Oprah’s Appeal

Flanagan-wideIn a long rambling essay for Atlantic Monthly where I kept wondering "where the fuck are you going with this?", Caitlyn Flanagan talks about Oprah. (Note to the Atlantic editors: Please edit this woman.)

Flanagan writes that Oprah's popularity is due to the fact she understands the female mind. 

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.

What do you think? 

40 thoughts on “Oprah’s Appeal

  1. I think it’s a mistake, just because (i) you have a feeling and (ii) you are a woman, to think that all women have the same feeling. People are very different. My wife has about half of what Caitlin Flanagan thinks are essential female characteristics, and so does my daughter (not the same half, though).

  2. Yeah, this kind of essentializing drives me nuts. It’s also tied up with the idea that if you’re not obsessed with your house, for example, you are not a real woman. But of course I am inclined to do some essentializing of my own, which is that I think that women are better at parsing out every bit of detail in any person’s life or any kind of relationship, and are more interested in it than men (who sometimes think they are crazy for doing this, while at the same time being able to spout equally detailed accounts of sports figures or Lord of the Rings). So Flanagan’s analysis is interesting to talk about, because it does that kind of “here’s what [person/group] is really like” talk.

  3. Wait, what?? Is this for real? It sounds pretty much like the awful “Womanspace” thing published in Nature that my Twitter feed was ranting about yesterday (short version: middle-aged man writes that because his wife can find things in stores he can never find, women must have the ability to access parallel universes men never can. And women will find replacement men there. Yeah, it’s a fun piece).
    Admittedly, I’m reacting to the paragraph above b/c I can’t bear to read the whole thing. But this kind of writing, apart from generalizing ridiculously about women, also sells men way too short. The only one I’d maybe buy is that men have a hard time recognizing things women learn to fear as a matter of course. But even that needs to be modified from what she wrote.

  4. Either Caitlyn Flanagan is full of crap or I’m not a real woman. Probably a bit of both. All I know is if I’m having a terrible day and my spouse gifts me a freaking bar of soap to lighten my spirits he’s in for a good pummeling.
    I might have something more substantial to say when I actually read the article but that might be wishful thinking.

  5. I’m not reacting well to the “we” in the Atlantic piece. Sorry, I’ve never been able to be that obsessed with homemaking.
    That may explain why I’ve never watched Oprah, apart from the fact that I never watch TV during the day.

  6. Okay — to not exactly play devil’s advocate, and not to buy into essentialist bullshit, but — obviously all women are different and there is nothing we can say applies to “all women,” but Oprah managed to somehow accumulate a large (mostly — not entirely) female audience that no one else has been able to replicate, outside of sparkly vampire movies.
    So, maybe we can generalize and essentialize about “women who are big Oprah fans?” I remember reading once that the reason that there is no much crap TV in the world is that we are all very diverse in our higher-order interest, but very common in our baser, lower-order interests.
    If I love fat soap cakes and immersing myself in the the synesthetic novels of Proust, and you love fat soap cakes and listening to the mathematically-modeled classical music of contemporary Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, then we end up with TV show about fat soap cakes that garner twice the audience as shows about Proust of Xenakis. It’s not that all women, at heart, love fat soap cakes, it’s just that there are fewer categories of “guilty pleasure” than there are categories of “mind-expanding, proud, high brow pleasures.”

  7. “Okay — to not exactly play devil’s advocate, and not to buy into essentialist bullshit, but — obviously all women are different and there is nothing we can say applies to “all women,” but Oprah managed to somehow accumulate a large (mostly — not entirely) female audience that no one else has been able to replicate, outside of sparkly vampire movies.”
    Indeed. Oprah didn’t become a gazillionaire (and launch dozens of best sellers) by underestimating the American female mind.
    “I remember reading once that the reason that there is no much crap TV in the world is that we are all very diverse in our higher-order interest, but very common in our baser, lower-order interests.”
    Very true.

  8. “So I shouldn’t give soap as a Christmas gift?”
    Well, it depends on your particular woman.
    Which, of course, is the problem everyone has identified with the piece.
    But, what she writes is true about me, and lots of other women I know, and not true about lots of men. As always, though, your own mileage might vary.
    “It’s not that all women, at heart, love fat soap cakes, it’s just that there are fewer categories of “guilty pleasure” than there are categories of “mind-expanding, proud, high brow pleasures.””
    Nice summary. Except that I think that fat soaps and neat houses are not guilty pleasures. Maybe simple pleasures?

  9. And our shared pleasures in nicely designed houses and kitchen counter tops definitely brings me to 11D (in addition to the other stuff).
    There was a funny article in a shelter magazine that I read ages ago and haven’t been able to find again that talked about the trials of being an architect’s wife: the essential subversion of the gender roles in the house, done differently. The wife bemoaned the fact that she’d never gotten to chose the tchotchkes for the bathroom, something she’d previously considered an essential right of womanhood.

  10. Actually this is why I always liked Phil Donahue better than Oprah; Phil got to the political and social policies affecting women’s lives. Oprah always seemed to want to tell me that a bubble bath and writing in my gratitude journal would fix everything.

  11. “So I shouldn’t give soap as a Christmas gift?”
    As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what I asked my MIL for Christmas last year. After about a decade of getting clothes that didn’t fit me (I am a very different height and shape from MIL) and books that I didn’t want to read, I asked for lavender-scented soap. And I got it, along with lavender-scented bath salts. The soap was fantastic and lasted about half a year. This is related to Ragtime’s point about shared lower-order interests, I think–it’s much easier to get lower-order stuff right in gift-giving.
    I also asked my husband for soap that year, and I got an assortment of Bee and Flower stuff. I was a bit disappointed with a couple of the scents (ginseng!!!), but of you like sandalwood at all, you can’t go wrong with this stuff:
    http://www.amazon.com/Bee-Flower-Chinese-Sandalwood-2-65oz/dp/B000K74USQ
    It’s $13 for a 12-pack, which is super. The rose isn’t bad, either.
    Scent is so individual, though, that you’d better ask in advance which scent to get.

  12. And our shared pleasures in nicely designed houses and kitchen counter tops definitely brings me to 11D (in addition to the other stuff).
    And I’m here to explore my conflicted feelings about education policy/ teachers unions/ the value of college/ real estate tax redistribution, etc. I tend to skip the threads on kitchen counter tops.
    It’s probably why I like 11D more than I like Oprah, but why Oprah somehow managed to have a bigger audience.
    Also, the three Raggirls are not particularly girlie in the “Oprah” sense, but would be in heaven if I got them each a new “bath bomb” to use in their tubs every night.

  13. “There was a funny article in a shelter magazine that I read ages ago and haven’t been able to find again that talked about the trials of being an architect’s wife: the essential subversion of the gender roles in the house, done differently. The wife bemoaned the fact that she’d never gotten to chose the tchotchkes for the bathroom, something she’d previously considered an essential right of womanhood.”
    That would absolutely kill me. Here’s a similar story, this time with an artist:
    http://dearwendy.com/columns/how-can-we-make-his-home-our-home/
    We all want equality, except we’d also like to keep control over the good stuff.

  14. “Except that I think that fat soaps and neat houses are not guilty pleasures. Maybe simple pleasures?”
    Lower-order pleasures, maybe. Cuddling with your children–or, in a slightly different way, with your spouse–is one of life’s greatest pleasures, but it’s one that even cats can share. Similarly, one doesn’t need to have been exposed to the best that has been thought and said, or even to be literate, in order to appreciate a nice house. So it’s a lower-order pleasure than Metaphysical poetry.

  15. Sorry, Ragtime, but I think it’s time for a countertop post.
    Look, lots of things make me happy. I can go from Proust to Perez Hilton probably faster than anybody here. I probably like politics and countertops equally, just depends on what mood I am in at that moment.

  16. Of course it’s to the magazine’s and Oprah’s benefit to paint her as uniquely able to address and express women’s needs. Obviously that’s true for some women, or she wouldn’t be so popular. What would an essay from somebody not in that set look like? “Oprah reinforces the kyriarchy and oppresses me with female stereotypes that reject my desires and deny my choices.”
    And I’ve watched Oprah, to gain insight into an alien culture.

  17. “something she’d previously considered an essential right of womanhood.”
    Right or rite? I think the distinction is important. “Right” speaks to freedom and the individual, whereas “rite” speaks to ritual and the collective. And I think the latter applies to Oprah.
    I think Oprah is constructing a collective ethos of womanhood that’s based on shared experiences, but let’s not forget that those shared experiences are circumscribed by gender inequality. OK, to get less academic, let me put it this way: Women are encouraged, pretty much from birth, to be interested in pretty, nice-smelly things like fat bars of soap. We get rewarded for these interests, especially when we make social connections based on them. People like us if we like the same pretty nice-smelly things! And then we all go off and buy those pretty nice-smelly things together, in malls, which are designed to make us feel good because we get to eat buttery Auntie Anne’s pretzels and coo over earrings and shoes. And then boys look at us and we enjoy that, because they don’t look at us with approval if we’re not wearing pretty nice-smelly things and instead talking about math or Doctor Who or Occupy Wall Street or something like that.
    Blah blah blah. I guess I can sum up my point by saying that I’d rather spend a half hour in a hot tub with Jerry Sandusky than read Caitlin Flanagan.

  18. It’s easy to poke holes in her article point by point but I do believe that there is some truth to the idea that any subordinate group does experience life in certain ways differently than the dominant group. Of course all woman are not the same – lacking a link unfortunately but I recall reading somewhere that there are a wider range of differences within each gender than between genders.
    That being said, as a , there are certain shared characteristics/experiences/beliefs/interests.
    Being from a subordinate group myself, there’s a shorthand and a way of interacting and a common background that is “known” when I meet someone else new from the same subordinate group. And for the most part, it goes completely under the radar of the dominant group.
    Kinda like a secret handshake.
    And call me crazy but I am someone who likes to debate the big questions AND also enjoys good design and decor. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

  19. “I can go from Proust to Perez Hilton probably faster than anybody here.”
    Dude, if I’d known it was a race, I would have referenced Foucault or Butler or someone in the above comment.

  20. Yeah, me too. I could have gone from higher than John Donne to lower than nice houses, if I had known. Sappho (in the original) to Hershey’s bars, or something.

  21. “And call me crazy but I am someone who likes to debate the big questions AND also enjoys good design and decor. They aren’t mutually exclusive.”
    Yes, and I like sequins, too. As well as programming and talking about neurotransmitters and synapses, and debating policy questions.
    I deny that houses are any less high brow than John Donne (or Sappho in the original). I’ll admit I can’t make the same argument for soap (though someone might be able to). Part of what I enjoy about Laura’s house links is that they are informed (Ok, informed the way most of us are about Donne, and not reading ancient greek, but still, not effortless, like cuddling with your kid).

  22. Might as well insert some gender stuffs too from a political/historical point of view…I believe that there is an honour in making a home for yourself and/or your family. And it is something of value – the glue that holds a lot of society together.
    All those old white males debating philosophy/making art/making wars wouldn’t have gotten a smidge of what they achieved done if they didn’t have someone feeding/clothing/washing up after them.
    Kinda like the split between decorate/textile arts and “ART” with a capital “A”.
    We can all be flippant about Martha or Oprah but they each built billion dollar empires that did tap into something in us that does value/appreciate making a nest.

  23. “Sorry, Ragtime, but I think it’s time for a countertop post.”
    Very true. I vote for either
    1. quartz
    or
    2. white, black, or charcoal laminate or some other colored laminate–it lasts way longer than you expect (or want it to last, frankly)
    Granite or marble is OK, I guess, but I’d have a lot more peace of mind with quartz.
    “Yes, rite is better (can I pretend it was a typo?).”
    I was wondering about right/rite myself, and I like it either way.
    “We can all be flippant about Martha or Oprah but they each built billion dollar empires that did tap into something in us that does value/appreciate making a nest.”
    It is way better to have a nice home than to not have a nice home. And anybody who disagrees with that, go here:
    http://www.hulu.com/hoarders

  24. Kinda like the split between decorate/textile arts and “ART” with a capital “A”.
    Which is often a gendered distinction. The feminist turn in economic geography was all about incorporating home-making and household production as economic production–in previous measures, these things were not counted as economic activities, because they did not leave the household unit and enter the market. And that can devalue women (and children’s) labor.
    But seriously, if there is a gene for potpourri and heavily scented soap, I think my X chromosome must be lacking it. Or it didn’t get expressed or something due to epigenetics. Can I blame acid rain for that? Or plastics?
    Or, in other words: another “what you mean we?” reaction. It’s one thing to attempt to explain a cultural phenomenon. It’s another thing to psychoanalyze me/your reader based on something he/she/it has never seen, thought, or said. Even Oprah’s success and numbers do not indicate that 50% of the American population is watching her or buying her merchandise.
    That sort of over-generalization will engender hostility, and seems to me to be lazy writing, if not lazy thinking.

  25. “We can all be flippant about Martha or Oprah but they each built billion dollar empires that did tap into something in us that does value/appreciate making a nest.”
    I agree with that, but not with the gender essentialism. I can’t imagine my wife doing craftsy, Martha Stewart stuff. She likes doing executive compensation law. (It’s not, pace Elizabeth Warren, that she has to be a lawyer; she wants to be a lawyer.) Also, my wife hates what she would call “frou frou”–decorative napkin folds, Victorian linen runners, etc. I usually do all that stuff, which led my daughter to comment that “[Miss y81] has two mommies.”

  26. See, I personally love soap (so much that I learned to make my own). But I kinda hate countertop posts. But is that my blow against gender essentialism, or is it that with the exception of 2001-2004 I’ve never been in the position to own a home, and hence pondering countertops is really annoying because I can’t choose my own? Are there class/economic elements to this “we” Flanagan’s talking about?
    I also totally agree with the idea that 1) women get encouraged to worry about stuff like how our homes look and whether we’re pretty so we don’t interfere with the important stuff, and 2) that subordinate groups share something the dominant groups don’t. That’s why the only thing in that paragraph I could buy is the fear of violence bit. But I don’t think that’s inherently gendered, except that in our society (as in basically all of them, sigh), it’s women who are subordinated. It’s not because women qua women are somehow better at recognizing violence than men are.
    (I could buy this as a description of “women who love Oprah” rather than women, in part because I never watch the show and it drives me nuts. But I’d bet a lot of women watch for different reasons, and suffer through the topics they don’t like for the ones they do. So it would be interesting to parse the fan phenomenon more finely.)

  27. “…hence pondering countertops is really annoying because I can’t choose my own?”
    Ah, but that way you don’t have to settle down with one kind of countertop, but can enjoy a virtual harem of them that will never stain, never chip, never scorch or rot and never get dated. It’s kind of nice to play the field with regard to countertops.
    “But I don’t think that’s inherently gendered, except that in our society (as in basically all of them, sigh), it’s women who are subordinated.”
    I think that you could take most feminist texts and replace the word “patriarchy” with “reality” or “all advanced civilization as it has ever existed on Planet Earth” and it would mean more or less the same thing.
    “I could buy this as a description of “women who love Oprah” rather than women…”
    When I was a kid in the late 80s/very early 90s, high school boys on the school bus were quite unembarrassed about their plan to go home and watch Oprah (she came on at 4PM, I think, which was exactly right for our after-school schedule). It’s only since then that Oprah has evolved into this female icon. Back then she was just a talk show host, and there were lots of them.

  28. Ah, but that way you don’t have to settle down with one kind of countertop, but can enjoy a virtual harem of them that will never stain, never chip, never scorch or rot and never get dated. It’s kind of nice to play the field with regard to countertops.
    Ah, but Amy P., isn’t that just what’s driving up the countertop divorce… I mean remodeling rate in this country? This culture where we encourage young home-owners that they can achieve anything, and so they keep waiting for Mr. Right Countertop, which never materializes, instead of settling for Countertop Right-Now?
    (Oh man, I’ve not been made that uncomfortable in making a joke than I have in years. Ugh. Stupid dating female self-help literature.)

  29. Very good. A countertop is nearly a lifetime commitment (or it least it had better be at $40-100 per square foot), so the analogy between countertops and dating really isn’t that wild.

  30. We collected items we loved. That made us feel good and we did not especially want to get rich on them. And we never spent a fortune on them. He bought a 1940? AC tractor and combine from a collectible business. It is big, but I just can’t remember it’s name right now. It cost him $375, but it was an exact replica of one his father bought new and used. When my husband died, it went to one of his brothers and will stay in the family. We feel they were worth every bit of what they cost to us, as they brought us wonderful memories.

  31. MH-
    My grandmother says you should never give soap as a present, it’s unspeakably rude. I don’t know if it’s a generation thing or a cultural.
    On houses-
    I once took a gender quiz on the internet about 3 times, and each time it told me I was a man, which might explain my lack of interest in decorating and tchotchkes. My ex-husband had complete control over furniture, appliance, and tchotchke decoration, and I was more than happy to let him be in charge. Ironically, now everyone who comes to my apartment (including a male interior designer) compliments me on my great taste and eye for home decoration. If it were up to me, I’d probably be using cardboard boxes for tables and have nothing on the walls. I also am totally capable of winning the “I’m not cleaning this” game of chicken that women supposedly care more about. I know this is just personal experience as an anecdote, but that’s pretty much Flanagan’s modus operandi, so I’ll offer this as an alternative.

  32. We have been spending time at the Indiana Dunes with some of our homeschool buddies, and our kids have taken well to to the art of the camp fire, and roasting hot dogs and marshmallows. Above, Marin collecting long, thin sticks that can poke through our treats for the fire. Below, cold, bare grey and brown tree branches. Lots and lots of branches. We are again down to the blue sky for color, when we can see it.

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