Wednesday, November 12, 2008

O say can you see... the mixed messages?

By Peale Iglehart

It’s true. Reading O is one my guilty pleasures. I savor Dr. Phil’s advice. I pore over “The O List” (Oprah’s list of must-haves for the month). I read O because sometimes there are hilarious questions posed for the beauty expert (“I’ve developed a hideous bunion. Is surgery my only option?”). Sometimes there are intriguing conundrums in the advice column (“Should I set up a nanny-cam?”). Occasionally there are touching, beautifully-written articles. Sometimes there are just plain ridiculous articles and ads. Always there is contradiction.

Oprah Inc. packages itself as a woman’s therapist, personal shopper, and best friend all in one. The subtitle of the magazine literally states: “Live Your Best Life.” This makes O magazine sound like a woman’s ticket to happiness. The October 2008 cover promises “The Happiness Plan: Latest research on finding joy.” The November 2008 cover vows to deliver “22 simple, surprising, brilliant rules to live by.” Ladies, “You don’t have to be thin to be gorgeous”—the October 2008 issue shows you “the knockout clothes that prove it.” In other words, the covers assure, O will lead you to fulfillment and feeling good. Live by these rules, follow this plan, buy this stationery and that skirt. It’s simple! You’ll never want again! O will show you the way to feeling good about yourself. (If all else fails, eat more walnuts. O is fond of dispensing this advice.)

But of course O’s motive is not so simple. O holds up self-love as an ultimate goal, but page after page of advertisements and articles are designed in fact to undermine women’s confidence in themselves and to make them think they need all kinds of gadgets—from a certain shade of eye shadow to (literally) an $80 plastic bag sealer—in order to live that better life. (Just to clarify: obviously this hypocrisy does not come as a surprise. We see it in all kinds of magazines, from Cosmopolitan to Real Simple and the list goes on. I am just focusing on the mixed messages in O.)

O confirms the status quo rather than undermining it. For instance, in the October 2008 issue (page 66, if you’ve been hoarding the issues too), we see the headline: “Housewife Saves the World!: At last, a movie that portrays women’s work as a heroic calling.” It’s a review of the movie Blindness, with Julianne Moore. I skipped over the plot to the last few sentences of the blurb: “Blindness conjures a world where an ordinary gal has a uniquely menial kind of greatness thrust upon her, where the drudgery of mopping and laundering is a noble calling and procuring groceries is a do-or-die blood sport—a test of leadership, in fact. Who would have thought it: women’s work as the stuff of movie heroism.” Cringe. Granted, some women (some men, too) like house work. (Vacuuming and Fantastik-ing are cathartic for me in times of stress.) But there’s something unsettling about the cheerfulness of this movie review (I don’t think it’s meant in a tongue-in-cheek way), particularly when it’s juxtaposed with page after page of ads for cleaning products, beauty products, and low-fat snacks.

Then there are articles like “The Tipping Point,” an October 2008 feature about Botox that poses the question: “What is it that finally pushes a woman into doing something about her anxious little frown lines, her mousy hair, or whatever she’s (more or less) ‘accepted’ about her looks? Three women step up to O’S BEAUTY CHALLENGE and discover what they can and can’t live with.” (Maybe you hadn’t thought about this before, ladies, but those “anxious little frown lines”? Yeah…those should be a source of anguish if they aren’t already. )

In August 2008, The New York Times ran a story on a woman who literally lived for an entire year of her life following Oprah’s advice word for word: what car to buy, what to wear on a date, which movies to watch, how to de-clutter your house, etc. The woman, Robin Okrant, said, “Oprah’s like the popular girl in high school who knows how to emotionally blackmail us…The way she’ll deliver advice is, ‘This will make you happy, unless you don’t have enough self-esteem to do it.’ ” She described Oprah’s empire as providing “the illusion of free choice, but it’s actually an absence of choice. When I’m told that it’s my fault that something’s not working, it’s a little bit of a blow.”

Exactly. O claims to be improving women’s lives—to make them simpler, less stressful, happier. But really O just gives women more reasons to feel less happy, more dissatisfied—and thus more inclined to buy that pink mixing bowl and that calcium-fortified chewing gum.

So wake up, Robin Okrants of the world! Recognize Oprah’s sabotage for what it is! You have nothing to lose but your source on the latest and priciest anti-cellulite cream! Is it that simple? I, for one, don’t think so. And neither, apparently, does Robin Okrant. Despite her misgivings about following Oprah’s every command, Okrant says: “It takes a huge amount of pressure off to be handed a spiritual path….I’m kind of embarrassed to admit, but I can understand why people want it to be that way.” A spiritual path?! Is this what Oprah has tricked her readers into thinking she is providing? Maybe… Maybe not. Oprah is definitely providing something…but what? It’s more than just a list of what to buy and how to dress—but less, most of us would agree, than “a spiritual path.”

And yet O fills some kind of need—for the Robin Okrants out there and for me and for all the motley readers in between. Okrant derives a sense of comfort from following Oprah’s advice to a tee; I derive a sense of comfort from (alternately) deriding and embracing the commandments of O. I think we could say the same about lots of controversial female figures, from Sarah Palin to Britney Spears to Lauren Conrad. We love them, we hate them, we deride them, we revere them. We feel mixed-up about them. We feel mixed-up about ourselves.


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