Una Mullally: Oprah is like Trump but very different
Her Golden Globe speech encapsulated the direction a much broader resistance to Trump needs to take
Oprah Winfrey speaks after accepting the Cecil B. Demille Award at the 75th Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, California, U.S. January 7, 2018. Photograph: Paul Drinkwater/Courtesy of NBC
There’s a moment in the new documentary The Final Year, which follows Barack Obama’s foreign policy team including John Kerry, Samantha Power, and Ben Rhodes throughout 2016, when Rhodes details the US’s crucial mistake regarding Russia and Syria. America’s mistake, Rhodes says, is how the US was slow to recognise that Vladimir Putin does not act in Russia’s interest, but in Putin’s interest. It is a display of almost purposeful naivety that unintentionally casts an eye towards the person who would become the world’s next wannabe autocrat and king of self-interest, Donald Trump.
Watching the (very one-sided, in fairness) documentary evokes the disposition that underpinned much of Obama’s tenure as president: that of empathy. We see Power sitting with mothers of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram and Obama offering nuggets of advice to young people in China and hugging a man who survived the Hiroshima nuclear strike. And in the end, with Trump’s shadow bearing down on the horizon in mushroom cloud form, the aspiration of a people-centred foreign policy comes home, with Obama saying that the future belongs to those young people he met around the world, that they would be the ones to make legislation, to campaign, to run for office, to be leaders. Despite the American carnage that surrounded him, Obama’s tenure ended as it began, in hope.
In the days following 9/11, Rhodes resolved to dispense with the idea of spending his life in New York writing novels, and do something more meaningful for his country. That same resolution (perhaps leaving aside the novel-writing part) will have been made by a countless number of people across the United States the day Trump was elected president.
This sentiment - finding inspiration in darkness - is what made Oprah Winfrey’s proclamation in her Cecil B. de Mille Award acceptance speech at the Golden Globes that “a new day is on the horizon” so compelling. Oprah may have seemed an unlikely presidential candidate before the rulebook was torn up, and maybe she’ll never run, but Democrats should pay attention to the substance of her message. The heightened reaction to the speech shows how desperate Americans are for a port in the storm. In one speech, she managed to offer many comfort and hope in a manner that rose above the current tumult while acknowledging it. Her proclamation evoked the logo for Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008: a literal horizon, the white sphere rising over red and white stripes into a blue sky.
Although existing now in the billionaire class (she was the first multi-billionaire black person in North America), Oprah is the antithesis to Trump in so many ways. She too is a television star, but a much bigger one than Trump. Unlike him, she is self-made, she came from poverty, and her entry point to conversations is compassion. Oprah’s broadcasting style, her interview techniques with subjects, and the emotional terrain she both constructed and navigates makes her one of the key architects of our confessional culture. Her popularity transcends race, creed, or political affiliation. Like Trump, she enjoys a high level of support amongst white women.
Maybe America doesn’t need President Oprah, but it is a country that is in dire need of swinging away from a destructive patriarchy towards something more matriarchal. The mobilising movements offering America hope are matriarchal in their founding; Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, the Me Too and Time’s Up campaigns.
Mary Beard’s excellent book Women and Power, adapted from two lectures, traces the roots of misogyny and the silencing of women to the Romans and the Greeks, and forward into contemporary times. “We have no template for what a powerful woman looks like,” Beard writes, “except that she looks rather like a man. The regulation trouser suits, or at least the trousers, worn by so many Western female political leaders, from Angela Merkel to Hillary Clinton, may be convenient and practical; they may be a signal of the refusal to become a clothes horse, which is the fate of so many political wives; but they are also a simple tactic - like lowering the timbre of the voice - to make the female appear more male, to fit the part of power.” Yet later, she writes, “If we look at some of the women who have ‘made it’, we can see the tactics and strategies behind their success do not merely come down to aping male idioms. One thing that many of these women share is a capacity to turn the symbols that usually disempower women to their own advantage.”
Oprah’s role as America’s empath-in-chief, her conclusion that feelings are facts, her belief that “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have” is in stark contrast to an American era of Trumpian discourse that ridicules feelings and trades on toxic masculinity. Trump is self-centred, whereas Oprah’s speech was not about her. It was about other people. It was about the ground broken by Sidney Poitier, it was about her mother coming in from work “bone tired” after cleaning other people’s houses, it was about little girls watching her receive the award, it was about the men and women who helped her career, her best friend Gail, her partner Stedman Graham, it was about the press and their “insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth”, it was about the women who have come forward to speak out against harassment and abuse, it was about women in the entertainment industry, domestic workers, farm workers, factory workers, restaurant workers, academics, engineers, medical workers and scientists, tech workers, politicians, businesswomen, athletes, soldiers. It was about Recy Taylor, gang-raped by white men in Alabama in 1944 and whom Rosa Parks advocated for justice for. It was about the women who say “me too”, and the men who choose to listen. It was about the countless people she has interviewed in her career who have gone through terrible experiences and their ability “to maintain hope for a brighter morning.”
If America wants to be inspired, mobilised, and hopeful, Oprah’s speech encapsulated the direction a much broader resistance to Trump needs to take. Her sentiment makes sense. We know what those opposing Trump are against, but her speech displayed what they should be for.