What is Oprah? A noun, a name, or a misspelling? According to Kathryn Lofton, an associate professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at Yale University, Oprah is more than just an individual.
Oprah, Lofton contends, is viewed in the book not solely as a person but as a corporation. When seen from a broader perspective, Oprah is a brand. She is Harpo Productions, Inc. She is an employer of nearly a thousand people. She is a milieu of trademarks. Perhaps most importantly, she embodies a national and international community, and acts, according to Lofton’s work, as a messiah of sorts.
Lofton’s 2011 book “Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon,” looks into the effect of the Oprah phenomenon on religion in modern America. Lofton came to speak at Stanford this fall as part of the Ethics Center’s Ethics of Wealth series. Her talk was called "Spiritual Capitalism: The Prosperity Gospel of Oprah Winfrey."
A psychological awakening was responsible for a corporate makeover that transformed Winfrey’s popular television show into a tool for good, according to Lofton. In 1996, Winfrey was sued by a group of cattlemen in Texas for defamation of the beef industry due to her stating that she would never eat another burger. Soon after, in despair of the tireless blaming and complaining of people and relationships featured on her talk show up to that point, Winfrey said she had “been guilty of doing trash TV and not thinking it was trash.” As a result of this realization, instead of remaining a customary talk show, the Oprah Show was re-branded as “Change Your Life TV.”
From the re-branding came television aimed at transforming the lives of individuals, be it through encouraging celebrity or everyday folk testimonials or through interviews with spiritual leaders or self-help authors. The new focus of the O brand became inspiring personal revolutions and realizations.
“’Gospel’ is a word that means ‘good news,’” Lofton said. “Oprah says that the good news is you,” Lofton said. “It is your discovery of yourself as the source for change — in yourself and in the world.”
It was also with this re-branding that Oprah adopted an approach considered by many to be excessively evangelical. Oprah, for example, preached that we are all “Spirit come from the greatest Spirit.” Lofton argued that Oprah represents the apex of modern religious life.“ Her show includes evangelical ritual formats and Buddhist meditation practices, African American preaching styles and Mormon organizational strategies,” Lofton said.
Lofton first became interested in Oprah and her rhetoric as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. She was captivated by Oprah’s daily show, which repeated late at night on local television, because, as she said, “it was an intellectual playground, hitting on everything I was reading while also querying, contesting, and troubling those readings.” Lofton began to connect Oprah “with almost any aspect of U.S. religious history, from Puritans to California yogis.” When she began to teach courses, Lofton found the show to be a great way to test theories of myth, ideology, and ritual for students new to religious studies abstractions.
Lofton compares Oprah to several other figures from U.S. religious history, implying that the Oprah phenomenon is a cyclical one, one that has the tendency to repeat itself. The figures who embody a similar niche as Oprah are, according to Lofton, “able to represent their particularity as a universality” and can “circulate effectively through the most dominant media of their particular historical moment.”
Lofton analyzes the myriad ways in which the Oprah empire resembles a modern day religion. “Religion is a word that captures how social groups imagine themselves relative to superhuman powers,” Lofton wrote in a special to CNN in May 2011. “The Oprah show broadcasted to 145 countries, telling people not only what lipstick to use and what book to read, but also what better world to conceive.”
Lofton focuses on the size of Oprah’s following to understand and define the religious yet highly commercial nature of the Oprah phenomenon. Oprah, Lofton explains, offers comfort to her viewers in a particular manner. “Oprah defines her suffering as just like yours,” said Lofton. “Yet she also reminds her viewers that the solutions she supplies are hers. They may not be for you. Her repeated incantation is that you must find your truth.”
By naming herself as the audience, Oprah enters a cycle of sorts: She is able to pose concerns to her real audience and offer more of herself and her branding as the solution to such concerns.
Lofton concludes that, “in America we find Oprah; in Oprah we find America.” According to Lofton, Oprah is intercultural in the sense that her own interests reflect a variety of tastes, but at the same time, the Oprah phenomenon and the final product are all-American and potentially apply to all Americans. “The brand supersedes [Oprah’s] biography, progressing from ‘everything I stand for’ to recommending an Oprah that can stand in for something, filling a space where before there was something missing,” Lofton writes. In a time of excess – there is “so much of absolutely everything” – Oprah offers “a spiritual gathering, a collection at the table of iconography.”