Celebrity influence must be balanced with critical thinking and personal evaluation

Influence can be a frighteningly powerful force. There are no rules to how it is assigned, who wields it or even how it is wielded. Having been named one of the 100 Most Influential People every year since 2004, Oprah Winfrey practically epitomizes what it means to possess influence.

Her expertise permeates vast spheres that are delineated on her website, ranging from spirit, health and relationships to home and garden. The advice she offers takes its form on The Oprah Show (soon to be replaced by The Oprah Winfrey Network), her magazine, radio show and book club.

Authors of The Oprah Phenomenon, Jennifer Harris and Elwood Watson, describe her as a person who “has marketed a brand that has become a way of life.” Such an influence is deserving of further inquiry, as is the imperative nature of maintaining individual thought when engaging such a phenomenon. The influence that Oprah holds is not the only phenomenon, as her rise to prominence is nothing short of extraordinary.

Oprah Winfrey was born in Koscuisko, Miss., in 1954. After moving to Nashville to live with her father, Oprah’s first entry into the public arena came with a beauty pageant win that gave her a part-time job at a radio station. This job propelled her into becoming a co-anchor for the news in Nashville. Three years later, she moved to Baltimore to host a television chat show called People Are Talking.

It was this show that prompted her being asked to host a talk show called A.M. Chicago. Just a few months after hosting the show, Oprah dominated the television airways and took first place in the rankings. A.M. Chicago soon became The Oprah Winfrey Show, and she began amassing the accolades that make her the force she is today.

What made Oprah so engaging that she became first in the rankings so quickly? Though it is debated, there is a pervasive agreement that it is her uncanny ability to connect with her audiences. Unashamed to draw upon her own experiences, Oprah makes undeniable personal connections. Noting her own issues with self-esteem, obesity and childhood abuse, Oprah’s ability to share effectively endeared her to myriad audiences. If it isn’t her connection that is winning, then it is her commitment to philanthropy.

Oprah’s commitments to philanthropy are as diverse as they are far-reaching. In 1998, Oprah founded Oprah’s Angel Network, a public charity supporting women, children and families with educational empowerment initiatives. In 2002, she participated in a project called ChristmasKindess South Africa that gave 50,000 children from orphanages and rural schools gifts such as shoes and school supplies.

Her dream was realized in 2007 when the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls was opened in South Africa. Her dialogue furthers her philanthropic aims, compelling her listeners to make themselves heard. She implores people to act and to be aware of issues in our world that may have been overlooked were it not for her bringing them into the public eye.

Behind all of this, however, is a critical inquiry that may make Oprah’s amount of power a bit unsettling. Kathryn Lofton evinces her considerations in “Practicing Oprah,” an article that reveals Oprah’s resonance and the implications of her influence. Lofton states that it is “the practice of her generosity that is so resonant to the cultural observer.”

Lofton also breaks down the format of Oprah’s show into repetition that gives advice and parceling of goods. Oprah is adept at blending the personal and practical, coining what she calls “Change Your Life Television.” Listeners are empowered to become authors of their own recoveries, claim the luxuries they deserve and improve themselves.

Lofton calls these “prescriptions of Oprah” that point to “moments where ideology feeds action, where her rhetoric of change is manifest in individual lives.” Lofton’s summative critical statement resides in the final comment of her article, which surmises, “Oprah Winfrey continues to practice her own self-perfection, leaving in her multimedia wake a trail of prescriptive liturgy for all who hunger to follow.”

Such sentiments are off-putting for those who wish to perceive Oprah as purely philanthropic. This is not to say that what Oprah has accomplished and her contributions to the world are unworthy of admiration. She is an irrefutably remarkable individual who inspires and empowers to action. It is the nature of that action, however, and her mode of inspiration that is worth further thought and consideration.

What it means for our culture that a talk show host can rise to such prominence and construct such a presence remains to be seen. It is, however, the consideration of meaning and the self-conscious questioning of advice given by powerful people that should supersede mere blind acceptance. Instead of reading a book purely because Oprah recommended it or engaging in an exercise regimen that she propounded, continue researching and employing individual thought.

The irony with Oprah is that self-empowerment and individual focus occurs with her vehicles rather than being individually conceived. She serves as an example of the implications of influence and what might be found by focusing beyond solely a person’s preeminence.

Though influential people may be reputable and worthy of veneration, the advice they offer should not detract from the authority of individual thought and critical analysis that looks beyond mere influence to see other factors at play.

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