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[META] Oprah Winfrey and Joss Whedon: Transformative Works from Within

Typically, I think that this space should be reserved for celebrating the achievements, creative works, and intellectual production of fans themselves, and not those of the incredibly rich owners of the media franchises that give us some of our most important raw material. But I’ve been thinking about Oprah all week, naturally, and I think that her audience-centered finale merits meta-fannish discussion. However, I also know that the Oprah franchise is controversial, perhaps even more so in circles that concern themselves with complex media representations generally than in the broader social world. And so, I thought I’d look at an isolated moment from her address in combination with a similar moment from one of Joss Whedon’s addresses to his fans, in order to draw out some crucial shared tendencies in these two promoters of women-centered media, who in so many other ways speak past each other.

Oprah organized her final show as a love letter to her fans, but she also used the opportunity to construct a narrative of the show’s history, and the way in which it inserted itself into the media landscape, ultimately effecting real changes in many lives. Not coincidentally, early on in this narrative, she explicitly addressed her own transition from passive consumer of the media landscape to creator, who, though still a consumer of others’ stories, took on an increasingly active role in shaping the way in which (and the extent to which) they could be heard by people who needed to hear them. She said,

“When I started this show, it was a revelation to all of us how much dysfunction there was in people’s lives. I grew up with Leave It to Beaver and Andy Griffith. I thought everybody’s family life was like that, even though I knew mine was not. Well this show, and our guests, began to paint a different picture and allowed us to drop the veil on all the pretense and do exactly what we envisioned in that first show: to let people know that you are not alone.” (transcript of the finale available here)

One of the most common criticisms I encounter about the Oprah franchise is that “it’s all about her.” But in moments like this, it’s most definitely not. Her openness about her life, especially about her own intellectual and personal growth over time, is what has made her show so relevant for so long. Certainly, there were many people who were profoundly aware of how much dysfunction there was “in the world” before Oprah, but there were more who lacked the vocabulary with which to contextualize their own experience of such dysfunction, and of these, some were able to connect with the stories that appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Obviously, it’s not enough. But coalition building has to start somewhere, and the more people who can hear a story of abuse without shutting down or getting defensive, the better.

In the introduction to Fray, his comic series about a future kick-ass slayer, Joss Whedon creates a narrative, not too dissimilar from Oprah’s, of his own transition from passive consumer into big name storyteller. Like Oprah, he starts with his childhood, speaking to the theme of girls and comics:

“Don’t get me wrong, there were certainly other things on my mind in my young adolescence. But almost certainly topping the list were girls and comics. More specifically girls in comics. Because, frustratingly, there weren’t that many. At least in the Marvel universe, where I made my nest, there were very few interesting girls young enough for a twelve year old to crush on. … Until Kitty Pryde… Cut to me grown up — yet somehow not remotely matured. The idea for Buffy the Vampire Slayer came from that same lack I felt as a child. Where are the girls? Girls who can fight, who can stand up for themselves, who have opinions and fears and cute outfits?”

And you say Oprah’s cheesy? No, just kidding. Obviously, I love both of them, cheese and all. This is a story about lack, and two authors’ attempts to fill a lack. There have been mistakes along the way, of course, for Whedon as much as for Oprah, but I think that both offer their stories to their fans with a specific mode of inspiration in mind. They are saying, “Look, when I grew up, I was given a story about what the social world looks like. I was also given a social world, and it didn’t look like that. Now, I actively seek out better stories, by creating them, and by creating space for them when they’re not mine to tell.”

A love letter is a very specific kind of writing, and one of the most beautiful things about it, I think, is that one is in no way obligated to respond, be grateful, reciprocate affection, or, and let me be clear about this, buy any associated paraphernalia. Oprah was very insistent on the idea that we all have a platform, and that, regardless of size, we ought to take advantage of it. With our opinions and fears and…cute outfits? Really? No, I’m sorry. But the opinions and fears part. For sure.