“Oprah, the Leavisite: A Caveat for Women’s Studies in South Africa”

2008. African Studies 67(1): 101-120.

The increased profile and influence of both Oprah Winfrey and The Oprah Winfrey Show in South Africa suggests that studies of the intersections of gender, race and class in the media and popular discussion in this country must, sooner or later, take into account Oprah the person and Oprah the product. Rita Barnard has written about this relationship with regard to the promotion of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country through Oprah’s Book Club. Oprah’s insistence that “one should read in order to ‘carry off’ some lesson or another” (Barnard 2004: 98) is reminiscent of a stance on morality in literature that has come to be associated with F.R. Leavis and the ‘Leavisites’. Oprah’s Leavisite convictions as a literary critic are also evident in the ways that she ‘authors’ her talk show, directing proceedings through narrative, theatrical and televisual techniques. By not sufficiently acknowledging the potential for conflict between the prescriptions of entertainment and ethical considerations, Oprah undermines the moral imperative ostensibly driving her enterprise. Following these considerations, the article offers a three-part ‘warning’ for feminism and women’s studies in South Africa: firstly, against conflating the experiences of women in ‘first-world’ America with those of women in ‘third-world’ Africa; secondly, against elevating South Africa’s female icons to near-religious ikons in a cult(ure) of celebrity; and thirdly, against demeaning South African women’s experiences of abuse, hardship and suffering by misapprehending the relationship between the private and the public spheres.