I will never be an Oprah-hater. She’s been like an old family friend, someone I hardly know but nevertheless feel intimately close to. Though it’s been decades since I’ve seen the daily show she is shuttering this week after 25 years, I’m in mourning.
Oprah Winfrey spent most afternoons with my mother.
It was the same ritual almost every day: I would hear the two-tone-green Buick turn into our driveway at a few minutes after 4pm and that would be my signal to turn on the television. My mother would walk in from her secretarial job, offer a kiss and then proceed, often without removing her coat, to the sofa facing Oprah.
If it was a bad day, she’d light up a cigarette or, later, after she quit, dig into a box of black licorice. It was her own bit of downtime to spend with an understanding friend.
It’s safe to say that Oprah played the same role for a vast number of women, especially mothers, given that it’s been the top-rated daytime talk show since it’s debut.
Why? Oprah lived in a different stratosphere than her audience and was never even a mother herself.
I called Sheri L. Parks for an answer. Parks, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland and a mother, is an avowed Oprah fan. I asked her why Oprah connected so often with American mothers.
“She very much played the role of mother writ large,” said Parks, author of “Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture,” (Random House 2010).
“When she started, she covered domestic topics: women done wrong. She was a fierce protector of women.
“Her size is important, too. Those arms, they’re not fat, they were muscle. They were strong. Everybody wanted an Oprah hug. She was a protector and a defender.”
Parks said Oprah also changed the cultural view of the stay-at-home-mother. Pre-Oprah, most people thought SAHMs “sat around and played bridge.” Parks said Oprah projected an idea that “women had a station in their community and were acting on it, that they were smart, interested and efficacious. She was empowering.”
Oprah’s farewell to daytime TV is part of a larger changing of the guard. Soap operas are leaving too, replaced by chat-fests filled with snarky comments and cackling laughter. I guess those shows target the post-Oprah crowd of women who already know they’re allowed to have an opinion and are looking for a good debate.
That change probably says something positive culturally. But I think my mom would have tuned out. Those new rulers of daytime have arms too skinny for a good hug.
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