Oprah Winfrey is a lot like the rest of us. She is dissatisfied, and regularly decides to remake herself, to attempt to find meaning as part of a larger community than herself. And she kindly invites us along on her journeys of discovery. She asked us all to take part in her Total Life Makeover a few years ago. Saying goodbye to her years on yoyo diets Oprah refigured the weight question as part of a larger project of making meaningful life. Then there was the year that she asked us all to join her and P. Diddy in running the marathon as a way to get fit and strong, both mentally and phyically. She got U.S. women to change their bras as a way of changing their self-image, insisting that proper support under our clothes did more than support the body. (I personally own Oprah’s favorite sports bra.) Another project has found her reading, and many folks credit Oprah with getting adults to read again. And she has marvelous taste in books. She has also called us to look outside of ourselves and meet the needs of others when we can, and she does this herself, dedicating her time and money to girls and education in South Africa. Oprah, it seems, alternates between these different ways of understanding ourselves in the world: she calls us to remake ourselves and thereby remake ourselves, hoping this will stave off the melancholy of daily life; she also simultaneously calls us to, as Karl Marx put it long ago, remake our world and thereby remake ourselves.
This season Oprah is engaged in two tasks of self-making: The Secret and The Best Life Weight Loss Challenge. This week Oprah hosted her The Best Life Weight Loss Challenge Weigh In. The six challengers, hand-selected by Oprah and her diet guru Bob Greene, were here to face the music following 18 weeks of following Greene’s lifeplan. Oprah served as a kind of confessor for the challengers, listening to them tell their stories, confess their past food sins and declare their redemption at the feet of Oprah and Bob. But their truth-telling isn’t enough for Oprah. There is a sense that they cannot be trusted, that they are not experts in their own lives. Bob needs to vouch for them, needs to filter their stories for Oprah. For example, 41-year old Tori insists in her interview that she is not an emotional eater, that she just likes to eat, like her whole family does. Cut to Bob: he insists that one of the biggest obstacles for Tori on the way to success is that she insists she’s not an emotional eater. Cut to confessional video where Bob convinces Tori that indeed she is an emotional eater. Tori can live her Best Life, but only insofar as she meets to truth expectations of Oprah and Bob. And Tori does: she declares that she is indeed an emotional eater, breaking down as she remembers a childhood filled with comments about her body that have led, we suppose, to emotional eating patterns. The audience nods knowingly. We are all emotional eaters.
Everyone is losing weight, and at a faster clip now that Oprah and Bob have convinced them that their self-assessments are wrong. But one contestant isn’t losing weight. LaToya. She has lost only 5 pounds, and the viewers are promised throughout the episode that LaToya will be called to account. And she is. Oprah’s disapproving-mother stare pins LaToy, who insists that she’s working out, that she’s following the eating plan. She professes ignorance to why she isn’t losing weight. Oprah and Bob are suspicious, and ask her fellow challengers if they believe her. To a one, they say they do. They’ve seen her exercising, they’ve watched her portion control, they think she’s doing her best. LaToya’s truth is only truth if confirmed by these others. But these others aren’t good enough–they can’t be trusted to tell the truth about themselves and thus lack the access to truth necessary to tell the truth about LaToya. But Oprah and Bob dismiss them all; they just don’t get it. Oprah steps in, having a long history of weight loss and gain as an understood backdrop to her professional analysis. Oprah tells LaToya that she’s not doing it right. That she’s underreporting her eating, that she’s sneaking bites of calimari and a drink or two. LaToya’s resistance is futile. She nods, muttering under her breath, “calimari.” Oprah tells her that she is successful, and we discover that LaToya is writing her dissertation, though we don’t find out any more than that. Oprah becomes LaToya’s mouthpiece, declaring LaToya’s smarts in so much of her life and asking why she’s so dumb when it comes to food. LaToya’s nodding, acquiescing to Oprah’s production of LaToya’s self. But isn’t this the story of Oprah’s life? And why doesn’t it matter that LaToya is so smart and successful? Why is the only thing that matters in the Best Life is Diet?
LaToya becomes, then, Oprah’s mouthpiece. We get the sense that Oprah is talking about herself, and LaToya is helpless to resist as she is called to stand in for Oprah, to take the scolding that Oprah so often faces. Oprah’s own quest for meaningful life depends on us, the viewers, acknowledging her success. And in turn, LaToya can only be successful insofar as the Other (here, Oprah and Bob) confirms her reality, after reshaping it in her own image. Properly admonished and her soul set on a new path, LaToya is invited to continue in the challenge even though up to this point she has lost. Bob declares LaToya newly committed, and she gamely nods. These challengers cannot be trusted, their truth-telling is always suspect. Their, and the viewer’s, self-making must be funneled through Oprah’s sense of self, just as hers depends so deeply on us. And this becomes the structure of self-making in the age of Oprah, though one could argue that this is simply the televised version of selfhood that dominates the modern western Christian conception of self with Oprah as our confessor (or is it Bob, with Oprah as new avatar?), putting our thoughts right when we are unable to do so ourselves.