Dynamist Blog

Oprah's Middlebrow Market

In my first column for Bloomberg View, where I'll be appearing every other Friday, I compare "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to two other media phenomena that also debuted in 1986: Spy magazine and the American Girl line of dolls and books. Here's the opening:

In her 25 years hosting her eponymous show, Oprah Winfrey changed lives, most notably her own, but she did not change American culture. Rather, she revived and extended an old American phenomenon: the tradition of middlebrow self-improvement that many observers assumed had died in the anti-authority turmoil of the 1960s. While anything but radical, this achievement was nonetheless remarkable.

To understand its significance, positive and negative, consider two other media institutions that also debuted in 1986. The first is Spy magazine, defunct since 1998. Enormously influential, particularly in New York media circles, Spy pioneered the snobby, snarky cynicism that many writers under 50 still equate with sophistication. Spy did change the culture.

Both Spy and "The Oprah Winfrey Show" sold gossip and personal stories. Both made their audiences feel like members of a club of superior people. Both were self-congratulatory. But the bases for their self-congratulation were, of course, very different. Spy and its audience prided themselves on being wised-up, clever and edgy; Oprah and her audience on being empathetic, optimistic and resilient. If "Oprah" was about uplift, Spy was about putting people in their place.

Winfrey was one of the magazine's earliest targets. A profile in Spy's third issue mocked her weight, her "poodlish starlet's existence," her exuberance and her frank yearning to be rich and famous. Calling her a "binge dreamer," author Bill Zehme compared her to the delusional, self-dramatizing Norma Desmond of "Sunset Boulevard."

Read the rest at Bloomberg View.

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