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Thursday, June 16, 2011

The end of a staple in American pop culture culminated last week with the Oprah Winfrey show calling it a day. After 25 years, pop culture icon, Oprah Winfrey, decided to end her daily talk show and concentrate on her cable channel, the OWN (Oprah Winfrey) network. It wasn’t just the end of a talk show. It was the end of an era. People want to talk about Oprah just being a talk show hostess. In fact, they called her the “Queen of Daytime Television.” But was it as sample as that?

What made the Oprah phenomenon an “effect” on society in and of itself? The Oprah Effect made people instant stars, bestsellers, box office hits and her last miracle, a President of the United States. Oprah Winfrey’s “favorite things” made product fly off the shelf. Her generosity changed lives. Her candor challenged our sensibilities beyond what we were often prepared to venture. Oprah Winfrey wasn’t just entertainment. Why was America so emotional last week about saying good-bye to a talk show hostess? And why are experts now saying our mania about Oprah will turn to depression (a deep “O”-pression around 3 pm)? Is it that serious? Obviously, it is. The O effect has a grab on us all. Even men (more on this in a minute).

No other television personality, with the possible exception of Walter Cronkite, who was called “the most trusted man in America” during his 19 years as the news anchor of the CBS 6 O’clock News, had (has) the American trust like Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey is to our generation what Walter Cronkite was to our grandparents’ and parents’ generations. Cronkite made the dinner news the prized reporting job in America. When Cronkite teared up on the air in announcing President Kennedy’s death, the national mourning period began. When Oprah teared up over the years, no matter whether the tragedy was public or personal, America cried with her. Oprah reinvented daytime television. So much so, daytime soap operas didn’t stand a chance. She outlasted them and her talk show competition. Popular Culture scholars as well as sociologist, psychologists and historians are analyzing this in serious context. While Oprah’s following is largely women, even men are part of this mania that makes all stop and pay attention. Many a man has gotten into an argument (or intense discussion) with his woman, or women-PERIOD, over what “Oprah Winfrey said.” So many of us had to start watching Oprah for ourselves. Largely to defend ourselves. What made this woman such a powerful social (and political) force?

Popular culture in our society reflects social norms that are adapted by most in our society. From language to music to behavior, pop culture sets the tone for Madison Ave. and Wall St. In America, we are free “to be.” Oprah Winfrey was us. From the start, she made it popular to just be yourself. Or just “to be.” Oprah challenged our views about marriage and relationships. Oprah challenged our views about sexuality. And starting with her own relationships (Stedman and Gail), Oprah left you wonder whatever you chose to wonder. Her relationships were what they were, and what others thought was left “to be.”

The pop culture buzz for “just being oneself” is being “authentic.” Oprah presented authenticity on her show everyday, giving authentic people the opportunity to be themselves, and challenging anything that appeared to be inauthentic. Oprah embraced the sick, the poor, the abused, the abased, the aggrieved and rationalized with the arrogant, the decadent, the disturbed and the disgraced. Whether it was majesty or misery, Oprah found the silver lining that made us all feel better by the end of the show. Even her dissatisfaction with herself became a study in self-acceptance. Oprah even challenged Rap, and kept it real as real could get. In fact, Oprah was “keepin’ it real” before it became a pop culture term. She defined it.

People make jokes about Oprah’s money, but rarely is one of her wealth so commonly accepted - another phenomenon hard to explain. She is of the people, but not of the people. She built schools, sent over 64,000 students to college and found creative ways to share her wealth. A constant demonstration that she was of the people, and when the people were looking for a leader of the nation, so was she. Oprah Winfrey had never peddled her influence for political gain in the past, but she did not resist weighing in on the future of the country at a critical juncture, at the risk of alienating her audience. Some thought they would “boycott” Oprah. Guess what - like Teflon, Oprah walked away without a scratch. It was then that we understood the power of O. While she’s not going far, America is going to miss answering that daily question everyday. What question is that?

“What was Oprah talkin’ about today?” Columnist, Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad, is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of Saving The Race: Empowerment Through Wisdom. His Website is Click here to contact Dr. Samad.

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