In celebration of Women’s History Month for 2021, I raise up Oprah Winfrey as a true icon. Given the overuse of the words “icon” and “iconic” in describing people, when I use the term, it is to describe someone who crosses cultural boundaries and performs as if they have special powers, such as “a god, a hero, or an idol,” as the word “icon” is defined.
Bridging the 20th and 21st centuries, Oprah has made an indelible mark in the entertainment industry. She has penetrated the psyche of people all over the world by persuading us to focus on what she thinks is interesting at a particular point in time. Her interests become our obsessions. Some will say that Internet stars and the Kardashians do the same thing, but none of these influencers can hold a candle to Oprah because she came from so far behind and her reach extends far beyond entertainment and commercial endeavors.
Coming from an impoverished childhood in an obscure town in Mississippi, enduring hardships no child should experience, and competing for a place in an industry that is both racist and sexist, Oprah Winfrey is the iconic self-made woman of our time. And what’s more, having reached the pinnacle of success, she sustains her prowess.
Sure, she works hard, is dedicated to her craft, takes risks, practices gratitude, and is one of the world’s most generous philanthropists. Others have approached life in this manner, as well, so what makes Oprah different? In regard to her success as a talk show host, it’s said that, “She makes people care because she cares. That is Winfrey’s genius, and will be her legacy, as the changes she has wrought in the talk show continue to permeate our culture and shape our lives” (“Oprah Winfrey: The TV Host,” TIME Magazine, June 8, 1998).
Oprah’s empathy and penetrating questions may be the secret sauce that makes her the world’s most admired talk show host, but she is so much more than a TV host.
We have witnessed how she has endured intense scrutiny and criticism. Sometimes it has seemed that the world is waiting for her to fail. And still she rises.
To achieve the kind of fame and fortune that Oprah has garnered is nothing less than miraculous. Her success against all odds makes one ponder life’s mysteries.
But when all is said and done, Oprah is the iconic woman of the 20th and 21st centuries whose life and legacy reveals the possibilities for all of us, especially women and girls.