The last 'Oprah Winfrey Show': No makeovers. No giveaways. Just goodbye.
I began writing this post before Oprah Winfrey actually aired her final-forever episode because I wanted to say something essentially unrelated to whatever wound up on the air Wednesday: I am going to miss Oprah. Terribly, and with a sadness that I would never have expected.
It’s not that I have watched her daily, or weekly, or even monthly. Honestly, most of the days I’ve tuned in to her show in recent years have either been days I’ve been home sick or on which I’ve been assigned to write about whatever news-making interviewee she was hosting.
When I have watched, I’ve found myself grumbling or sighing as often as I’ve found myself rapt. And yet, I was often rapt, welcomed in by the comforting drum-beat of her interview style, the exclamations and intonations that are instantly recognizable as Oprah’s. I could tune in if I wanted: This has been a simple fact of my existence since I was 11 years old.
The experience of sacking out in front of the TV after school, or of having sat around a dorm watching Oprah, or of confessing to a colleague, as I have as an adult, “So I don’t know why, but I saw Oprah yesterday…” and learning that coincidentally, she too had been watching. These are experiences that zillions of women –- even those who are loathe to admit it -- have shared for 25 years.
I have strong opinions on the wrongness of the way in which our entertainments are divided into male and female. But whether it has to do with social conditioning, self-fulfilling marketing assumptions about what women want, or just plain old nature, Oprah is, and has been for my whole life, a girl thing.
That doesn’t mean that all women watch her or like her, or that many men don’t. It just means that if I mention the name “Gayle” to most American women of a certain age, you’ll elicit an affectionate grin, perhaps a joke or theory about how we all should have a best friend who accompanies us on road trips and is a partner/bonus spouse. Anytime there’s an Oprah thing -– a Tom Cruise couch-jumping joke, a great Maya Rudolph sketch on "Saturday Night Live" –- we smile, with exasperated warmth. She’s like a relative who sometimes embarrasses us but for whom we feel an immense amount of affection.
I agreed to blog about Oprah for the past eight days in part because I am on maternity leave and thought it would be a perfect low-impact, couch-potato job to take on with an 8-week-old baby in my arms.
I was kind of wrong about that, but I’m glad I did it anyway. Because partway through, it occurred to me that it was pretty strange that my daughter will grow up without the "Oprah" show. While (obligatory OWN acknowledgment) Oprah’s new network may continue to shape the life of a whole new generation of American girls and boys (end of acknowledgment) seriously –- no Oprah!
My daughter will know who she was, like how I know who Ed Sullivan was, and how my grandfather wouldn’t let my mom watch Elvis. But she won’t know what it is to come home and plop in front of the television on any ordinary Thursday and maybe catch Billy Crystal being interviewed or Dr. Oz telling you about your excrement or Oprah rolling out a wheelbarrow meant to represent her own body fat. And she won’t know what it is to call a friend and say, “Are you watching this?”
I realize that this is just how gaps open up between generations. I just happen to be watching this one yawn open in front of my eyes.
So all this is to say that I was pleased that Wednesday’s show wasn’t some graduation day extravaganza but, instead, a gentle, quiet, weird Oprah monologue that took place in her familiar studio.
Noting that she sees herself as a teacher who “ended up in the world’s biggest classrooms,” Winfrey told her audience that the day’s show would include “no guest, no makeovers, no surprise...You will not be getting a car or a tree.”
Winfrey made jokes about her first television appearances, in Baltimore, showing a clips of herself, as she said, “just a Jheri Curl and a bad fur coat.” She remembered how she knew that Chicagoans were watching her when she’d hear them say, “You all seen that black girl on TV named O-frey?”
Oprah presented her final episode as one last class, with lessons between each commercial break. Most of them were satisfyingly loopy, obvious, pseudo-spiritual. They included, “You are not alone”; “All life is energy”; “There is a difference between thinking you deserve to be happy and knowing you are worthy of happiness”; “We often block our own blessings because we don’t feel inherently good enough or smart enough or pretty or worthy enough”; and “Every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire –- They want to know, ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?’”
I actually think that last one is true.
Winfrey did a segment about her work with sexual abuse victims, showed old clips of herself rappelling off a building and riding into the studio on “a pooping elephant.” She quoted from viewers who had written her messages in the past few months, including Courtney310, who wrote of Oprah’s departure, “I take with me my gratitude journal, my a-ha moments, and most importantly my sense of self that I dug deep to find because of you.”
The weirdest part of the episode came when Oprah -- usually secular, if blandly spiritual –- touched on the divine, allowing as how her answer to how she’s done it all these years has always been, “My team, and Jesus. Because nothing but the hand of God has made this possible for me.” Anticipating questions about which god she was talking about, she continued, “I’m talking about the same one you’re talking about. I’m talking about alpha and omega, the omniscient, the omnipresent, the ultimate consciousness, the source, the force, the all of everything there is, the one and only G-O-D.”
Well, OK, then! “I know I’ve never been alone, and you haven’t either,” she said. “And I know that that presence that flow, some people call it grace, is working in my life at every single turn, and yours too if you let it in."
Wait, was Oprah preaching? Yes, yes, she was. And how did she know all this? She asked. Wellllll…. “That one teeny little sperm of Vernon Winfrey hittin’ that egg of Vernita Lee in the one time they were together under the trees in Mississippi and, voila, out pops me!”
Oprah’s theorem on the existence of god is reliant on the story of her own conception. “From Mississippi to this moment with you, I know what a miracle that is,” she said. “God is love, and God is life, and your life is always speaking to you,” she said. “First in whispers. … If you don’t pay attention to the whispers, it gets louder and louder and louder.… So I ask you: What are the whispers in your life right now?”
Mine was saying that straight-up religion had gotten into my last episode of "Oprah" and was making me confused and nervous.
But then she went and shut me up, reminding her audience of her fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan. “Mrs. Duncan was my first true liberator. She made me feel that I mattered. She let me lead devotion every day -– that’s when we were allowed to pray in school –- she let me lay out the graham crackers for the class. She validated me.” The ancient Mrs. Duncan then stood from her seat in the audience, and the preaching was momentarily forgotten, lost to the reminder of what a difference one good teacher and some graham crackers can make in a life.
And then Oprah was wrapping it up, asking viewers to jot down her new email address -– just like she was a real person, leaving for a new job! –- and encouraging us to keep in touch.
And the only moment she got really choked up was a perfectly valid one, when she said, “I am truly amazed that I, who started out in rural Mississippi in 1954 when the vision for a black girl was limited to being either a maid or a teacher in a segregated school, could end up here.”
She went on, “Many of us have been together for 25 years. We have hooted and hollered together, had our a-ha moments; we ugly cried together and we did our gratitude journals. So I thank you all for your support and your trust in me. I thank you for sharing this yellow brick road of blessings, thank you for tuning in every day along with your mothers and your sisters and your daughters, your partners, gay and otherwise, and all the husbands who got coaxed into watching 'Oprah.' ”
“I won’t say good-bye; I’ll just say, ‘Until we meet again,’” said Winfrey, with a final “To God be the glory.”
And then she walked out, kissing Steadman, hugging weeping audience members.
And there I was, splayed out on my couch, rolling my eyes, emailing my best friend from high school about what was up with all that god stuff, trying to balance my computer and my daughter on my lap and crying despite it all. Because this sometimes silly, sometimes moving, sometimes infuriating show will be part of my life, my era, my experience of being a girl in America, that I’ll never be able to properly convey to my kid, but which I’ll tell her she got to unconciously experience for a couple of weeks.
I’ve never kept a “gratitude journal,” but if I were forced at gunpoint to do so, I would definitely write in it about how I’m grateful to you, for putting on a great show for a lot of years of my life. Thanks and goodbye.
-- Rebecca Traister
Photo: Kimberly Adams outside Harpo Studios before the final taping of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in Chicago on Tuesday. Credit: Paul Beaty / Associated Press
Rebecca Traister is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women."