Oprah- The Ultimate Citizen?

In Judith Schklar’s American Citizenship, the author outlines that you must earn and vote in order to be considered a citizen; fulfilling both of these requirements, in Schklar’s opinion, allows you to breech the divide and get yourself in the citizenship club. But what about those who influence ordinary citizens to cast that vote according to what he or she prefers, regardless of whether or not that aligns with the voter’s preferences? What about… Oprah?

The ‘Oprah Effect’ proves that the queen of daytime television is worth not just her billions, but votes as well… a lot of votes. According to Craig Garthwaite, co-author of a study on celebrity endorsements in the 2008 elections, Oprah’s endorsement of then presidential-hopeful Barack Obama was responsible for one million of his votes in the Democratic primary during the 2008 election cycle. That means that in such a closely contested race, Oprah arguably could have been a deciding factor.

Let’s look at another example:  “The Oprah Line.” In 1994, Oprah famously ran the Marine Corps Marathon finishing with a time of 4:29:00. Ever since then, not only has the popularity of marathons exploded, but the Oprah Line has become the new benchmark for a respectable race: “For the previous generation of marathoners, the goal had been qualifying for Boston. Now, it was beating Oprah (That was P.Diddy’s goal when he ran New York [Marathon]).” (Check out Edward McClelland’s article, “How Oprah Ruined the Marathon” for more on this.) The point is this: If Oprah’s achievements have become goals for the rest of us, are we really fulfilling Schklar’s ideal of the “self-made man”?

So how does Oprah fit into Schklar’s definition? The media mogul definitely earns and votes; in addition, she lines up with Schklar’s philosophy of the “self-made man” building a media empire from next to nothing. And despite her extensive influence, she certainly is not an aristocrat. Technically, Oprah is the legal equal of you and me. But how can we say that a woman who can convince 1 million people to vote her way or participate in a physically grueling athletic event is ordinary? Just take a look at her Forbes Ratings: #139 Forbes 400 Most Powerful People, #14 Powerful Women, #2 Celebrity 100, #1 in TV/Radio, #7 in Press, #13 in Social, #13 in Web, and #420 Forbes Billionaires (#138 in the United States). This begs several questions: Who is doing the elevating in this situation? While clearly Oprah’s success is the derivative of many years of hard work, she doesn’t force anyone to imitate her. Therefore, does that mean that it is not Oprah who has elevated herself, but that her status is (mostly) attributed to those who mimic her? And does imitating Oprah take away from her status as citizen? Does her popularity mean she is less of an equal citizen?

What do you think? Has Schklar failed to account for tiers within citizenship or once you’re in the club is everyone the same? Do we care that one individual is able to sway such large numbers or is being Oprah-fied simply a personal choice?

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2 Responses to Oprah- The Ultimate Citizen?

  1. Courtney M says:

    I took a class here at U of M called Oprah’s Book Club. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s English 313, and I was excited to be able to read actual novels instead of history books, textbooks, etc. You’re dead on with your description of the impact that Oprah has had on Americans (particularly women). Every single book that Oprah has ever included in her book club has become an instant best seller after being added to her list. Although I think the fact that Oprah can reach out to millions of women in America and have such an impact on them is absurd, I don’t think it necessarily takes anything away from these women. For many women, Oprah is the ideal role model, and she tries to reach out to women in many ways. The books in her book club often contain a woman protagonist who is victimized in some way. So I think that more women simply look to her for comfort and support, rather than being wholly dependent on emulating her actions and trying to be just like her. I actually don’t even really like Oprah, but after seeing some videos in that class I took, I know she’s touched a lot of American women, so I’m all for that!

  2. hengk says:

    I found your thoughts on Oprah interesting, and thought there was little question on where Oprah fits in Shklar’s definition of citizenship. Standing, and voting? – Oprah has these in the bag, easily! But your point of “Has Shklar failed to account for tiers within citizenship or once you’re in the club is everyone the same?” is fascinating, and something I think we didn’t really get into in class! I know we discussed people who are excluded from citizenship, like felons, illegal immigrants, etc. I think that starts the discussion of citizenship tiers but doesn’t quite delve into it. Are celebrities/the wealthy more of citizenship than others? Really interesting!

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