Monday , September 28 2020
Robyn Okrant turns her life over to Oprah for an entire year and comes up with some surprising conclusions.

Book Review: Living Oprah by Robyn Okrant

I’m an Oprah kid. Kind of. I didn’t understand much – if any – of her show when it first started its dizzying ascension in the late 80s, early 90s, but I watched most of them. Actually, no; I watched my family watch the show and then have heated debates about whatever the lady with the sometimes alarmingly big hair had to say. It fascinated me how she was able to engender such heated discussion in my very own, usually much quieter living room. And so, as I grew older and my powers of understanding expanded, I started listening to both the lady with the thankfully decreasing hair size and the discussions in my living room. Interestingly enough, it’s the latter that taught me more than the former, but without the former, the latter wouldn’t have existed.

This is one of the biggest lessons Robyn Okrant learned during her year of Living Oprah: it isn’t Oprah’s advice alone that teaches her audience the most, but rather her ability to engender discussion. The path tread by the author during this experiment has brought forth countless other reflections that evolved as she struggled along to live her life by the various dictates given to her by Oprah.

Even if you just want to pick up a book to read without going into pages and pages of philosophical discussion like some people do (guilty!), Living Oprah is a great choice to tote around on a plane or a beach. Robyn Okrant’s writing style is easy to read, informative and dosed with the just the right amount of humour. It’s also a great discussion piece for a book club, or a way to help your Oprah-obsessed friend through a 12 step Opraholics Anonymous program.

While there are many lessons, reflections and learnings to be taken out of this book, the most important thing I took from it is the importance of active learning. The quality of what Oprah gives to her audience has as much to do with what she gives us as what we do with it. While the amount and the quality of the information pouring from Oprah’s various outlets (her show, her website and her magazine) is astounding, alone it can’t empower the audience.

After all, education is not about filling up an empty head with goodies, since a human is “a mine rich in gems of inestimable value". When seen as such, it's only logical that "education can, alone, cause (a human) to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit there from.” As recent education reform after education reform in Canada has shown, learning is about bringing out inherent talents in children rather than filling them up with information. If we have gotten this far in our understanding of educating children, why are we having troubles as adults who continue learning through their entire lives through outlets such as Oprah?

Perhaps part of the problem is that while Oprah and Co. have put a lot of effort in developing content, they haven’t spent as much time tackling the issue of its delivery. During her year of Living Oprah, Robyn Okrant acted as an empty vessel that needed to be filled with Oprah juice. While she herself admits that she did learn some important things (including a new appreciate for leopard-print flats), this learning came at a price. Oprah’s program, which is meant to empower women, made her feel more insecure in her mid-30s than she did as a teen.

Isn't it ironic, don't you think?

But we can't blame Oprah for a phenomenon that is societal. After all, all fashion magazines tend to tell women that they are not thin enough, that their hair isn't shiny enough, that their skin isn't clear enough — in short, that we are not woman enough. In a sea of demotivating messages that make so many women loathe themselves, O magazine is quite unique in its approach. By the same token, Oprah's show has been a unique source of a variety of information that has definitely helped women in North America.

But it seems that perhaps Oprah has just become too big, too much of a brand name, to be able to empower women by her example alone as she used to. Robyn Okrant reflects on this topic, pointing out that while for her, cleaning up her physical space to enable her to clear out her mental space means two days of cleaning and tidying, for Oprah, it means only one thing: hiring a house cleaner.

But neither Robyn nor myself seek to demonize Oprah, who has helped so many women in my life and has inspired me countless times. However, however good Oprah's intentions, her methods need to detach themselves from that of a society nitpicking at a woman's self-worth. It's an incredibly difficult job to do, which is why the emphasis should shift from information-giving (which Oprah is really good at) to accompanying her millions of viewers to learn to digest that information and choose what would suit them at which point in their lives.

After all, I'm sure that even the Queen of Daytime Show would agree that it's not about living life as Oprah sees it. It's about living life as you see it, which is what Oprah has done.

But, as always, change can't come from the top; it has to come from the bottom. While as an audience, we don’t have much choice as to what wisdom and message Oprah chooses to dispense or as to the way with which it is dispensed, we do have a choice in the way we treat this information. If we are to stop being mindless recipients of information, we have to undergo the kind of reflection that Robyn Okrant went through. Granted, we don't all have to do this drastic an experiment (something which I’m sure all our partners are going to be relieved to hear), but maybe if we enter into a pattern of consulting Oprah's material, reflecting on its pertinence in the framework of our life and then act upon the fruits of our reflection, perhaps we would be taking the first step towards the very empowerment Oprah wants for each one of the women watching her show.

After all, however great she is, it’s rather ridiculous to think of Oprah as an infallible source of information and guidance. Why not add another layer of empowerment by actually reflecting on the guidance she offers? Wouldn't that not only give us information about cooking and fashion etc but also be an invaluable lesson in empowerment – and isn’t that, at the end of the day, what Oprah is all about?

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