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 Horatio Alger in Drag:
 Oprah Winfrey and the New Utopian Impulse in
 Female-Centered Culture

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, 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, 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 a day."

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 and culture."

Maya Angelou's work is nothing if not inspirational. For example, in an interview with Beth Ann Krier, she offers some advice to artists:

Now, not everything you do is going to be a masterpiece.
But it's only in certain societies where everything you do
has to be perfect. But you get out there and you really try
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, live.

March 2001

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