Oprah is a cultural phenomenon. Her general influence as a source of inspiration and advice (especially for women) is so pervasive that it obscures the impact she might have upon individual lives, which is exactly the subject Robyn Okrant explores in Living Oprah.
In her twist on Jim Carrey’s role in the movie “Yes Man,” Okrant, a 35-year-old yoga instructor and theater artist, undertook a yearlong social experiment of saying “yes” to every Oprah-ism, whether as an examination of the psychodynamics of Oprah, or merely a test of her own endurance. If “the Alpha girl in the pack” suggests abandoning ceiling lights and filling your home with mellow overhead lamps, Okrant redecorates. If Oprah recommends a particular 30-minutes-a-day exercise routine, Okrant buckles down. “Living Oprah” includes monthly expense charts, detailing the fiscal costs of blind obedience to a much-loved television guru. (The expenses run from $250 to $700 dollars a month.)
Okrant was not a dedicated fan before she conceived her project. “I was not an everyday Oprah viewer. I did not read her magazine, or peruse her website. Until I began this project, I would have considered myself only a casual audience member.” But she focuses on the Oprah Winfrey show because it stands “at the pinnacle of the self-improvement, popular culture mountain. Oprah teaches us how to live.”
But does Oprah truly intend viewers to do everything she suggests? Doesn’t she primarily have an obligation to produce a weekday show and a monthly magazine? Isn’t any reasonably intelligent viewer going to pick and choose from the Oprah catalog? Okrant could have framed her book as a series of essays drawn from her judgments after consistently watching the show. The “living Oprah” angle may be gimmicky for some tastes. Okrant believes she can deepen her understanding of the hallucinogenic power of the self-help industry by following Oprah’s advice to the letter.
“Living Oprah” records Okrant’s misadventures month by month. In January, Okrant accepts the show’s “Living Your Best Life” challenge, which includes the directive to consistently terminate the consumption of all food two or three hours before bedtime. “There are some days when I don’t get home from teaching until 9:30,” Okrant complains. “I need to eat when I get in.” In March she takes a Q&A test on the Oprah website that diagnoses her as having hoarding disorder. This is the beginning of small-scale rumblings in Oprahville. “Isn’t hoarding a psychological problem that should be diagnosed by a specialist rather than an online quiz?”
By May, Okrant is feeling pestered enough by her project that she risks incisive language. “I think Oprah devalues women by focusing so much on our bodies. She spends an inordinate amount of time asking other women how they lost weight, how they got their muscular arms, how they got their abs.” Okrant couches such criticisms in a light fantasy that she is in private communication with the TV legend. “Oprah, I am begging you to break this cycle.”
Okrant often uses self-deprecatory humor featuring stock characters such as her supportive husband (Okrant has no kids) to leaven her narrative. She mocks her project, but she remains steadfastly faithful to it. Eventually, she hears from an Oprah staffer. Familiar with her project, the staffer delivers Okrant a Kindle reader. (Oprah has given them away free of charge to her audience that day.) Okrant struggles with the feeling that accepting the gift will compromise the integrity of “Living Oprah,” which she has funded at her own expense.
Unfortunately, the angst over the Kindle seems artificial melodrama. Nearly 300 pages long, and top-heavy with Okrant’s domestic adventures, much of “Living Oprah” reads like filler. The issues that Okrant raises regarding her subject are fairly obvious. Of course, Oprah is appealing to very traditional conceptions of beauty, love, and success, and, obviously, the advice she bestows to millions of American women is hardly fine-tuned to a multitude of familial and economic variables.
But wouldn’t an exploration of Oprah-dynamics be better served by multiple voices – a host of stories by women from different backgrounds explaining why Oprah’s ubiquitous message seemed to speak to each of them individually? The critique would benefit from the voices of mothers and childless women, young and old, divorced and single.
“Living Oprah” is strictly an “Oprah and me” narrative with guest appearances by the author’s husband and neighbors. If you don’t find Okrant’s life as potentially intriguing as Oprah’s, it’s a long read.