listing female firsts: the first bestseller,
Uncle Tom's Cabin, was written by a woman, Harriett
Beecher Stowe; Toni Morrison was the first African American
woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature (1993); the top
three best selling novels of all time were written by women--Gone
with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee, and, of course, Valley of the Dolls;
Althea Gibson was the first African American to win Wimbledon
(1957)--she won again in 1958; Geraldine Ferraro was the first
female vice presidential candidate (1984); Madeline Albright
was the first female Secretary of State (1986); Sandra Day
O'Conner was the first female Supreme Court judge . . . and
so forth. Winfrey closed the show by interviewing the first
woman to command a space shuttle, Eileen Collins, and by telling
her audience that this show "speaks to the possibilities
of what women can do."
What we see consistently on Winfrey's show is the effort
to improve--to improve self, to improve other, to improve
family, to improve job, to improve community. Winfrey works
to elevate the human spirit and, hopefully, then, elevate
the world in which we humans live. By rewarding female accomplishments,
like Bee Salazar's, by offering lifestyle makeovers, by showing
the world what women have accomplished, she inspires, energizes,
even electrifies her audiences.
Perhaps most striking about watching her program is her ability
to build community. By the incessant use of the pronoun "we,"
by addressing the audience, by offering the opinions of the
audience, by including ordinary citizens (not just experts
or celebrities) as guests, by examining the utmost concerns
of her viewers, by offering a website and a magazine, she
creates a type of family, one in which all the members feel
part of something, loved and secure. Importantly, the members
of Winfrey's family also feel they have a voice; she privileges,
not so much the expert, as the personal story, the personal
experience. As Jane M. Shattuc explains in "The Oprahification
of America: Talk Shows and the Public Sphere," the "Oprahification"
of America is the "belief in the authenticity of lived
experience as a social truth." Her own personal confessions-most
notably, her molestation as a child and her cocaine use-are
intrinsically a part of the show, for instance.
Certainly, Winfrey's self-help mission is part of the reason
why she is so impressed with Maya Angelou and thus has her
so frequently as a guest on the show. Angelou's life writing
virtually reads as self-help manuals. Wouldn't Take Nothing
for My Journey Now (1993), dedicated "with immeasurable
love" to Winfrey, resonates with the idea of tending
"spirit" so dominant on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Every broadcast, in fact, has a late segment dedicated to
the discussion of spirit announced with a graphic that in
graceful, white script curves the word "spirit"
across the television screen.
Angelou's book has a chapter called "In the Spirit"
that defines spirit as "an invisible force made visible
in all life." She confesses her own crises of the spirit,
especially upon meeting the batterer or the bigot, but resolves,
"Then the Spirit lifts me up again, and once more I am
secure in faith. I don't know how that happens, save when
I cry out earnestly I am answered immediately and am returned
to faithfulness. I am once again filled with Spirit and firmly
planted on solid ground." In the chapter "A Day
Away," Angelou confesses that she often slips away for
a twenty-four hour period "to unwrap the bonds which
hold [her] in harness." When she returns to her life,
she finds questions answered and entanglements unraveled.
She ends, "A day away acts as a spring tonic. It can
dispel rancor, transform indecision, and renew the spirit."
This day away acts as a metaphor for escaping the hegemonic
value system. By showing us how to leave the hegemony behind
and renew our spirit, Angelou struggles and copes, and shows
us how to struggle and cope, in the war to liberate ourselves
"from the crippling effects of the dominant ideology
Maya Angelou's work is nothing if not inspirational. For example,
in an interview with Beth Ann Krier, she offers some advice
Now, not everything you do is going to be a masterpiece.
But it's only in certain societies where everything you
has to be perfect. But you get out there and you really
and sometimes you really do, you write that masterpiece,
you sing that classic. The other times you're just
stretching your soul, you're stretching your instrument,
your mind. That's good.
Stretching the soul, the instrument, the mind is about stretching
the spirit. Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou are teachers, and
what they are teaching is a course in healing, growth, achieving
potential, and this mission is the same mission we see in
the novels of Morrison, Castillo, Tan, and Goldsmith. It is
also the same mission we have seen explode on the self-help
bookshelves of Barnes and Nobles. Books like Simple Abundance:
A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach and
One Day My Soul Just Opened Up by Iyanla Vanzant, both
bestsellers and both authors invited to appear on The Oprah
Winfrey Show, teach solutions for change. The self-made
man, the archetypal myth of entrepreneurial success quintessential
in the myth of the American dream, the Horatio Alger story,
self-styled success--this deeply rooted American ethos, however
it is phrased, has now been appropriated by American women.
No longer satisfied to be, women want to do, and, in doing,
change themselves and the world in which they, and their children,