Back in 2010, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece about Lisa Shannon, a woman who was so inspired by a TV show that she decided to begin advocating for the women in war-ravaged eastern Congo, and eventually moved there. Unlike Ashton Kutcher, who founded his misguided anti-sex trafficking campaign after seeing an episode of Dateline, Shannon’s efforts had real-life impacts on the communities for whom she worked, and she ended up sacrificing a tremendous amount to help Congolese women rebuild their lives.
What, pray tell, was the TV show that inspired this radical change? I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was Oprah. When her show went off the air earlier this year, many mourned the loss of Oprah Winfrey’s media legacy. On Feministing, Courtney Martin pondered the myriad of topics that Oprah brought to mainstream TV at a time when they were totally taboo: “incest, infidelity, eating disorders, mental illness, among so many others.”
Rebecca Traister went further in her praise. “Oprah has made blackness more visible,” she wrote, “has helped familiarize a country’s daytime audiences, not always the most politically progressive, with people they might otherwise not have known. Thanks to her, viewers know Steadman and Gayle, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Her book club members have read Song of Solomon, Sula and three books by William Faulkner with race at their core.”
Oprah’s story is extraordinary. Born to an unwed teenage mother in Mississippi and later sexually abused by family members, she still became an honor student and, at the age of 17, a beauty queen. She received a scholarship to attend college, and from there, her media career soared. Oprah’s presence on TV screens and magazine covers was, in itself, a breakthrough.
Because of the systemic currents of racism and sexism that keep women of color from appearing in powerful media positions, her success was unlikely. But that makes her presence even more important. Oprah is a deeply inspirational figure for countless women, reminding all of her viewers that it is possible to overcome the adversity that faces women of color in the United States. Her philanthropy continues to focus on women’s issues, like women’s leadership and maternal mortality.
Now she has her own television network, and is on the verge of making more breakthroughs for women. Oprah is uniquely poised to start speaking out about the deeper problems that keep more women and people of color from appearing in powerful media positions, as well as continuing her work to help women worldwide achieve their potential. On her show, Oprah’s stories mostly focused on self-help, inspiring her viewers to feel a new sense of control over the trajectory of their lives. Now, she can continue using individual tales of success to point out the ways that larger systems of oppression make it more difficult for ordinary people to achieve their dreams.
Care2 is partnering with the new Oprah Winfrey Network to reach the goal of one million students in “Oprah’s Lifeclass” by October 10. The first million people to sign up for the class enter a sweepstakes to meet Oprah in person. Who knows – maybe you could meet Oprah and ask her to use her influence to speak out more vocally about racism, sexism, and all the other factors that underlie the issues she addressed on her show.
Photo from nayrb7 via flickr.