Oprah's self-serving Australian adventure


Oprah Cuddles KoalaAustralia Day is supposed to make us feel good about ourselves as a nation. This year, the scheduling of the four-part TV event Oprah's Ultimate Australian Adventure in the days leading up to Australia Day ensures there's every chance we will feel good about ourselves, but as individuals.

The National Australia Day Council stresses the communal aspect. 'On Australia Day we come together as a nation to celebrate what's great about Australia and being Australian.' It's all about nation-building. That's something we do together, for the good of all Australians, not just ourselves. 

Winfrey has a message about Australia's greatness, but it reflects her philosophy of individualism. Australia is such a wonderful country because it helps her — and the 302 'ultimate fans' she brought with her from the US — to feel good as individuals. 

To this end, Winfrey's rhetoric emphasises the strength of the welcome that she received. In one of the signature moments of her visit, she told her Melbourne audience: 'I've never had a welcome like this in my life. In my life. IN MY WHOLE LIFE. WOW!'

Over the years, Winfrey has made a name for herself as a promoter of self-help philosophies and schemes, many of them dubious. After she championed Australian TV talk show producer Rhonda Byrne's The Secret, it topped the bestseller lists. 

The Secret's main idea is that people only need to visualise what they want in order to get it. A Salon critique branded it a 'massive, cross-promotional pyramid scheme'. It is largely based on New Thought theology, a form of the pentecostal Christian prosperity Gospel that encourages the personal attainment of material wellbeing through the power of positive thinking.

This month Winfrey has taken the step of moving from daytime network television to a dedicated channel on cable TV — the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). In publicity surrounding the launch, she has stated some of her programming principles, which include a ban on asking hard questions.

She said that she wanted to create a channel without a trace of what she calls 'mean-spirited' programming. Scrutiny is perceived as a violation of the individual.

Winfrey's compulsory kindness explains the lack of critique and, it must be said, credibility in her Ultimate Australian Adventure. Many Australians who do not personally identify with her philosophy justify their support for her visit on the grounds that it could turn around the local tourist industry. By definition that is unprincipled. 

There is also a certain disingenuousness in the gushing welcome given to Winfrey by politicians including Prime Minister Julia Gillard and NSW Premier Kristina Keneally. 

In contrast, Victoria's Ted Baillieu deserves praise for his downbeat matter-of-fact welcome: 'I'm Ted, she's Julia, this is Oprah.' His understated tone is surely right for our celebration of an Australia Day that regards all Australians as equal and rejects anybody who appears self-serving.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Oprah Winfrey, Ultimate Australian Adventure, Australia Day



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Existing comments

I watched 5 minutes and saw Gillard gushing like an idiot child while the papers were full of stories of children she has jailed - pity Oprah didn't take a trip to Curtin or Christmas island to see the real Australia.

Marilyn Shepherd | 24 January 2011  

What is it about Australians that causes us to behave like idiots in the face of an entourage like Oprahs?

We looked like the bunch of imbeciles who go to her show to watch Tom Cruise jump about like a kangaroo on a couch.

Will we ever evolve?

GAJ | 24 January 2011  

Michael, you sound to be an unhappy person. You always seem to look on the 'black' side. Oprah has done a power of good for women concerning abuse. She has sold Australia well. The Professor of Tourism at NSW Uni predicts we will get the investment back 300 fold. Look for the good in people.

bsmith | 24 January 2011  

Excellent, thank you Michael. Sadly the Oprah model is becoming pervasive in TV-land. No hard questions, no challenges, no forensic scrutiny.

Paul Collins | 24 January 2011  

I happily evaded any viewing or listening to The Oracle from the USofA but as a result was left with a question in my mind. Your article has helped me to understand why she hasn't said or done anything about the Gun Lobby. Many thanks.

Sister Susan Connelly | 24 January 2011  

I couldn't agree more. Whilst Oprah has done lots for reading, she supports woo and furthers the myth of independence. We have always lived in an interdependent community, much of the invisible aspects done by women.

Lots of cognitive psychology was hijacked by the New Age movement, where there was no differentiation made between rational thinking and the awful positive thinking.

And 'The Secret' was the worst aspect of this, mixing positive thinking with magical thinking capped off with an incipient narcissism, that 'I'm special' and deserve more than my share. Ugh!!!

Dawn Baker | 24 January 2011  

I'm not too keen on your article title as I do think Oprah has done some good in many areas (her talk about forgiveness, her encouragement of community, the importance of being healthy) ... but I thoroughly take your point about the navel-gazing nature that are the focus of a number of exercises. The publicity given to the callow and ultimately offensive 'The Secret' is alarming, and the underlying philosophy disturbing to say the least.

But does Oprah's wanting to not be 'mean-spirited' imply a lack of scrutiny? I would like to think that it's possible to be probing, analytical and examine a topic or person forensically without being mean-spirited. (For example, Chris Uhllman, Leigh Sales and Andrew Denton all from the ABC manage to scrutinise deeply in questioning interviewees, without appearing antagonistic - they do their research, show curiosity, analyse for inconsistency and propose alternate points of view).

Good article.

MBG | 24 January 2011  

The messianic Oprah at the Opera House - I'd like to know what causes such devotion. At least she seems to cause more good than harm.

Jenny Martin | 24 January 2011  

Thank you for your thought provoking article Michael. A few additional points for consideration:

Australia Day is also referred to as Invasion Day within our community.

Oprah is an individual who has experienced some of the greatest perceived abuses of our current thinking.

Oprah encourages interviewees to speak about their experiences without a journalistic (individualistic) slant.

The Pope required a bullet proof carriage to be presented to the people of Australia on his visit. Oprah got up close and personal to us at every step of the way.

Many non-Christian as well as Christian followers have the same perceptions of Catholicism as you espouse of The Secret.

Your article highlights and leads people to individualist journalistic perceptions of specific Oprah episode content and interviews. There are perhaps others out there which show a different angle.

Oprah is renowned for covering everything from drivel through to atrocity, and is constant in her capacity to remain focused on the issue or person throughout, without bias, without ridicule, without judgement. Usually with passion, with compassion, with acceptance.

I suspect Oprah has been to places mentally and spiritually that mainstream Australia will never have to. It shows. I want to see what comes next.

SCOTT | 24 January 2011  

Why on earth do we need to pay someone to come from overseas to make us feel good on Australia Day???

Margaret McDonald | 24 January 2011  

I have read the coments on Michael Mullins' article several times to see if I had read the same article as the nine people who commented on it. I thought Michael was trying to show that many Australians who viewed Oprah's Ultimate Australian Adventure would feel good about themselves as inhabitants of this truly amazing continent having seen the great Oprah gushing over it. He thought this was unfortunate because Oprah trumpets sturdy individualism and success and Australia Day should be about community and cooperative struggle against the challenges this mighty land throws up against those who would tame and develop it. Forget how Oprah made her millions; how she conducts her TV shows. Her visit was a publicity stunt with all costs paid by Tourism Australia. Like commentator Scott - I want to see what comes next. Thousands and thousands of big spending tourists from Oprah-land? I doubt it. Most viewers of Oprah overseas, I fear, will say: "We don't want to go to Australia. The Aussies had to pay Oprah to visit. So if a billionaire had to be bribed to go, we'll wait until Qantas offers us free airfares and accommodation."

Uncle Pat | 24 January 2011  

What a lot of mean spirited criticism. Linking her visit to Australia Day is a big stretch of relevance. Before thinking good of the community one must feel good about ones self. She does a lot of good with her charity.

Don | 24 January 2011  

I've only seen one Oprah show, and that was when she was in Australia recently. I thought I'd watch to see what all the fuss was about. Once was enough.

She came into the studio and the audience went hyper. The adulation was weird, at least to my sense of whatever normal is. Then she started giving things away and they went crazy all over again.

She gave away diamond watches, ear-rings, throw rugs, jogging gear, scented candles, cameras, cashmere cardigans, a trip on a cruise liner, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I forget.

Then they all went home.

It strangely didn't make me feel good about myself for being Australian, or human.

Kim Miller | 24 January 2011  

I certainly couldn't understand the adulation heaped on Oprah by her millions of fans and didn't think that fitted with the Aust psyche but I take issue with your dismissive comments about the Pentecostal posterity consiousness. Catholisism could do well to borrow some of that mindset in preferrece to the abject poverty suffered by millions of Catholics in countries like Sth America and the Phillipines, while the Vatican occupies opulence on an unmatched scale.

I always find it fascinating that celibates who promote poverty and who's financial well being is looked after by others don't have any idea of the daily grind it takes to provide for their lives and the children that arrive in the absence of responsible contraception. As a young Catholic mother I struggled with the churches' teachings while attempting to 'enjoy' the poverty I suffered as a result and will never agree with the redundant pontifications of people out of touch with the real world.

Barbara | 28 January 2011  

I am glad to have read the comments in this good critical conversation about Oprah. I did watch it because I was with a friend who finds the Oprah shows inspiring. I have a lot of respect for this friend, her goodness, her selflessnes and geneorsity towards others so I watched Oprah through her eyes. My reflections...I always feel suspicious about hyping up groups and unbridled emotionalism.

For me that is un-Australian and I see it as part of the "americanisation" of our culture. However as I watched the way our country was portrayed I thought about the new migrants to our land and a certain pride that may have been generated in them as the unique beauty of our landscapes were captured. They are building their Australian identity and I sensed this may have been quite formative for some - maybe many. However one had to discern many illusions which were portrayed as is always the case with stories told with an advertising bias.

How disappointed future tourists will be when the are not served lobster by the ten tenors emerging from the sea onto the white sands of Hamilton Island!

Patty Andrew | 29 January 2011  

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