The Glory of Oprah

Why the “talkinest child” understands women and the power of television better than anyone else

Because into every household in America, no matter how low or mean or outright evil, into each squalid nest and decent place pours the great, pure light of television. And there, sitting on the linoleum floor of her mother’s long-ago apartment, was Oprah Winfrey, her face tilted up to take it all in. She missed most of Diana Ross’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, because she was on the phone calling everyone—“Colored person on the television! Colored person on the television!” She was in that same apartment (the one where she was first raped) when she turned on the Academy Awards and saw Sidney Poitier stepping out of a limousine, and she ran to the telephone again: “Colored person stepping out of a limousine!”

She watched Leave It to Beaver, and in the absence of a cookie-baking mother, she dreamed on his. She got older, and she started watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and she fell so in love with Mary and Lou and Ted, with Mary’s apartment and Mary’s life, that she would wash her hair before the show and leave the conditioner in for the whole 30 minutes, not washing it off until Bob Newhart came on, because she didn’t want to miss a second. She came of age as a television watcher in the days when every story on TV had a happy ending, when the idea of America as a place filled with kindly and often corny people was something that was mostly true—maybe even only true—on television. And she came of age when black people were just beginning to make their way into that magical, safe place.

And from there, she got an idea. So when she tells us she had to cry for two hours in the bath before she felt safe enough to even attempt an interview with Diana Ross without sobbing the whole time, when she cries through an interview with Mary Tyler Moore, she’s not falling apart because she’s crazy about celebrities. She’s falling apart because these people, whom she had known only through television, are the link to the life she once led, and only narrowly escaped. Meeting them, being on some kind of par with them, is the ultimate act of dreaming true; her tears are a response, not just to that famous person, but to the glory of God.

There are certain things about women that men will never understand, in part because they have no interest in understanding them. They will never know how deeply we care about our houses—what a large role they play in our dreams for ourselves, how unhappy their shortcomings make us. Men think they understand the way our physical beauty—or lack of it, or assaults on it from age or extra weight—preys on our minds, but they don’t fully grasp the significance these things have for us. Nor can they understand the way physical comforts or simple luxuries—the fresh towel or the fat new cake of soap—can lift our spirits. And they will never know how much our lives are shaped around the fear of bad men and the harm they can bring us if we’re not careful, if we’re not banded together, if we’re not telling each other what to watch out for, what we’ve learned. We need each other’s counsel, and oftentimes it comes when we’re talking about other things, when we seem not to have much important on our minds at all.

The other day, I watched online as Oprah was interviewed at the offices of Facebook. She was asked to give her instant responses to a series of “lightning round” questions—what did she like more, Beloved or The Color Purple? The journey or the destination? And then a silly question, a reference to what was an annual treat of the Oprah show, the “Favorite Things” episode, which featured her favorite products and clothes and inventions of the year. “What is your favorite Favorite Thing?” asked the moderator, in a cheerfully wicked, teasing sort of way. The audience loved it, and Oprah sat back, clearly aware of the implications her answer would have; it seemed she was preparing a way of evading the question—but she wasn’t. She leaned forward in her chair and said—in all seriousness and sincerity, and in tones of great certainty—“The Breville panini maker.” Everyone laughed like it was a joke, but it wasn’t a joke. The appliance—“which can also be used for bacon,” Oprah said, “and can be used for fish”—was the clear favorite, and she said its name again, a coronation: “The Breville panini maker.”

I wandered away from the computer, went to the kitchen, and took a newly disappointed look at my Griddler panini press. I lifted its top and wondered if it might be able to make bacon, but I immediately apprehended its shortcomings. For a couple of weird seconds, I had such a fierce desire for a Breville that I contemplated buying one and becoming a two-panini-press household. But then my better judgment took hold, and I hurried back to the computer. It had been a couple of months since I’d had this much time with Oprah, and I was eager to hear what else she had to say.

Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan’s book Girl Land will be published in January. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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