Today, Oprah will be airing an interview with Mackenzie Phillips. Who is that, you say? She is a former child actress who also, coincidentally, happens to be one of the many children of the late John Phillips of The Mamas and Papas. Like most former child actresses, her personal life has been a slow-moving disaster of epic proportions - just last year, at 48, she was busted for cocaine possession. At an airport. This being more or less par for the course in former child actress terms, one might wonder why she is getting the entire hour of Oprah to herself. Wonder no more; E!Online is reporting that Phillips will reveal that she was raped by her father at 19. Phillips also calls the relationship "consensual" at some point, which Anna North at Jezebel neatly deconstructs here.
I'm not so much interested in the horrific details of what happened to Phillips, personally - I wish her excellent therapy and hopefully some peace since justice for these things isjust a word and not a realistically attainable goal. But I am filled with seething anger that these traumatic events are being turned into yet another ratings/YouTube bonanza for Oprah. Oprah thrives on this stuff, of course, even though nowadays her show lies somewhere in a no-woman's land between 20/20 and infomercials. It's the big confessional interviews, though, that are her particular specialty. She just got done with that huge Whitney Houston bonanza, and is currently "interested in" Jaycee Dugard (cringe). She gets them because she's Oprah and she milks them because she's Oprah and good goddamn it annoys me.
Female opinion is extremely polarized when it comes to Oprah - and I don't simply mean that it's all a stay-at-home moms vs. professional working women debate. I know more than a few high-powered female executives who adore Oprah, and watch it on DVR late at night. I know quite a few homebodies who hate her. And yes I know that she does really weirdly contradictory things like build well-intentioned (if unsuccessful) schools in Africa and then give people cars they probably don't need for no apparent reason. I am aware that some people have gone so far as to call her feminist and I am not looking to revoke anyone's card. I am, above all, aware of the trap one falls into of holding professional women - and particularly black professional women - to standards no human being could possibly keep to, and begrudge them success when the conduct of white men in similar positions goes unattacked. After all, Oprah is not the single-handed architect of this exploitation culture of ours. She's just probably the most visible one, and the easiest target as a result.
But man does it grate when she tries to present these interviews, particularly of victims of horrific crimes, as exercises in empathy and consciousness-building. First of all, it seems to me that anyone with half a conscience ought to be giving money to Jaycee Dugard simply so she won't resort to an interview to build some kind of financial foundation for herself and her children - and I say that only half-facetiously. I don't know how cathartic it will ultimately be for Mackenzie Phillips to do a couple of interviews about this in the public eye, maybe sell some books, and then be just as quickly forgotten. So I think we can more or less dismiss these interviews as having anything to do with comforting the subjects.
As for awareness-building, here's the thing. I am suspicious generally of any contention that awareness is lacking about the existence of sexual violence. People know it happens. They do. They may not think it will happen to someone close to them, sure - but this is not a situation that can be remedied by watching relative strangers confess all over their flatscreen television. Nor will it be remedied by reducing sexual violence to individual lived experiences, which we can think of as blips on the radar, faulty cogs in an overall well-functioning machine. In other words, activism is not a mere matter of awareness of individual circumstance. It requires awareness of a system - here, the patriarchy, which encourages the objectification of sexual desire to the extent that children and women particularly become mere sexual playthings to those who have bought the patriarchal line. Activism also requires a lived, breathed, everyday commitment to undermining that system, and that's not with Oprah wants from you. In fact, if anything, it seems to me that watching an Oprah interview about someone's experience of sexual abuse creates the comforting feeling of caring about the subject, of being invested in it with none of the commitment to action that changing things would require. Changing things is dangerous, and it cannot be done in your living room, and you cannot be sure of its success. Action lacks the instant self-congratulation of empathy.
Of course, Oprah doesn't seem to want you to change things. She wants you to reach for the tissues, and she wants you to feel sorry for her guests. And then, most of all? She wants you to tune in tomorrow.
Photo by Alan Light @ Flickr via a Creative Commons License.