In her new book "The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era," University of Colorado at Boulder journalism Professor Janice Peck charts the rise of Oprah Winfrey from highly rated TV "trash talk" host to one of the most influential cultural icons of our times.
"How are we to understand this transformation of a figure once known chiefly for her dubious distinction as 'queen of television talk' into a spiritual guru, cultural heroine, and public leader whose program is a sought-after venue among presidential candidates? And what might the process of this transformation tell us about the politics and culture of our age?" Peck writes.
How to understand it and what it means are analyzed in "The Age of Oprah," released this month by Paradigm Publishers. Peck details Winfrey's rise from host of "A.M. Chicago," a program originally designed to compete with the leading Phil Donahue Show, to her instant dominance of talk TV, eventually setting the stage for her foray into publishing and making Winfrey one of TV's richest women with a net worth of $2.5 billion. The Oprah Winfrey Show has been the top-rated daytime TV talk show in each of its 21 years through 2007.
"I'm interested in using this woman - who embodies what we call a cultural icon - as a way to examine the last 25 years of our culture's history," Peck said. "I'd like people to think of her and recent American political history in a different way. I've written a political history - beginning with the rise of the Reagan era - but viewed through the lens of Oprah Winfrey and her fame."
Peck examines Winfrey's paradoxical journey from 1980s daytime TV, to her embrace of "mind-cure" philosophy in the mid-1990s, her creation of Oprah's Book Club and "O Magazine" and more recent philanthropic ventures.
"That millions of people in that $50,000-$75,000 bracket and below agree with and strive to emulate her (Oprah) is what moved me to write this book," Peck writes in the preface. That income group pays income taxes, Medicare and Social Security taxes at the same rate as Oprah, Peck points out, thanks to recent tax cuts, even while Oprah is "a member of the 1 percent of the population that possesses 40 percent of the nation's wealth."
As American social, political and economic realities have shifted since the Reagan era, particularly as high-paying jobs have become harder for average people to land, Peck contends Winfrey has appealed to middle-class white women to believe they can attain jobs, wealth and status through a philosophy of positive thinking, which ultimately undermines political action that would affect change through government policy.
"The appeal of this form of psychology and spirituality is that, if you can just think positively, you can turn your life around," said Peck. "It deflects attention away from the issues, such as 'Why are the good jobs disappearing?' The competition to get those jobs is huge but the message is, 'If you think positively you'll get those jobs.'
"I'd like to see people think about these issues as political and societal issues, instead of encouraging people to take a purely personal look at problems that are actually political and social problems," she said.
Peck contends the philosophy of individual positive thought to attack social problems is based on a mistrust of government that began emerging in the Reagan years.
However, Peck does not believe Winfrey "is cynically plotting" to mislead her audience. "I think she really believes her own stuff," she said. But her personal "rags to riches" story - from childhood poverty to middle-class adolescence to great wealth -- is unlikely to be experienced by the vast majority of her fans, Peck said.
Although Winfrey waded into presidential campaign politics last winter by supporting Democratic hopeful Barack Obama, Peck noted she quickly withdrew from overt endorsement because of her fan reaction. "A lot of her fans began criticizing her," Peck said. "Some of her fans called her racist because she was endorsing a black man and her Republican followers and Hillary supporters were angry with her for not backing their candidates.
"Oprah has amassed an enormous following by saying she was above politics. She had to pull back following the reaction and she's kept a much lower profile since December."
Peck will discuss some of the themes of her book in an upcoming conference to be hosted by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication June 4-7 at CU-Boulder. She also spoke on the positive psychology and spirituality addressed in the book at a symposium at Northwestern University May 9-10.
Peck will discuss the book in an interview with media critic and scholar Robert McChesney on his University of Illinois Media Matters program on May 18 at 1 p.m. CDT. Media Matters can be accessed on the Web at www.will.uiuc.edu/am/mediamatters/.
"The Age of Oprah" is Peck's second book and is available through local booksellers including The Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver and the Boulder Book Store in addition to national booksellers including Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. For more information on "The Age of Oprah," go to www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=180330.
Peck teaches media studies at CU-Boulder. She is the author of a book on religious television and has published work on media theory, television and the family, cultural studies, TV talk shows, advertising, and representations of race in media. She also has worked as a journalist and editor for newspapers, magazines and radio.