Oprah has recently received much press regarding her new cable network OWN. The network debuted on January 1st with many new shows for Oprah’s established audience. Already Oprah has become a household name through her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show. Still, critics find fault with many of Oprah’s ways. Newsweek recently ran a story on Oprah’s new endeavor questioning whether it is “too white” (Samuels, 2010). Although Oprah targets a 25-54 year old women audience as expressed by The New York Times, she has received much backlash regarding her emphasis on white rather than black women (Anburajan, 2007). Much of this critique stems from the fact that many of Oprah’s experts are white and unrepresentative of all women. Furthermore many feel that Oprah’s programming is not only geared towards white over black women but it also neglects other backgrounds, ages and races. This perspective also explains that black portrayal in the media, especially portrayal of black women, is already not optimal and one would think that Oprah should remedy this situation. Still, it is important to recognize that Oprah runs a business in which profit is her primary goal. Clearly she has established herself as a popular host for women, yet the network’s main goal is still to make a profit. The criticisms for a more diverse network are important for Oprah to consider yet in the end it is important for criticizers to recognize what Oprah is already achieving for American women of all race and class. Oprah herself represents women, especially black women, favorably and helps to demonstrate the power that women can possess. Thus, it is important to remember her achievements when considering her downfalls.
Data from NBC in 2007 found that Oprah’s audience is primarily women, 5.7 million women to 1.7 million men. Furthermore, is predominately white as 5.6 million whites watch her show versus 1.4 million blacks (Anburajan, 2007). This evidence demonstrates the vast difference in the race of Oprah’s audience; this finding was also expressed in Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism. Still, it is important to understand what exactly Oprah has done for women in general. As a strong, independent talk show host Oprah has managed to represent women favorably. Not only is Oprah a beloved character, but also her audience trusts her. In this manner, despite her downfalls regarding demographic inequalities, she does act as a positive role model to her women audience. As an accomplished woman, she demonstrates the power that women can hold. Thus, personally she exemplifies a strong woman, while her female experts such as Suze Orman also demonstrate great knowledge and intelligence. The benefits of having positive women role models on television need to be taken into account when critiquing Oprah.
Furthermore, when compared to other media representations of women, particularly black women, Oprah is clearly a more positive depiction. Thus, Oprah may be seen as the lesser of two evils. When faced with watching Oprah or a degrading music video displaying the objectification of women, it is clear that even though Oprah is imperfect she does portray women more favorably. As Mora Johns, a high-school teacher from Chicago expressed “It’s so upsetting to see what’s on TV today and to see the way most shows still depict blacks, and particularly black women, in a negative light. So I do look to OWN for more of a balance to show who we really are. I hope that’s coming,” (Samuels, 2010). Thus, rather than bash Oprah for her shortcomings, it is important to embrace the accomplishments that she has made for women. Douglas explains the manner in which Oprah has managed to bring together women “as allies and friends” (Douglas, p. 147). As a force, Oprah has united women despite their race and background, undoubtedly an uneasy feat. Thus, although many people still find issues with Oprah it is necessary to be proud of the achievements that she has made and understand that there are many worse networks and shows than OWN. Not only has she proved herself as a powerful icon but she also displays a more positive depiction of women than most other media representations.
Finally, the current issue regarding demographic inequalities in Oprah’s audience and new network are likely found in other networks as well. Shows and networks are working to make a profit. Thus although many would like to think of Oprah as their friend or companion she is also a businesswoman who is gearing her show towards profit. Oprah knows who her audience is and thus must shape her shows and topics around that demographic. Thus, a probable reason that specific races and backgrounds are focused on by Oprah is so that she appeals to her viewers. Therefore, it is likely financially beneficial for Oprah to gear her network towards this audience despite critiques for its “whiteness”.
Apart from this current news article, it is also important to address the critics that dislike the fact that Oprah focuses on individual achievement rather than politics. As Douglas explains, “advancing personal empowerment is hardly the same as advancing a feminist political agenda” (Douglas, p. 150). Still, Oprah is working on awareness from within her women audience and through doing so she increases consciousness about sensitive issues. This is better than no action, Douglas also explains that “researchers have found that watching shows like Oprah, which often focus on family and child welfare issues, increases people’s support for government programs like national day care, greater funding for education, and universal health care,” (Douglas, p. 149). Although there are ways in which Oprah could improve the diversity of her network as the article by Newsweek suggests, it is also necessary to question whether Oprah is expected to do it all. Already Oprah has become a female media icon, with a new network and worldwide fame. She has portrayed women in a more positive light than many other media outlets and has managed to educate women on current issues, possibly indirectly impacting approval for government programs. Thus, despite not directly working for working for political change, as many feminists would have hoped, Oprah still influences women and is an important contributor to public awareness.
By criticizing Oprah for her shortcomings we are criticizing a woman who has already enhanced the portrayal of black and white women in the media. Although she likely could improve her diversity, along with many other shows and networks, she should simultaneously be applauded for her achievements as a women. Together, American women should appreciate victories made by other women. These victories clearly do not mean that the fight for gender equality and fair media representation are complete. In no way does having Oprah as a famous talk show host lead us to believe that all races and classes of women are portrayed in a positive light. However, it is important to accept accomplishments as they come, no matter how minute. Although Oprah still can and should improve the OWN network, the network itself is a great symbol of women power.
Anburajan, Aswini. "Breaking Down Oprah's Numbers ." First Read. NBC News, 2011. Web. 1 Feb. 2011. <http://firstread.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2007/12/07/4425062-breaking-down-oprahs-numbers>.
Douglas, Susan J. Enlightened Sexism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010.
Samuels, Alison. "Is Oprah's Network Too White?" Newsweek 30 Jan. 2011: Newsweek. Web. 1 Feb. 2011. <http://www.newsweek.com/2011/01/30/is-oprah-s-network-too-white.html>.