For the Sake of the Children

Curator's Note

Co-validating, co-credentializing, Annie Leibovitz and Oprah Winfrey train their cameras upon one another. Leibovitz exalts Winfrey’s singularity, counterintuitively, through a group portrait.  As if weighing relative worth or wealth, the renowned celebrity photographer gathers together three media stars in a captivating image for her photobook Women (1999). Spread across two massive pages – the spine a dividing line – the black-and-white picture shows two white women at left surrounded by handlers. In a procession to greatness, we see first Diane Sawyer, far left. Then viewing left to right as is customary, we encounter the elder Barbara Walters. On the right-hand page, centered, directly facing the camera but not returning the gaze, is the upstart who overtook them. Overtook all.

Winfrey returns the favour, hosting Leibovitz on the TV talk show on 16 November 2006, just as her major retrospective begins its tour of the United States and Europe – priceless advertising. The so-called tell-all “Dream Jobs” episode begins with its maker Winfrey’s 6 a.m. cardio workout, followed by her daily decision-making around the show, magazine, and radio. Upcoming topics and guests, mostly – nothing about, say, employee relations at Harpo. This first segment about the unmarried, childless guru ends gleefully with girls – those who will attend the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Next up, the “legendary” Leibovitz “takes you inside her private life” – not to acknowledge the open secret of her relationship to Susan Sontag, whom the exhibition calls her “long-time friend” (or, in the Madrid hanging, “gran amiga”). Rather the career woman confides that, even though in her fifties, finally having children proves the greatest satisfaction: “All the clichés are true.”

Thus does the figural Child, so well-critiqued by Lee Edelman, justify all. Thus does our narrow cultural script for happiness, so well-critiqued by Sara Ahmed, again play out.

Girlhood figures in an additional portrait of Winfrey by Leibovitz –a smaller solo portrait that didn’t make the exhibition’s final cut. This image attempts to explain origins. I can almost hear a twangy blues-guitar backtrack to this hackneyed representation of a reminiscing visionary, as – far from the madding entourage – she revisits the front porch of an old tumbledown shack in her native Mississippi. Must a newly revised rags-to-riches narrative, at last encompassing women and African Americans, reduce them to the primacy of childrearing and childhood aspiration?

Comments

Janice Peck's picture

The iconic power of "bootstrap accountability"

 A very interesting post. I like your juxtaposition of Leibovitz and Winfrey and their engagement in mutual instrumental self-promotion. The opening photo, which I’d never seen, is particularly striking. I appreciate your observation about how, in the context of Winfrey’s talk show, Leibovitz is "normalized" (and her lesbianism minimized) by emphasizing her maternal "instincts" and asserting the "truth" of cliches about motherhood. Many observers have pointed to contradictions in Winfrey’s public persona—she is held up as a role model for mothers, while she is childless by choice; she’s a workaholic who applauds stay-at-home moms (but not dads) for finding fulfillment in childrearing; she sings the praises of marriage, but has no intention of wedding her perennial "fiance." I also like your critique of the other photo of Winfrey on the shanty porch, but I think it’s important to note that no one is more invested than she in promoting a rags-to-riches interpretation of her life. The fact that she was the 1993 recipient of the Horatio Alger award is no coincidence. A key way she protects the purity of that "bootstrap" interpretation—which is itself a highly edited version of her actual history—is through strict legal controls over of who can speak about her and what can be said. Since 1995, all Harpo employees must sign an agreement that bars them from talking or writing about Winfrey’s personal or business affairs, and those of her company, for the rest of their lives. A former producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show challenged the confidentiality agreement in 1999 on First Amendment grounds, but an Illinois circuit court ruled against her. For such a world-scale public figure, Winfrey’s private life remains remarkably shielded from view beyond her own carefully-crafted narrative of individual aspiration and self-help.

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