By Keira V. Williams, Senior Lecturer, Queen’s University Belfast
Featured image by Sam Nystrom Costales
In the mid-1990s, after a decade atop the daytime television heap and many Emmys to show for it, Oprah Winfrey took a hard look at her own show and decided she did not like what she saw. She declared that “the milk time has come for this genre of talk shows to move forward.”1 Shortly thereafter, The Oprah Winfrey Show underwent a complete renovation to focus on her new goal of “each individual having his or her own inner revolution.”2
With this transformation, Winfrey became the primary conduit of neoliberal feminism to her viewers at a key moment in the history of feminism. The “micro-politics” of this developing idea promoted individual empowerment rather than collective activism.3 This coincided with the ascendance of what has been called “lifestyle feminism,” in which popular culture combined with consumerism to offer every woman a feminist style, rather than a feminist politics.4 If turn-of-the-century neoliberal feminism and lifestyle feminism were placed within a Venn diagram, The Oprah Winfrey Show would be at its center. As both a beloved celebrity and a brand, Winfrey provided viewers with a very effective mix of self-help psychology, spirituality, and consumption. Critics have called this “femvertising,” or the hocking of products to women as “empowering.” In fact, there is a specific name for the jump in sales of any product Winfrey endorses: the “Oprah Effect.”5
Winfrey’s revamp of her show in the mid to late 1990s also had more radical potential, particularly through her frequent promotion of Black feminist fiction. On her enormously popular ‘Book Club’ episodes, Winfrey guided invited guests, the studio audience, and at-home viewers through stories of Black women and girls. Through the ‘Book Club,’ she deftly interwove these fictional narratives with her own to foster awareness among her mostly white viewers. Winfrey’s disclosure of her childhood experiences of colorism in the on-air discussion of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, for instance, prompted a guest, a white woman, to question her own complicity in the system—a kind of consciousness raising that is repeated on many episodes featuring Black women authors.6 As Kimberly Chabot Davis notes, these kinds of perspective-taking, even empathetic responses were at the very least “radically unsettling” to white women’s sense of their systemic positions, making these Book Club episodes more overtly intersectional than the usual Oprah fare.7
Likewise, by choosing Lalita Tademy’s Cane River for the Book Club, Winfrey again facilitated her viewership’s engagement with colorism by linking it to the sexual economy of white male exploitation of enslaved Black women. “I knew this was going to touch a nerve,” she proclaimed at the beginning of the episode. The Cane River discussion combined Black feminist theories about survival, community support, and assessment of historical trauma with Winfrey’s familiar neoliberal exhortations to self-empowerment. Relying upon the Black feminist metaphor of foremothers as “bridges,” Winfrey concluded: “[A]s a descendant of slaves myself in this country … we need to—in the words of James Baldwin—understand that our crowns have been paid for, and we all need to put them on our head and wear it.”8 On this and other episodes over the course of the Book Club’s five-year original run, by featuring authors like Morrison, Tademy, Maya Angelou, Edwidge Danticat, and Pearl Cleage, among others, Winfrey offered viewers primers on both Black feminist fiction and her own brand of feminism under the mantra “Change-Your-Life Television.”9
Winfrey further capitalized on the intertextual possibilities of her feminist brand with her decade-long “passion project,” a film version of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, in 1998. One critic wrote that, in contrast to the novel, Winfrey’s on-screen version of Morrison’s character Sethe “seems so levelheaded [sic] that she could solve problems by talking them over with Oprah.”10 And in fact, Winfrey did talk the “problems” of Beloved over with her daily audience in a special episode on the film.
In line with Black feminist theories about the role of history, Winfrey expertly directed the Beloved discussion as a consciousness-raising tool that balanced past and present, fiction and reality.11 “Not just slavery, though. Not just slavery,” she corrected her guests when they tried to characterize white supremacy as a problem of the past. When Brian, a white man, claimed that harping on the traumas of slavery further suppressed Black people, Winfrey retorted that doing the film “empowered her” in new ways because it gave her a true “connection” to history. “That is where I come from,” she proclaimed. “That is where you come from. That is where we come from.” The Black guests helped Winfrey link the film to the present; invited guest Jo compared her experiences of poverty and domestic violence to having “a slave catcher running after” her, effectively describing cascading systems of oppression that disproportionately and uniquely affect Black women. “Somewhere inside her,” Winfrey argued of Margaret Garner, the historical figure upon whom Beloved is based, Garner thought, “I believe I’m better than this.” Winfrey urged her guests and viewers to believe that they, too, could rise above contemporary white supremacy, with her careful guidance.12
As part of her “making the connection” empowerment mission, Winfrey saw her white guests’ guilt after viewing Beloved as productive. Again, the Black guests backed her up. When Brian argued again that feeling guilty did not nurture “healthy peer relationships in America,” William, a Black man, responded that this kind of emotional confrontation could lead to action: “You can’t stop there. You can feel it, and I want you to feel it, but we have to begin to effect change in this country.” Renee, a white woman who expressed shame about her southern ancestors, enthusiastically agreed, proposing that she “start in [her] own home” by teaching her daughter to confront their racial privilege. Winfrey, masterfully managing the arc of the discussion, seized upon this: “But if you, one person, Renee, come out of this movie and you make the decision that you’re gonna talk to your children and try to break down…that feeling of entitlement and righteousness with your children, then we have already won with this movie.”13
At the end of the episode, in a direct address to the home audience, Winfrey declared her Beloved mission a success, explaining that her goal was “exactly what we saw happen” on the episode: an illuminating “discussion about who we all are, where we all come from, and what that means to all of us.”14 Newly empowered by their engagement with Winfrey’s Beloved, viewers could then teach their own children to challenge white supremacy—fostering, as it were, Winfrey’s patented form of personal revolution within their own homes. An “internal revolution” in these families did little to challenge structural inequality, of course. But exposure to some of the core texts of Black feminist fiction still sparked, at times, Winfrey’s patented “aha” moments among her largely white audience as they began to grasp radical critiques of white, male power structures.
When she encouraged viewers to “Remember Your Spirit,” “Make the Connection,” and “Live Your Best Life,” Oprah Winfrey was using her platform to promote a unique brand of feminism. It was an expert blend of her experiences as a southern Black woman, her love of fiction, her awareness of her viewers’ power as consumers, and her interpretations of both longstanding and newly developing forms of American feminist thought. The goal of this feminism was individualized, an “internal revolution” guided by consumerism—of Winfrey’s cultural outputs and of the many products, brands, self-help gurus, and books she featured on her daily show—rather than structural. At the same time, however, Winfrey gave considerable airtime to radical critiques of society through the Black feminist novels and authors she chose to discuss with her audience. By creating a parasocial, interracial sisterhood of millions, Winfrey developed a complicated form of contemporary feminism that was paradoxically neoliberal and radical, individualized and collective, universal and intersectional.
Dr. Keira V. Williams is a historian in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy, and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. She is the author of Gendered Politics in the Modern South (2012) and Amazons in America (2019). This article is part of the forthcoming book, Why Any Woman: Southern Feminist Pop Culture at the Millennium (University of Georgia Press, November 2023). Her faves are The Golden Girls, Thelma & Louise, and, of course, Oprah Winfrey. Twitter: @keira_williams
1. Trysh Travis, “‘It Will Change the World if Everybody Reads This Book’: New Thought Religion and Oprah’s Book Club,” American Quarterly vol. 59, no. 3 (Sept. 2007), 1026.
2. Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (University of California Press, 2011), 4.
3. Patricia S. Mann, Micro-Politics: Agency in a Postfeminist Era (University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 1; Stephanie Genz, “Third Way/ve: The Politics of Postfeminism.” Feminist Theory 7, no. 3 (2006), 333.
4. Elizabeth Groeneveld, “’Be a Feminist or Just Dress Like One’: BUST, Fashion, and Feminism as Lifestyle,” Journal of Gender Studies vol. 18, no. 2 (June 2009), 179-190; bell hooks, Feminism Is for Everybody (Pluto, 2000), 5, 6.
5. Lofton, Oprah, 23; Kasey Windels, Sara Champlin, Summer Shelton, Yvette Sterbank, and Madison Poteet, “Selling Feminism: How Female Empowerment Campaigns Employ Feminist Discourse,” Journal of Advertising 49 (2019), 18; Alison Winch, Girlfriends and Postfeminist Sisterhood (Palgrave, 2013), 2.
6. “Do Your Eyes Light Up?,” Disc 2, The Oprah Winfrey Show: Twentieth Anniversary Collection (2006).
7. Cecilia Konchar Farr, Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club Changed the Way America Reads (SUNY Press, 2005), 31-32; Kimberley Chabot Davis, “Oprah’s Book Club and the Politics of Cross-Racial Empathy,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 7, no. 4 (2004), 409. Wendy Parkins has also examined the feminist potential of Winfrey’s promotion of spiritual “self-transformation.” See: Wendy Parkins, “Oprah Winfrey’s Change Your Life TV and the Spiritual Everyday,” Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 15, no. 2 (2001), 155.
8. “Oprah’s Book Club: Cane River,” The Oprah Winfrey Show, September 24, 2001.
9. Other relevant Book Club picks include: Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman (Random House, 1981); Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory (Soho Press, 1994); Pearl Cleage, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (Avon, 1997); and Toni Morrison’s Paradise (Knopf, 1997), Song of Solomon (Knopf, 1977), and Sula (Knopf, 1973).
10. Janet Maslin, “No Peace from a Brutal Legacy,” New York Times, October 16, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/16/movies/film-review-no-peace-from-a-brutal-legacy.html.
11. bell hooks, Killing Rage, Ending Racism (Penguin, 1995), 141; Carl Plasa, Icon Critical Guides: Toni Morrison, Beloved (Icon Books, 1998), 33; Treva B. Lindsey, “A Love Letter to Black Feminism,” The Black Scholar 45, no. 4 (2015), 4.
12. “Beloved Dinner with Oprah,” The Oprah Winfrey Show, October 30, 1998.
13. “Beloved Dinner with Oprah.”
14. “Beloved Dinner with Oprah.”