Illustration by Keira Alexandra
Illustration by Keira Alexandra

In her 25 years hosting her eponymous show, Oprah Winfrey changed lives, most notably her own, but she did not change American culture. Rather, she revived and extended an old American phenomenon: the tradition of middlebrow self-improvement that many observers assumed had died in the anti-authority turmoil of the 1960s. While anything but radical, this achievement was nonetheless remarkable.

To understand its significance, positive and negative, consider two other media institutions that also debuted in 1986. The first is Spy magazine, defunct since 1998. Enormously influential, particularly in New York media circles, Spy pioneered the snobby, snarky cynicism that many writers under 50 still equate with sophistication. Spy did change the culture.

Both Spy and "The Oprah Winfrey Show" sold gossip and personal stories. Both made their audiences feel like members of a club of superior people. Both were self-congratulatory. But the bases for their self-congratulation were, of course, very different. Spy and its audience prided themselves on being wised-up, clever and edgy; Oprah and her audience on being empathetic, optimistic and resilient. If "Oprah" was about uplift, Spy was about putting people in their place.

Winfrey was one of the magazine’s earliest targets. A profile in Spy’s third issue mocked her weight, her “poodlish starlet’s existence,” her exuberance and her frank yearning to be rich and famous. Calling her a “binge dreamer,” author Bill Zehme compared her to the delusional, self-dramatizing Norma Desmond of "Sunset Boulevard."

Creating a Mogul

This young woman, “capaciously built, black and extremely noisy,” had actually told him, “I certainly intend to be the richest black woman in America. I intend to be a mogul.” She thought she had “a higher calling” and deemed herself “profoundly effective.” She owned multiple fur coats and an $800,000 high-rise condo. Her crassness was surpassed only by her absurdity.

Oprah was the antithesis of everything Spy stood for: a ridiculous striver with a poor girl’s lust for luxury and no apparent sense of irony. In 1986, she was also only 32 and not yet mature, either as a person or as a talk-show host.

Her defining moment came about a decade later, when she made the risky strategic decision not to continue the race to the trashy bottom against hosts like Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer. In her new incarnation, Winfrey abandoned skinheads and family feuds for books and good deeds. Embracing her identity as the latest avatar of all-American self-improvement, she inspired viewers with guests who had triumphed over adversity. She encouraged fans to read sometimes-challenging literary novels.

Earnest, Middlebrow Wholesomeness

Spy, in response, called her a “spunky pudgeball” and declared her book club one of the 100 most irritating developments of 1997. What Spy found loathsome wasn’t the tawdry side of talk shows. It was Oprah’s earnest, middlebrow wholesomeness.

Though scorned by hip Manhattanites, that ethos turned out to have a huge and lucrative market, particularly among female baby boomers. Witness not only the fabled Oprah Effect but the other great media debut of 1986: the American Girl dolls and their accompanying line of books. Over the past 25 years, almost 20 million American Girl dolls, which retail for about $100 each, and more than 135 million American Girl books have been sold. In 1998, Mattel acquired the company for $700 million. Publisher’s Weekly calls it a “publishing powerhouse.”

Every resourceful, ambitious, empathetic American Girl would be right at home on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" -- where, in fact, the dolls all appeared during a 2007 episode. “I love the stories of inspiration and how the dolls overcame obstacles and the girls were smart and creative and resourceful and clever,” said a mother. As Winfrey went behind the scenes at American Girl headquarters, a marketing executive assured moms at home that “there are enormously powerful life lessons and stories that are embedded in these innocent little books.”

Smart-Girl Culture

The books teach girls to stand up for what they believe, to help friends in trouble, to treat everyone with compassion and respect, to study and learn, and to take initiative. If these lessons sound like nothing new, that’s the point. American Girl is the late-20th-century manifestation of smart-girl culture. It’s the racially sensitive, environmentally conscious, post-feminist successor to Louisa May Alcott and Nancy Drew. (Molly, the World War II–era character, reads Nancy Drew books and even solves a mystery of her own.) Like Oprah, American Girl is earnest, old-fashioned and fantastically successful.

Limits of Optimism

It’s also fiction designed for children. And therein lies the problem with middlebrow self-improvement, Oprah-style. Yes, compared to the vicious negativity of Spy, Winfrey’s relentless optimism -- her affirmation that every person and every situation can be redeemed -- is refreshing. But you don’t have to be a snarky cynic to recognize its limits. Should we really find Elie Wiesel’s bleak "Night" an uplifting read? Treat Auschwitz as a learning experience? Seriously?

Oprah-ism doesn’t foster nuance or critical thinking. Yet even at its most philosophically ridiculous, it does manifest a singular, and characteristically American, virtue: It moves forward. The past, it affirms, is over and cannot be changed. What matters now is what happens next.

And so, having proved herself a realist after all, the binge dreamer moves on.

(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

To contact the writer of this column: vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net