Oprah Winfrey: one of the world’s best neoliberal capitalist thinkers

Oprah is appealing because her stories hide the role of political, economic and social structures in our lives. They make the American dream seem attainable

In Oprah Winfrey lore, one particular story is repeated over and over. When Oprah was 17, she won the Miss Fire Prevention Contest in Nashville, Tennessee. Until that year every winner had had a mane of red hair, but Oprah would prove to be a game changer.

The contest was the first of many successes for Oprah. She has won numerous Emmys, has been nominated for an Oscar, and appears on lists like Times 100 Most Influential People. In 2013, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She founded the Oprah Book Club, which is often credited with reviving Americans interest in reading. Her generosity and philanthropic spirit are legendary.

Oprah has legions of obsessive, devoted fans who write her letters and follow her into public restrooms. Oprah basks in their love: I know people really, really, really love me, love me. And she loves them right back. Its part of her higher calling. She believes that she was put on this earth to lift people up, to help them live their best life. She encourages people to love themselves, believe in themselves, and follow their dreams.

Oprah is one of a new group of elite storytellers who present practical solutions to societys problems that can be found within the logic of existing profit-driven structures of production and consumption. They promote market-based solutions to the problems of corporate power, technology, gender divides, environmental degradation, alienation and inequality.

Oprahs popularity stems in part from her message of empathy, support, and love in an increasingly stressful, alienating society. Three decades of companies restructuring their operations by eliminating jobs (through attrition, technology, and outsourcing) and dismantling both organized labor and the welfare state have left workers in an extremely precarious situation.

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Oprah in the early days of the show. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex

Today, new working-class jobs are primarily low-wage service jobs, and the perks that once went along with middle-of-the-road white-collar jobs have disappeared. Flexible, project-oriented, contingent work has become the norm, enabling companies to ratchet up their requirements for all workers except those at the very top. Meanwhile, the costs of education, housing, childcare, and health care have skyrocketed, making it yet more difficult for individuals and households to get by, never mind prosper.

In this climate of stress and uncertainty, Oprah tells us the stories of her life to help us understand our feelings, cope with difficulty and improve our lives. She presents her personal journey and metamorphosis from poor little girl in rural Mississippi to billionaire prophet as a model for overcoming adversity and finding a sweet life.

Oprahs biographical tale has been managed, mulled over, and mauled in the public gaze for 30 years. She used her precocious intelligence and wit to channel the pain of abuse and poverty into building an empire. She was on television by the age of 19 and had her own show within a decade.

The 1970s feminist movement opened the door to the domestic, private sphere, and the show walked in a decade later, breaking new ground as a public space to discuss personal troubles affecting Americans, particularly women. Oprah broached topics (divorce, depression, alcoholism, child abuse, adultery, incest) that had never before been discussed with such candor and empathy on television.

The shows evolution over the decades mirrored the evolution of Oprahs own life. In its early years the show followed a recovery model in which guests and viewers were encouraged to overcome their problems through self-esteem building and learning to love themselves.

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US President Barack Obama presents broadcast journalist Oprah Winfrey with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

But as copycat shows and criticisms of trash talk increased in the early 1990s, Oprah changed the shows format. In 1994, Oprah declared that she was done with victimization and negativity: It s time to move on from We are dysfunctional to What are we going to do about it? Oprah credited her decision to her own personal evolution: People must grow and change or they will shrivel up and their souls will shrink.

In an appearance on Larry King Live, Oprah acknowledged that she had become concerned about the message of her show and so had decided to embark on a new mission to lift people up. Themes of spirituality and empowerment displaced themes of personal pathology. For Oprah, the transformation was total: Today I try to do well and be well with everyone I reach or encounter. I make sure to use my life for that which can be of goodwill. Yes, this has brought me great wealth. More important, it has fortified me spiritually and emotionally.

A stream of self-help gurus have spent time on Oprahs stage over the past decade and a half, all with the same message. You have choices in life. External conditions dont determine your life. You do. It s all inside you, in your head, in your wishes and desires. Thoughts are destiny, so thinking positive thoughts will enable positive things to happen.

When bad things happen to us, its because were drawing them toward us with unhealthy thinking and behaviors. Dont complain about what you dont have. Use what youve got. To do less than your best is a sin. Every single one of us has the power for greatness because greatness is determined by serviceto yourself and others. If we listen to that quiet whisper and fine-tune our internal, moral, emotional GPS, we too can learn the secret of success.

Janice Peck, in her work as professor of journalism and communication studies, has studied Oprah for years. She argues that to understand the Oprah phenomenon we must return to the ideas swirling around in the Gilded Age. Peck sees strong parallels in the mind-cure movement of the Gilded Age and Oprahs evolving enterprise in the New Gilded Age, the era of neoliberalism. She argues that Oprahs enterprise reinforces the neoliberal focus on the self: Oprahs enterprise [is] an ensemble of ideological practices that help legitimize a world of growing inequality and shrinking possibilities by promoting and embodying a configuration of self compatible with that world.

Nothing captures this ensemble of ideological practices better than O Magazine, whose aim is to help women see every experience and challenge as an opportunity to grow and discover their best self. To convince women that the real goal is becoming more of who they really are. To embrace their life. O Magazine implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, identifies a range of problems in neoliberal capitalism and suggests ways for readers to adapt themselves to mitigate or overcome these problems.

Does your 60 hour-a-week desk job make your back hurt and leave you emotionally exhausted and stressed? Of course it does. Studies show that death by office job is real: people who sit at a desk all day are more likely to be obese, depressed, or just dead for no discernible reason. But you can dull these effects and improve your wellness with these O-approved strategies: Become more of an out-of-the-box thinker because creative people are healthier. Bring photos, posters, and kitschy figurines to decorate your workspace: Youll feel less emotionally exhausted and reduce burnout. Write down three positive things that happened during your workday every night before leaving the office to reduce stress and physical pain from work.

In December 2013, O devoted a whole issue to anxiety and worry. The issue conquers a lifetime s worth of anxieties and apprehensions, an apt subject given rising levels of anxiety across the age spectrum.

In the issue, bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin present a list of books for the anxious, prescribing them instead of a trip to the pharmacy. Feeling claustrophobic because youre too poor to move out of your parents house? Read Little House on the Prairie. Feeling stressed because your current project at work is ending and you dont have another lined up? Read The Man Who Planted Trees. Worried that you wont be able to pay the rent because you just lost your job? Read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Instead of feeling depressed, follow the lead hero Toru Okada, who, while jobless, embarks on a fantastic liberating journey that changes the way he thinks.

Oprah recognizes the pervasiveness of anxiety and alienation in our society. But instead of examining the economic or political basis of these feelings, she advises us to turn our gaze inward and reconfigure ourselves to become more adaptable to the vagaries and stresses of the neoliberal moment.

Oprah is appealing precisely because her stories hide the role of political, economic, and social structures. In doing so, they make the American Dream seem attainable. If we just fix ourselves, we can achieve our goals. For some people, the American dream is attainable, but to understand the chances for everyone, we need to look dispassionately at the factors that shape success.

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Oprah Winfrey gestures during the taping of Oprahs Surprise Spectacular in Chicago May 17, 2011. Photograph: John Gress/Reuters

The current incarnation of the American Dream narrative holds that if you acquire enough cultural capital (skills and education) and social capital (connections, access to networks), you will be able to translate that capital into both economic capital (cash) and happiness. Cultural capital and social capital are seen as there for the taking (particularly with advances in internet technology), so the only additional necessary ingredients are pluck, passion, and persistence all attributes that allegedly come from inside us.

The American dream is premised on the assumption that if you work hard, economic opportunity will present itself, and financial stability will follow, but the role of cultural and social capital in paving the road to wealth and fulfilment, or blocking it, may be just as important as economic capital. Some people are able to translate their skills, knowledge, and connections into economic opportunity and financial stability, and some are noteither because their skills, knowledge, and connections dont seem to work as well, or they cant acquire them in the first place because theyre too poor.

Today, the centrality of social and cultural capital is obscured (sometimes deliberately), as demonstrated in the implicit and explicit message of Oprah and her ideological colleagues. In their stories, and many others like them, cultural and social capital are easy to acquire. They tell us to get an education. Too poor? Take an online course. Go to Khan Academy. They tell us to meet people, build up our network. Dont have any connected family members? Join LinkedIn.

Its simple. Anyone can become anything. Theres no distinction between the quality and productivity of different peoples social and cultural capital. Were all building our skills. Were all networking.

This is a fiction. If all or most forms of social and cultural capital were equally valuable and accessible, we should see the effects of this in increased upward mobility and wealth created anew by new people in each generation rather than passed down and expanded from one generation to the next. The data do not demonstrate this upward mobility.

The US, in a sample of 13 wealthy countries, ranks highest in inequality and lowest in intergenerational earnings mobility. Wealth isnt earned fresh in each new generation by plucky go-getters. It is passed down, preserved, and expanded through generous tax laws and the assiduous transmission of social and cultural capital.

The way Oprah tells us to get through it all and realize our dreams is always to adapt ourselves to the changing world, not to change the world we live in. We demand little or nothing from the system, from the collective apparatus of powerful people and institutions. We only make demands of ourselves.

We are the perfect, depoliticized, complacent neoliberal subjects.

And yet were not. The popularity of strategies for alleviating alienation rests on our deep, collective desire for meaning and creativity. Literary critic and political theorist Fredric Jameson would say that the Oprah stories, and others like them, are able to manage our desires only because they appeal to deep fantasies about how we want to live our lives. This, after all, is what the American dream narrative is about not necessarily a description of life lived, but a vision of how life should be lived.

When the stories that manage our desires break their promises over and over, the stories themselves become fuel for change and open a space for new, radical stories. These new stories must feature collective demands that provide a critical perspective on the real limits to success in our society and foster a vision of life that does fulfill the desire for self-actualization.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/may/09/oprah-winfrey-neoliberal-capitalist-thinkers

The Sex Robots Are Coming: seedy, sordid but mainly just sad

The sex-doll industry is going from strength to strength in the drive to make the figures more lifelike, but where will it end?

People say theres no such thing as loving an inanimate object, says James, solemnly. I dont necessarily think thats true. James is a 58-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia, and the owner of four life-size dolls. Every morning he carefully gets them dressed and puts on their makeup. One day he might take them for a picnic; on another theyll stay in and watch television. The latter involves a painstaking process where he must bend the dolls into a sitting position and adjust their eyeballs. But thats OK, because theres nothing James wouldnt do for his synthetic companions, with whom he shares a bed and has sex up to four times a week.

James is among the protagonists of The Sex Robots Are Coming (30 November, 10pm, Channel 4), an investigation into the development of animatronic, AI-enabled silicone sexbots, and part of C4s Rise of the Robots season. While Jamess silicone sweethearts remain resolutely inert, change is afoot in the world of sex dolls, with a drive to make them ever more lifelike. First stop is Realbotix, the throbbing heart of the sex doll industry in San Marcos, California, where on workstations spilling over with custom-made nipples and wobbling artificial labia researchers are utilising new technology to persuade their dolls to smile, pout, flutter their eyelashes and tell jokes. Down in the dolls nether regions, heating and lubrication systems are in the early stages of development for a more authentic sexual experience, along with muscle spasms to simulate female orgasm. Pubic hair is making a comeback, offers company owner Matt, running his hand through some plastic pubes.

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Bad hair day Matt McMullen, CEO and creative director of Realbotix.

Matt sees a glittering future in which sex robots are as commonplace as porn and rejects the notion that his dolls are damaging to women, reducing them to body parts that can be modified to suit the quirks of their owners. Its not for everyone, he shrugs, while clearly praying that it is.

This is, its fair to say, not your average dystopian future doc: its less an AI-style vision of evil robot hordes than a fascinating if dispiriting glimpse of what can happen when dysfunctional men are left to their own devices. Still, there are scenes here that are the stuff of nightmares: from the headless plastic bodies each large of breast and tiny of waist that dangle helplessly from the Realbotix walls, to chief engineer Susan reaching roughly inside a doll to remove an eight-inch vaginal insert, prompting women everywhere to cross their legs in agony. And theres James bending one of his dolls, naked save for her pants, face down over a workbench in his garage (to adjust a screw in her shoulder, you understand).

James, it turns out, also has a wife, Tine, who is a living, breathing human, and is the very definition of long-suffering. Two years ago, she left the marital home for nine months to care for her mother; she returned to four new lodgers, distinguishable by their caramel complexions, slim-line figures and willingness to remain silent at all times.

James looks pained when asked what he would do if he had to choose between his wife and his favourite doll, April. I honestly dont know, he says. If, when the cameras ceased rolling, Tine ripped off one of Aprils beautiful limbs and beat her husband to a pulp with it, the makers of The Sex Robots Are Coming have wisely kept stumm.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/nov/25/sex-robots-are-coming-seedy-sordid-sad

How The Good Doctor became the year’s biggest new TV hit

The new drama, which stars Freddie Highmore as a surgeon with autism and savant syndrome, has engaged millions of viewers but critics remain skeptical

Ever since Greys Anatomy went haywire and hits like House, Nurse Jackie, and ER completed formidable seasons-long runs, folks have been clamoring for the next great medical procedural. This fall, it seems they got their wish with ABCs new drama The Good Doctor, created by Houses David Shore and based on a Korean series of the same name. Is The Good Doctor great? Well, notexactly, but it does enough to fill the void in a genre thats always been less about medicine than the often galactic, always dramatic goings-on at our favorite fictitious hospitals.

Last week, after just three episodes, The Good Doctor became the most-watched show on US television, surpassing The Big Bang Theory, which has held that title for quite some time despite running on pseudo-comic fumes. Yes most-watched is a superlative thats both widely appropriated and, in the age of multi-platform viewing increasingly irrelevant but 18.2 million viewers, which The Good Doctor reeled in last week, is nothing to scoff at, especially as it trounces flashier fall debuts like The Orville, The Gifted and Seal Team and runs neck-and-neck with CBSs Big Bang Theory spinoff Young Sheldon. It also received a full-season order at ABC after only two episodes and has found a quietly passionate fanbase on Facebook (the shows official page already boasts over 650,000 likes), where fans praise its depiction of autism and attest that the soapy medical plotlines have reduced them to tears. Theres even talk of an Emmy nod for its star Freddie Highmore, of Bates Motel fame.

The premise is simple: Shaun Murphy, played by Highmore, is an autistic surgeon with savant syndrome. His stream of consciousness speaks the language of anatomy, and when the shows particularly keen on calling attention to his genius, organs and veins and glands float above his head like illustrations ripped from a med-school textbook. Hes not Rain Man, says his main advocate at the prestigious St Bonaventure hospital in an attempt to convince the board that Murphy is hirable and high-functioning. To those in the autism community, the show has deftly done just that. The Good Doctor does a fine job of navigating this razors edge, wrote Kerry Magro on the website Autism Speaks, noting that it shows several characteristics that can accompany an autism diagnosis such as social awkwardness, lack of eye contact, playing with his hands during stressful situations. He adds: Freddies take will resonate with many in the community.

As for its entertainment value, The Good Doctor proceeds the way most medical dramas do: each day brings a new patient in need of life-threatening surgery; the doctors fight for stature and opportunity while romancing one another in the process; we discover that Shauns childhood was marred by the gruesome deaths of both his little brother and pet bunny, and hes disciplined for behaving poorly or erratically in front of patients before saving the day with surgical heroics. Its schmaltzy and sentimental, and its probably no coincidence that as hitmaker Shonda Rhimes (of Scandal, Greys and How to Get Away with Murder fame) prepares to leave ABC for Netflix, the network has pushed a new drama to the forefront of its programming. And like Greys Anatomy, The Good Doctor has accrued a wide fanbase in just a few episodes by weaving the day-to-day tasks of surgeons into the larger framework of its protagonists story. In its first season, Greys brought in roughly 18.5 million viewers per episode, and so far The Good Doctor, with more than half of its audience watching the show live and the rest on DVR, is outperforming both that show at the same stage and others in the same lineage, like House and Private Practice.

But before The Good Doctor and last years network breakout This is Us, a non-linear tearjerker about a family with three children who share a birthday, it had been a while since a debut series on either CBS, ABC, NBC or Fox became a ratings powerhouse. Network television was mostly underwhelming or, like The Big Bang Theory, stagnant and formulaic, and so viewers flocked instead to cable (HBO, AMC, FX) or streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu).

In that sense, network dramas are the new underdogs, at least in relation to the Game of Thrones and Walking Deads of the world. But perhaps they wont be any longer, since both The Good Doctor and This is Us provide the guilty pleasures many people look for in their TV diets: earnest storytelling, very attractive actors doing very noble things, and characters who tug at our heartstrings. Both shows, too, have diverse casts and optimistic outlooks, debuting as the collective national mood called for encouraging, beat-the-odds entertainment in the vein of La La Land, Hidden Figures and Wonder Woman. The recent popular network dramas of the pre-Trump era Empire, Madam Secretary, How to Get Away with Murder, Chicago Med and The Good Wife were somewhat less uplifting in spirit and tone. As David Shore told Indiewire: Theres an honest, unabashed emotionality to this show that I think is very refreshing. It will make you cry in an unembarrassed way. So far, fans agree. Find myself crying every episode, one YouTube commenter wrote. I was kind of getting sick of so many medical dramas but this one stole my heart, says another. In its promotional campaign, too, The Good Doctor, like This is Us, has embraced its emotional resonance: Were not crying. Youre crying, reads the caption to its episode three trailer.

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A still from the pilot of ABCs The Good Doctor. Photograph: Liane Hentscher/2017 Sony Pictures Television

As one might expect, whats made The Good Doctor a hit has made it divisive among critics: despite its ratings, it has a meager 43% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Maureen Ryan, writing in Variety, called it both preposterously tragic and a third-rate Greys Anatomy ripoff. That discrepancy between the shows critical reception and its popularity among audiences is one of the most extreme in the websites history, and like last years blockbuster film Batman v Superman, which spawned a wave of think-pieces about the dissonance between critics and audiences, reviewers like the show about half as much as the 18 million who watch it.

Ultimately, critics may be of little significance to The Good Doctor: its now ABCs most-watched Monday drama in 21 years. Unseating The Big Bang Theory alone brought the show a good deal of press, and should it continue to handle autism as deftly as viewers think it does, The Good Doctor will join This is Us as that rare network hit in the age of streaming supremacy.

  • The Good Doctor is on in the US on Mondays at 9pm on ABC and will start in the UK on Fridays at 9pm on Sky Living

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/oct/23/the-good-doctor-freddie-highmore-abc-biggest-new-show

Shock art: can grossing people out be considered an art form?

In her new web series, art historian Christina Chau asks whether disgusting viewers runs the risk of closing minds instead of opening them

Emerging from a bath filled with stew potatoes, carrots, onions and all the art historian Dr Christina Chau is a little disgusted and not entirely impressed. If you really want to confront peoples stereotypes, I think youve got to ease them into it, she says. I think if you make them feel uncomfortable, theyre going to think more conservatively.

Chau is the host of ABC iViews new web series Shock Art, and the bath was concocted (and, I suppose, cooked) by the performance artists Peter Cheng and Molly Biddle. Sitting in the tub, the nearly naked duo eat from an oily, onion-y broth, which swims around their bodies. Christina sits in with them but politely declines the degustation. The piece is called The Human Soup. Me-nestrone would have also been acceptable.

In the first episode of the six-part series directed by Sam Bodhi Field and available on iView only Chau admits Peter and Mollys piece runs the risk of closing minds instead of opening them. By the seasons end shell be assisting the visual artist Georgie Mattingley in the photography of her blue shit, which is exactly what it sounds like. Needless to say, closed minds probably need not tune in to Shock Art. But ajar minds? There might be something here for you, yet.

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Stewing in it: Chau (centre) sits in Peter & Mollys artwork The Human Soup. Photograph: Screen Australia

Each episode, Chau eases viewers into her world, asking, Is offending, disgusting or grossing people out an art form? To get closer to an answer, she interviews Australian artists about their forms of expression. Some attach leeches to their heads. Others light sparklers in their rectum. And then theres the really strange stuff.

As Rudyard Kipling might have asked: Its clever, but is it art? (Maybe we should instead quote 30 Rocks conservative antihero Jack Donaghy, who believed there were only three appropriate subjects for paintings: The horse is one of only three appropriate subjects for a painting, along with ships with sails and men holding up swords while staring off into the distance.)

Shock Art sets itself the lofty goal of condensing and clarifying these extreme provocations for viewers who might look at, say, someone caressing their own faeces and raise a concerned eyebrow. (Prudes!) Could it work? Chau tries her darnedest with non-judgmental interviews, followed by thoughtful critiques. She even admits when shes grossed out, drawing the line at a patchwork of human hair.

The series is at its best when digging into the ramifications of experimental artworks, such as that of the satirist Paul Yore, who was charged with production and possession of child pornography for an installation that featured images of Justin Bieber, dildo-adjacent. The charges were dismissed but not before police raided the gallery showing his works. Will conservative viewers see Yore as a fighter for free speech, as they do the late Bill Leak? Or will they find themselves confronted with a different kind of indecency, which they simply cant defend?

Other viewers in the so-called liberal bubble may have to ponder those same questions. Im not trying to equivocate; Im just pointing out what makes art at its riskiest most interesting: youre gonna have to come to your own conclusions, eventually.

The artist Casey Jenkins, who was publicly shamed for her infamous vaginal knitting, gets an opportunity to reflect on some of the abusive criticism she received. Some people need a punch in the vagina, reads one comment, reminding us that the use of the female body as a canvas generates a special kind of vile reaction. She tells Chau the ordeal has made her feel fragile and strong; wary but also brave.

Compare that with the goofy contortions by the celebrated Puppetry of the Penis co-creator David Friend, who believes audiences in 1998 were ready for his phallic wrenching. Today? Not so much. The worlds far more conservative now, he says. In 2017 Shock Art is both a little late and stunningly relevant.

The famous ruling of Justice Potter Stewart on Louis Malles supposedly obscene film The Lovers concluded, I know it when I see it the it being hardcore pornography. But anyone turning to this educational ABC web series for carnal delights will be disappointed. It does contain naked bodies doing things youve probably not seen naked bodies do before; youll also meet a pleasure activist and mingle with ecosexuals. The series most memorable nude scene, however, comes from the 70-year-old futurist Stelarc, who insists hes not trying to be controversial; cut to his comatose, naked body, hanging by skin hooks from a ceiling, rotating until his scrotum pivots towards the camera like a fleshy pendulum. As Stewart said, I know it when I see it and this aint that.

Can abstract art accidentally close the minds of viewers on the cusp of conservatism? Shock Art argues as much and its hard not to agree while watching some of the more aggressively bizarre performances.Chau at least provides clear context for seemingly impenetrable artworks, making even Stelarcs birthday-suited chandelier act appear perfectly reasonable.

Perhaps all this handholding limits the audiences perspective to that of either the host or the artists themselves. (Since when did we start allowing artists to be entirely responsible for how their pieces are understood and received?) Still, in bite-sized form, Shock Art is an ideal gateway drug to another entire dimension of artistic expression. Just dont watch it while youre eating.

Art Bites: Shock Art is now available to watch exclusively on ABC iView

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/mar/20/shock-art-can-grossing-people-out-be-considered-an-art-form