Apparently we aren't the only ones troubled by Oprah Winfrey's wholesale endorsement of the recently-released new-age sensation The Secret. Yesterday in Salon, writer Peter Birkenhead launched a surprising but thoughtful warning shot over the bow of Winfrey's self-help ship, and our jaws went slack.
You can forgive us our shock and awe. After all, the episode of Winfrey's show in which the talk-show host publicly endorsed the book aired in mid-February; a follow-up episode on the book and the accompanying frenzy followed just a week afterwards. Other than Variety columnist Brian Lowry's brief and rather timid Feb. 20 critique of Winfrey's endorsement of the book, the issue seemed to be dead in the water; the media oblivious, or worse, indifferent. But, as The Secret so fervently instructs: if you believe in it, it will come.
And come it did. In a five-page screed, Birkenhead accuses Winfrey of positioning herself at the top of the book's "pyramid scheme", having helped The Secret's self-help gurus to "create a symbiotic economy of New Age quacks that almost puts OPEC to shame", and adding that the media mogul's crass consumerism, obsession with aesthetics, and narcissism is doing her followers (particularly those girls at her new South African Leadership Academy) a disservice, rather than making them the best they can be.
The academy is a controversial enough project in South Africa that the government withdrew its support, because of the amount of money that's been spent on its well-reported, lavish design — money that could have gone instead to creating perfectly fine schools that served many, many more students than the 350 who will be making use of spa facilities at the academy. But, when I watched Oprah's prime-time special about interviewing candidates for the school, it seemed to me that she wasn't nearly as excited about providing an education to the girls as she was about providing a "Secret"-like "transformative experience." (And not just for the girls, for herself; the first thing she said to the family members at the opening ceremony wasn't, "Welcome to a great moment in your daughters' lives," it was, "Welcome to the proudest moment of my life.")
On the special, Oprah talked far more about what the school would do for the girls' self-esteem and material lives than what it would do for their intellects — sometimes sounding as if she was reading directly from "The Secret." And in discussing what she was looking for in prospective students, she didn't talk about finding the next Eleanor Roosevelt or Sally Ride or Jane Smiley. Instead she used "Entertainment Tonight" language like "It Girl" to describe her ideal candidate. She praised the girls for their spirit, for how much they "shined" and "glowed," but never for their ideas or insights. Oprah puts a lot of energy and money into aesthetics — on her show, in her magazine, at her school. The publishers of "The Secret" have learned well from their sponsor and are just as visually savvy. They have created a look for their books, DVDs, CDs and marketing materials that conjures a "Da Vinci Code" aesthetic, full of pretty faux parchment, quill-and-ink fonts and wax seals.
Oprah's TV special about the Leadership Academy, essentially an hourlong infomercial, was just as well-coiffed and "visuals"-heavy. In fact, when Oprah was choosing her students, her important criteria must have included their television interview skills. On-camera interviews with the girls were the centerpiece of the special, but as one spunky, telegenic candidate after another beamed her smile at the camera, I couldn't help wondering how Joyce Carol Oates or Gertrude Stein or Madame Curie would have fared — would they have "shined" and "glowed," or more likely talked in non-sound-bite-friendly paragraphs and maybe even, God forbid, the sometimes "dark" tones of authentic people, and been rejected. Sadly, the girls themselves (and who can blame them, desperate 12-year-olds trying to flatter their potential benefactor) parroted banal Oprah-isms, like "I want to be the best me I can be," and "Be a leader not a follower" and "Don't blend in, blend out," with smiley gusto.
More — much more — below.
Oprah's Ugly Secret [Salon]