On Sunday evening, Oprah Winfrey received the Cecille B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. She proceeded to launch into an emotional speech about the power of women to fight back against sexism and sexual malfeasance — a speech that led to widespread celebration in Hollywood, where everyone knew about the problem of sexual harassment and assault and nobody did anything for years, but where one speech from the most powerful woman in the history of media can apparently cure all ills.
Oprah’s speech was quite good, of course. She’s a terrific performer, and she’s world famous for her ability to connect with her audience on a personal level. The speech led NBC to tweet out its support for her presidential candidacy, and led actress Reese Witherspoon to elevate Oprah to the level of Jesus:
So, what was so special about the speech?
Not much, in truth.
Oprah didn’t name any names. She didn’t explain where she had been for the prior several decades, as all of this unfolded. She didn’t encourage any serious measures against sexual harassment and assault. She channeled the feelings of many women, which is terrific, for what it’s worth — but it isn’t as though women have been met with scorn and hatred for telling their stories of sexual assault and harassment. The level of national sympathy for victims has been overwhelming, as it should be.
In fact, there were several rather insulting moments in Oprah’s speech that we’re all supposed to ignore (and hey, if she’s a purported presidential candidate, she deserves to have her speeches analyzed). Here they are, in order:
1. Oprah Implied That Matters Are The Same For Black Women Today As They Were For Black People Generally In 1964. She led off her speech by talking about how moved she was in 1964 when Sidney Poitier won the DeMille Award. “I remember his tie was white, and of course his skin was black, and I had never seen a black man being celebrated like that. I tried many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone tired from cleaning other people's houses.”
This is quite moving and beautiful. But then Oprah feels the need to state that young black girls will treat her victory in 2018 the same way, which is asinine. Sorry, it is. Oprah stated, “In 1982, Sidney received the Cecil B. DeMille award right here at the Golden Globes and it is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award.”
Michelle Obama has been First Lady. Condoleezza Rice has been Secretary of State, Loretta Lynch has been Attorney General, and Susan Rice has been national security advisor. Many of today’s top stars are black women, in music and sports and television and movies. It’s insipid for Oprah to compare herself to Poitier, or 1964 with 2018.
2. Oprah’s Press Pandering. Yes, we all appreciate the press for doing the hard work of digging. But it’s nothing but pandering to suggest that they’re engaged in the “insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice.” It’s even more ridiculous to say this in the context of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, an organization of international journalists who report on . . . Hollywood, where they apparently had nothing to say for decades about sexual harassment and abuse.
3. “Your Truth.” This one is a pet peeve. Oprah stated, “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” She’d go on to praise women for telling their stories of assault and harassment, which is wonderful and positive. But the phrase “your truth” is the opposite of truth — there’s the truth, and there’s your opinion. End of story.
4. She Equated The Status Of A Raped Black Woman In Alabama In 1944 To Women In Hollywood Today. Oprah told the story of Recy Taylor, who was kidnapped and raped in Alabama by six white men. She only died ten days ago. The story is heartbreaking. But then Oprah stated, “She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.”
This is plainly absurd. To compare the fate of women in Hollywood in 2018 with the fate of Recy Taylor in 1944 is ridiculous. But it’s precisely the sort of nonsense Oprah routinely preaches: when The Butler was released in 2013, Oprah compared Trayvon Martin to lynching victim Emmitt Till.
The conclusion of Oprah’s speech was magnificent, by the way:
I've interviewed and portrayed people who've withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights. So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say "Me too" again.
But it would be nice if Oprah had used some of her power to fight the Harvey Weinsteins of the world years ago, rather than leading from behind.