Wednesday Word of the Week, June 1

1 Jun

There's nobody like her.

This week’s word is: IDOL

a material effigy that is worshipped as a god
someone who is adored blindly and excessively
an ideal instance; a perfect embodiment of a concept
– all courtesy of Macmillan Dictionary Online

Last week saw someone often held up as an idol host her last show: Oprah Winfrey. I must confess that I watch very little television and have seen only snippets of Oprah’s show over the years. Nonetheless, she has been a major media presence for most of my life and I have a good sense of who she is and what she has done. With that knowledge and a little research, I have to wonder what kind of idol she may be.

Oprah is clearly not an EFFIGY

a representation of a person (especially in the form of sculpture) – Macmillan Dictionary Online

so although she may be worshipped as a god (of ratings?), this definition fails.

Arguably, Oprah has been adored by millions. Is that adoration blind or excessive? Something must compel 14 million people to watch her show. If she didn’t hypnotize or bribe them, either they were blind fools or she really had something to offer. What could it have been? Did it relate to that third definition? Has Oprah been an IDEAL?

the best example of something that you can think of or imagine – Macmillan Dictionary Online

In terms of financial success and viewership, absolutely. Considering these standards for being an ideal idol, however is a bit recursive. In what way was she the best?

Without a doubt, Oprah has been a pioneer for women in media. Many came before her, and many have followed; her success, however remains unique and provided a much needed model for women and other minorities. The best? Probably not. The most well-known? Quite possibly. In terms of impact, her visibility matters.

Many have also credited her new take on the talk show with creating a safe forum for many people to share their issues and their humanity with the American public. No less than Michael Bronski has said

In the recent past, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered people had almost no presence on television. With the invention and propagation of tabloid talk shows such as Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Oprah, and Geraldo, people outside the sexual mainstream now appear in living rooms across America almost every day of the week.

Her role may have been somewhat passive and ratings-based, but it made a difference. So much of a difference, in fact, that Oprah thanked the LGBT community for their active support during her final show.

As a philanthropist, Oprah has raised, channeled, and donated hundreds of millions of dollars over the years. She is routinely listed among the top 50 philanthropists in the world, often topping the list of celebrity philanthropists. One may quibble with her choices, but her generosity is not in question.

Looking at the Forbes list of the most powerful celebrities shows a group sadly lacking in generosity. That makes the truly generous like Lady Gaga and Oprah stand out and deserve recognition. It makes one wonder why Oprah chose someone like Tom Hanks, whose philanthropy is limited, as her final MC or the social-justice-impaired Will Smith as a final guest.

Oprah has made some missteps. Choosing corporate partners for her generosity that have questionable or deeply flawed histories (like Wal-Mart) when she could pick (and subsidize) anyone, shows her crassly commercial side. Her adherence to commercial broadcasting and televising gimmicks also fits that model.

Nonetheless, she has always made some effort to make a difference. She has been a pioneer, a philanthropist, and a provider of platforms whose influence cannot be overstated. It remains to be seen what path she will walk next. I suspect that she will not be out of the limelight, even without her show, and that she will try to make the world a better place in some way. Most of us will never have the chances she has had, and few who do make half as many good choices as Oprah. Let’s not sing her praises too loudly, then, but thank her for what she has done well, and look forward to what she might do next.

An ideal? Not really. An idol? In fairness, not quite by any of the definitions. A flawed, overexposed, clever, tenacious businesswoman whose impact has improved the lives of many? Absolutely, and by any definition, clearly an

unusual or different from anyone or anything else, usually in a way that you admire – Macmillan Dictionary Online


One Response to “Wednesday Word of the Week, June 1”

  1. Michael Hulshof-Schmidt June 1, 2011 at 6:26 am #

    I must admit that Oprah has made enormous progress for women, women of color, and for the LGBTQ community. Her legacy is quite impressive.

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