Television

Has Anyone Talked About How It Feels

Oprah Winfrey’s reign

Kathryn Lofton
Oprah Winfrey wears a tiara, standing with cast members of SNL
Oprah Winfrey on Saturday Night Live, April 14, 1986. Photo: Alan Singer. NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images.

On march 7, 2021, CBS broadcast an interview by Oprah Winfrey with Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, filmed in Santa Barbara, California. This television special aired just a few weeks after Harry and Meghan carried out their final duties as working members of the British Royal Family. Coverage of the event emphasized its outsized viewership. In an era of multiplying networks and streaming platforms, the audience for Oprah with Meghan and Harry harked back to the era of “Must-See TV”; more people synchronously streamed it than any other nonathletic TV program since 2018. Analysis focused on the relational plot points and high reproductive melodrama: Harry is not talking to his father and is estranged from his brother; Meghan experienced suicidal ideation while pregnant with their son, Archie, and in the same period heard “concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he was born.”

This essay is a plea to focus neither on these tidbits from a gauzy couple nor on their artless wonderment at regular family violence. What made this moment of popular culture so significant is not what we learned about the Royal Family but what we learned anew about inquisition as a form of power. The kind of attention paid to celebrities, including most importantly Oprah herself, messes with the ability to see and hear. Blaring promotional advertisements about “bombshell revelations” and strategic lighting smudge perception and comprehension, leaving us with a handful of memes and waves of indefinable ennui. Yet this twenty-first-century smash television special offers a climactic expression of its ethical, political, and spiritual epoch. Winfrey, an Olympian in the event of culling confession, teaches once again where true authority resides.

oprah winfrey is to the televising of gossip as William Randolph Hearst was to its newspaper distribution. Gossip has always been the commodity driving media innovation and economic expansion, and from the beginning of her televised career Oprah sought to distribute to the world her hearing of the truth people had not yet spoken. It just was not natural to her, as she said with folksy frequency on The Oprah Winfrey Show, to think about business. Her skill was in the exchange of feeling. Oprah suggested that she, like many of her viewers, was diffident about balancing a checkbook but very good at getting someone to spill the beans at the kitchen table. Halfway through her interview, Meghan pled, “I know there is an obsession with how things look, but has anyone talked about how it feels?”

Meghan’s words have the strangeness of a supermodel’s kid wailing about objectification; she was sitting, after all, with a mogul who has spent her professional life mining the gap between looks and feeling. “[Jamie] and [Sarah] looked to everyone like they had a wonderful life. Behind closed doors, it was another story” is a phrasing that appeared, in various iterations, in no fewer than one-quarter of the 4,561 episodes of the Oprah show. Be not mistaken: this was a ritual. What sets Oprah apart from other talk show hosts who use that formulation is her understanding that we crave not only the thrill of seeing secrets exposed but also the pretense that therapeutic peace inevitably follows. Oprah makes money on our hunger as well as on our hunger’s aspiration to be, finally, resolved. She sells the snacks and the diets.

Oprah gets at the secrets behind the picket fence through two kinds of questions, relational and confrontational. Her knack for the first gets in the way of our seeing how deftly she builds toward the flèche of the second. Oprah’s relational questions are what made her an idiom of transference, Oprahfication: the process by which someone’s interiority is brought to the exterior for our witnessing. Meghan, a sunny American working girl who traveled to the heart of empire, offers an ideal target for Oprah’s relentless perspectival asks. What was that like? Were you worried about making the right impression? Did that concern you in being able to fit in? What was going on with you, internally, at that time? Were you even inside your body at that time? People think of what Winfrey does as a sui generis capacity, but most of us could imitate these sentence structures. What keeps us from the practice of asking what something felt like? The answers vary depending on culture and sensibility, but let’s agree that the difficulty here isn’t the wording but the drive to understand fully how someone else feels.

Throughout the procedure, Oprah does not smile a lot, or nod in reply to answers. She is warm but not exuberant, respectful but never demonstratively impressed. The racist summary of Oprah’s talent is that she is everybody’s best girlfriend, tossing saucy quips and servile in her awed attentiveness to the person across from her. This assessment misses how still-faced she remains during the vast majority of her interviews. To be sure, digital minstrelsy popularizes the instances where she gives side-eye or a shocked-mouth expression, but that hermeneutic racialization distorts the overwhelming fact of her long-standing calm. “You get a car, you get a car” is not, in the voluminous public record of Oprah’s speech, the default. One does not hold televisual attention by being constantly orgiastic. One holds it by alluring the audience to listening attention. Oprah has spent nearly forty years trying to get people to hear what other people say they feel. That she also, on occasion, feels publicly on our behalf is a secondary effect of this primary purpose. Her billions are not because she made herself the spectacle as much as because she made other people’s emotions into a spectacle audiences want to watch. She sidles up to person after person and asks insistently how they feel and how they managed those feelings in a practical sense. Did you Google how to curtsey?

After the interview, the broadcaster Gayle King, Oprah’s best friend, remarked on CBS This Morning: “I’m not just saying this because we’re good friends, but it was so conversational. I thought you were perfection. I felt like we were sitting in the room, and we were just sort of eavesdropping in on a conversation, and that takes great skill. I don’t know anybody, anybody, who could have done this interview and certainly gotten the results that they did.” Oprah’s results come from her questions; they are how she grooms the subject and the audience to get cozy, to feel they are going to think about the inside of something otherwise faraway. Here the “otherwise” is not royal palaces but other people.

Oprah makes money on our hunger as well as on our hunger’s aspiration to be, finally, resolved. She sells the snacks and the diets.

On the Oprah show, the goal was not to get the person to cry as much as it was to flatten down the tall grasses growing around privacy and get interviewees to say what they think the deal, finally, is: Did it feel like betrayal when you found out your father was working with the tabloids? Does your brother want to leave the system? Did you make Kate cry? Oprah never misses a beat when driving into the witness box, yet she’s not exactly argumentative. How does she do it? How can she be so insistent and yet remain the most beloved woman in media? Lately, I have marveled at her interjection of the conjunction “so” to indicate awareness of a discovery. So, do you think there was a standard for Kate in general and a separate one for you? And if so, why? So, has anybody said, “I’m sorry you had to make that move,” or “I’m sorry you felt that you had to do that because you felt we were not supporting you?” So, are you saying you did not feel supported by the powers that be, be that The Firm, the monarchy, all of them? The “so” encapsulates her perception of what preceded, resolving what she deduces you have just meant to say even if you have not said it. The face save is that it is not you, the interviewee, who has to put words to the most astringent part of your disappointment or embarrassment. It is she, the interviewer, who steps in and makes intelligible these moments of your indignity. “Were you silent or were you silenced?” is the climactic expression of her ability to render personal mortification anthropologically.

None of this compliments the subject. Her attention is the compliment, cut only by the sense that she is not neatly reverential or admiring. Please explain how you, Prince Harry, raised in a palace and a life of privilege—literally, a prince—how you were trapped? Prince Harry replies, “trapped within a system,” and she nods, slightly, but she has opened the door to our critique. (A friend, upon hearing “trapped within a system,” told me they threw a crumpled can at the TV screen.) Oprah, long ago designated Queen of All Media, has no shame about wanting a royal life and no guilt about her occupation of capitalism’s pinnacle. Her “please explain how” and “literally” represent her ability to inquire and conclude, simultaneously. Elsewhere, this dialogue transpires:

oprah Do they think it’s a toxic environment or do you all just think it’s a toxic environment because you’re now out of it? If we were to have an interview with him, or a conversation with them, does your father think it’s a toxic environment?

harry I think he’s had to make peace with it.

oprah Why couldn’t you make peace with it? I’ll ask that of both of you.

meghan Because this was different.

oprah It was different because of the race?

meghan And social media.

oprah And social media. Yes, different time.

meghan That didn’t exist. And so it was like the wild wild west; it was spread like wildfire. Plus, my being American. It translated in a different way across the pond. So, you had a noise level that was very different. But if they can’t see that it’s different…

oprah So you felt bullied on an international level.

Do you see how Oprah reflects back to the interviewees an understanding of their perspective without indicating that she agrees altogether with their perspective? Oprah gives Meghan a wide berth in which to share her specific viewpoint. Oprah demonstrates that she hears Meghan. But no one can say Oprah thinks it all makes perfect sense, that she is saying that she agrees they needed to run away or were bullied on an international level. Only that she heard them in their feelings. The space between what Oprah says and what she does not say is Oprah’s critique, and her invitation for ours.

When she spoke with CBS This Morning anchors after the interview, Oprah exposed the space between what she heard and what she knew:

anthony mason One of the most striking things to me in this conversation was actually about Harry’s relationship with his father. Because both Meghan and Harry were very respectful towards the queen, Harry kind of stayed away from his relationship with his brother but acknowledged that there was space, but he was very specific in saying he was hurt and disappointed by his father. Were you surprised by that?

oprah winfrey I was surprised that he was open, vulnerable, because we could hear his pain when he was speaking about his father.

And later:

tony dokoupil When you say you were surprised about the skin tone conversation, were you surprised that that would be true inside the palace or were you surprised that they were telling you about it?

oprah winfrey I was surprised that they were telling me about it.

Oprah is surprised only that people tell what they are feeling. She is rarely as surprised as her interlocutors are by the world’s hurt, by a father failing to show up, or that colorism abounds. She is not exactly a know-it-all, though there are shadows of her childhood desire to please, and of that pleasing hustle out of poverty and abuse, strewn across her eventification of herself, including layers of media carrying her trademarked name. In its twenty-five-year run (1986–2011), the Oprah show functioned as one long public seminar for her learning, punctuated by “Aha! Moments” (also trademarked) where she figured out some psychological circuitry. Starting from her earliest public conversations, she never indicated that she felt the same shock at injury that so many of her conversation partners did. Bruising is life.

Oprah's billions are not because she made herself the spectacle as much as she made other people’s emotions into a spectacle audiences want to watch.

Markle, though, seems shocked by every discourtesy. No surprise, really. Meghan’s life emerged from the sunny blanching dissolve of Southern California, where freedom is less something to find than something stranding every interrelation and option. Her white father and Black mother married at Sunset Boulevard’s Self-Realization Fellowship, shrine of the Hindu guru Yogananda; she went to Catholic schools before college; her first husband was Jewish. Two years prior to meeting Harry in 2016, she launched a small lifestyle blog, The Tig. “I was born and raised in Los Angeles, a California girl who lives by the ethos that most things can be cured with either yoga, the beach, or a few avocados.” The blog recommended wine, travel, and design choices, all in the voice of someone whose authorization lies in being born beautiful and becoming chill through friendship and feng shui. “My mom was a yoga instructor, so that practice is in my blood. I love an intense vinyasa class—and even better if it’s blasting hip-hop and done in a dark room with candlelight. The best.”

Hardly anything sectarian, racially or religiously, got in the way of Meghan’s perusal of intimacy’s options or capitalism’s cultural buffet. Her story sailed smooth in the whitened force of L.A. county transitions between asanas, stymied only when she hit the ancestral wall of British colonialism and its legacies, including those that led precisely to vinyasa breathing and its American retail availability.

Winfrey’s story, by contrast, was one of archetypal Black segregation, including, as a signal element, early immersion in Baptist church life, which was where she developed both an ability to recite Bible verses and a revulsion toward patriarchal pastors. Throughout her biography are the potholes of systemic racism and her escape from profound sexual violence through reading, relentless relating, and spiritual seeking. Her self-realization, never quite finished, never smacks of naïveté. In the late-career choreographed pastels of an outdoor Santa Barbara salon, she remains calm in cashmere and couture glasses, if also in a ready carnivorous crouch. At any moment in the Meghan and Harry interview, one could imagine her yelling out, “What kind of a fool are you?” She never does. This dialogue, perhaps, is the place where she gets nearest:

oprah Everybody who gets married knows you’re really marrying the family. But you weren’t just marrying a family, you were marrying a 1,200-year-old institution, you’re marrying the monarchy. What did you think it was going to be like?

meghan I would say I went into it naively because I didn’t grow up knowing much about the Royal Family. It wasn’t part of something that was part of conversation at home. It wasn’t something that we followed. My mum even said to me a couple of months ago, “Did Diana ever do an interview?” Now I can say, “Yes, a very famous one,” but my mum doesn’t know that.

oprah But you were aware of the royals and, if you were going to marry into the royals, you’d do research about what that would mean?

meghan I didn’t do any research about what that would mean.

oprah You didn’t do any research?

meghan No. I didn’t feel any need to, because everything I needed to know he was sharing with me. Everything we thought I needed to know, he was telling me.

oprah So, you didn’t have a conversation with yourself, or talk to your friends about what it would be like to marry a prince, who is Harry, who you had fallen in love with…you didn’t give it a lot of thought?

meghan No. We thought a lot about what we thought it might be.

You didn’t? You didn’t? Repeating a question is not normal in the Oprah vernacular; the energy should flow, not stumble. Here she almost says but never does what much of Black Twitter subsequently observed, namely that Markle’s racial surprise betrays how much whiteness informed her self-maximalization and prepared her poorly to reckon with what she met in the Mountbatten-Windsor family. Prior to her marriage, nothing in Meghan’s life suggested she needed to learn more than the next posture and a strong exhale. She forged herself as an instrument of aesthetic power, not political consciousness. Oprah says, Didn’t you, didn’t you? Meghan says, Why would you, unless you had to?

Oprah is the author and auteur of the present modernity in which people treat their experience as expertise.

What Winfrey suggests through her line of inquiry is that Meghan Markle meeting the British Empire was, if not exactly a fair match, less a meeting of unequal opponents than a richly deserved encounter between monarchic colonizers and their post-colonial new celebrity scion. At an L.A. premiere of a new show on her network, OWN, Oprah spoke about Harry and Meghan’s 2018 marriage ceremony. “It was more than a wedding, I thought. It was a cultural moment. And you could not be there or watching on television… and not feel that there was a shift that just happened in the middle of it.” Oprah does not gush about the wedding or its romance; she has never publicly said adoring things about the couple or their love. What she saw in that moment, in that church, was neither the decolonization of the monarchy nor the diminishment of heteropatriarchy. She saw what she has been saying for years, namely that the world changes not by overt acts of politics but by the expression of everyday feelings.

Whether you agree with this claim to power matters less than that you must know it is, indisputably, an idiom Oprah perfected— an idiom that became the basis of billions of Facebook posts and Tweets in which individuals murmur and shout and ruthlessly, indiscriminately share what they feel. There is no “I feel like…” without Oprah. There is no #MeToo or #BLM without Oprah. There is no Obama or Trump without Oprah. She is the person who made our feelings the touchstone of entry into, and fighting in, public life. Oprah built a form of interrogative relation in which people could express themselves and someone very good at listening would hear. She also made possible an audience’s observation of that relation. Many will follow her, but as they do, they should pause to observe that her witness was rarely without silences in which she did not say everything she felt about what she heard. This gap is space for us to fill. We could nod in agreement; shake our heads and throw a can; we could turn and talk to the person sitting next to us. We could also decide that we had solidarity with a large group of people who share that same pain. A ritual can be seen as a kind of social control. It can also be an opening to join a community where you may witness and debate what transpires when people transform what they are because of what has been said.

Oprah made the expression of feeling the major collective rite of the contemporary Anglophone world. This language is newly imperative, newly consequential, and so it is unsurprising how unwieldy it is and how messy some of the results of its circulation are. Oprah watches us trip over our tongues, trip over each other, as we start to speak and seem at times truly incompetent in our listening. From a Montecito castle, she nods at our street placards, insurgent shouts, and occasional ineptitude, restful in the confidence that she is the author and auteur of the present modernity in which people treat their experience as expertise. In this dominion of our struggle to say what we feel and make these feelings matter, really matter, she has no rival for the throne.

Kathryn Lofton is the Lex Hixon Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at Yale University.
Originally published:
September 20, 2021

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