Oprah goes to Africa: Philanthropic consumption and political (dis)engagement

Heather Laine Talley, Monica J. Casper

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


In 2005, Time Magazine named as its Persons of the Year rock legend Bono of U2 fame and Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Melinda Gates, cofounders of the world's wealthiest charity. Bono was honored for his contributions to the One Campaign, while the Gates were honored for their global philanthropic work. The September 2006 issue of In Style carried a story about the "cause celeb" [sic] of the One Campaign, featuring "countless stars" dedicated to eliminating poverty and HIV/AIDS in Africa. The story featured well-groomed celebrities in black and white "One" t-shirts-which, according to a sidebar, can be purchased at Nordstrom for US$40. Consider the description: "The atmosphere at photo shoots held in Hollywood and Manhattan for Bono's AIDS and antipoverty campaign, One, was upbeat, but the serious cause behind the gatherings was never far from the participants' minds" (Sayers 2006, 562). Also in 2006, noncelebrities Lia and Steve Purcell launched a web-based organization called Look to the Stars. On looktothestars.org, the couple wanted to publicize "the many wonderful things that celebrities are doing to help the world." The site profiles the philanthropic activities of more than four hundred celebrities including Bono, Bill (but not Melinda) Gates, and our subject of inquiry, Oprah Winfrey. Each profile includes biographical data, charities supported by the celebrity (with links), and glamorous publicity photographs. The site also contains a "news" section with stories about various fundraising and philanthropic activities in which featured celebrities are engaged. What, exactly, is going on with these "do-gooder" celebrities? In this chapter, we address several interrelated issues: The cult(ure) of celebrity, its role in mediating philanthropy, political (dis)engagement, American consumption of/in Africa, and crucially, the ways that the figure of Oprah Winfrey enables us analytically to map the intersections of these. Oprah performs a vital role in American popular culture-linking the United States to Africa, African Americans to non-African Americans, women to men, people with HIV/AIDS to the sero-negative, capitalism to philanthropy, books to readers, a self-help population to "inspirational" resources, and most significantly for our purposes, consumers to merchandise and/or projects. We draw specifically on the episode "Christmas Kindness" (2005), released as part of The Oprah Winfrey Show: 20th Anniversary DVD Collection, to interrogate Oprah's philanthropic activities in Africa.1 We watch and analyze as Oprah chronicles her holiday adventure, working hard to convince viewers of the "joy" of giving to needy Africans. The superstar fosters her own celebrity status, while also charting a new kind of philanthropy at the intersection of consumption, celebrity, and self-improvement. Yet we suggest that while Oprah is "doing good," she is simultaneously displacing political engagement on the part of viewers/consumers with a weak and ultimately ineffective version of action. Oprah-style philanthropy may bring in dollars through appeals to emotion, but it precludes direct, sustained political engagement and thus ultimately lasting structural change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationStories of oprah
Subtitle of host publicationThe Oprahfication of American Culture
PublisherUniversity Press of Mississippi
Number of pages13
ISBN (Print)9781604734072
StatePublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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