What if you could buy social justice? (Part 8: Saving the world Oprah style: I’ll give you a million dollars to save the world…)

While Oprah has donated much time (and money) to social justice causes, her “brand” of such actions is perhaps the best known example of what I term the you can buy social justice paradigm. Nowhere did this become more apparent than in her reality show Oprah’s Big Give (hereafter referred to as OBG).

For those living under a rock large enough to obfuscate Oprah news, the show involved 10 “philanthropists” (read: contestants) competing to be the best “big giver.” Over 8 episodes, as self-declared Oprah fan and blogher Megan Smith explains:

“Five teams of two are given $2500, a clue, and the photo and name of a person in need.  The Givers then have five days to change their Givees’ lives.  Each week the weakest “Big Give” link will be eliminated, as determined by a panel of judges, and at the end of the eight week series, the person who gives away the most wins.”

Thus, drawing on various reality TV staples, OBG attempted to turn giving into a competition. Or, as Troy Patterson of Slate quipped, “You can think of Oprah’s Big Give … as a kind of Apprentice for philanthropists or as America’s Next Top Altruist.”

Yet, the competitive, rule-bound dynamics of the show mitigated its more altruistic, activist aims. Or, as Dave White relates in his article “Lessons Learned form ‘Oprah’s Big Give’,” “They kick people off each week. Doesn’t that sort of diminish the show’s capacity to big-give with each passing episode? Doesn’t it take a village to big-give properly? Turns out it doesn’t.”

As White’s claim reveals, the show did not promote social collectivism or social consciousness, rather, it championed individualism. Moreover, as the driving force behind the show as well as the prize was MONETARY, OBG perpetuated the notion that with enough money (and with the big O and other corporate sponsors) one can save the world.

The million dollar prize further cemented this message that money, not justice, is the real prize. And, even though the competitors supposedly didn’t know about the million dollar prize for the winner, they must have suspected, as Tom Shales of the Washington Post argues:

“…Winfrey assures us that the million-dollar prize is a secret unbeknownst to the competitors. And yet, the fact that they are called competitors, and that in ‘American Idol‘ fashion someone is kicked off the show each week, obviously lets the players know that some sort of big fat pot is waiting at the end of the rainbow.”

Dave White further argues that the message of the show is all about the dough. Lesson 1, according to White, is “corporate sponsors make charitable acts so much easier.” How true! So much easier to be a “philanthropist” when corporate giants are doling out the green.

In addition to the money-solves-all -problems theme, in typical Oprah style, there also seemed to be quite a bit of emphasis on appearance and celebrity. Celebrity judges and guests, accompanied by well-groomed, well-clad contestants, gave OBG a glossy, photo-shopped feel quite different to what one might encounter in real world giving scenarios such as the soup kitchen, the domestic shelter, or recovery zones such as New Orleans post-Katrina or Thailand post-tsunami.

Notably, one female contestant proclaimed that taking part in OBG was preferable to botox or a boob job. How Oprah-esque! Making the world a place one botox-rejecter at a time…

Moreover, the show had what Shales refers to as an “unsavory aura of exploitation.” Like its popular predecessor, Queen for a Day (which aired from 1956 to 1964), OBG relied on exploiting the oh-so-heartbreaking stories of societal “unfortunates” as well the contestant “philanthropists.”

Susan J. Douglas’ analysis o Queen for a Day, the matriarch of big-give reality shows, reveals many points of comparison to OBG.* Douglas, writing about Queen, argues that “One purpose of the show was to dramatize that there was no problem, no catastrophe that couldn’t be fixes by a new dishwasher or some costume jewelry,” and relates that “Once the ‘Queen’ was crowned, came “the parade of consumer goods -the washers, dryers, knit dresses, Jell-O molds…” (33). This reminds me of “The O List” featured in Oprah’s magazine each month. Highlighting a number of “must-haves” each month (many of which are so costly only the Oprah-rich could buy them), the list sends the message that with commodities comes happiness. This message is not contained within “The O List” however — “Living Your Best Life,” the magazine teaches us, involves A LOT of consumption (no, no, sillies, NOT of food, of products!)

OBG echoed this “money brings happiness” in many ways. Feel the world needs changing? Hand out roses at red lights! How revolutionary!

In addition to the celebrified glitz of the show and the emphasis that money can fix all problems, there was a marked lack of social critique. As argued in “The dark underside of Oprah’s Big Give, “by Linda Diebel, “when competitors tried to buy away the problems of two schools in Houston, Texas, “not one contestant turned to another and asked how such bleak Dickensian conditions could exist in American schools in the first place.”

Similarly, the systematic, institutionalized conditions of poverty, homelessness, lack of healthcare, etc, were not examined on OBG. Rather, the show relied on a Horatio Alger model, trying to save the world by pulling up one individual bootstrap at a time.

As Diebel continues:

“Of course the schools benefited from the experience. Winfrey works magic; nobody would argue students were better off before her show hit downtown. But nothing fundamentally changed. There was no revelation that decent education and health care are rights in a developed society, not privileges to be bestowed by charity or through Winfrey’s good graces.”

Diebel’s point that the “giving” on OBG will not fundamentally change anything is key. In fact, the “big give” narrative perpetuates the very forms of giving that keeps the system in place. OBG offers “American Dream” giving (and taking) – the ability to “have it all” via the prime juice that runs the system — money.

Diebel’s critique of Oprah’s support of Obama is also pertinent here. As she writes:

“It may be she expects Obama can bring change as president. It’s what he’s about. But then again, consider his take on health care. Both he and fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton pledge reform but their truncated plans depend at the core upon Americans buying private insurance for themselves. The right to buy.”

As Diebel reveals, the idea you can BUY justice is not only the message of OBG, but also the message touted by mainstream politicians. Is it any wonder, then, that so many embraced the messages of OBG? What better way to affirm US materialism and greed than to disguise it as a way to buy the world into a better place?

Yet, various critiques of the show felt this “buying justice” message was beneficial for viewers. Megan Smith, admitting that “it’s weird to be rating altruism at all,” still felt the 15 million plus viewers might benefit and be “inspired to go out and volunteer in their communities and try to make a difference.” Similarly, Britt Bravo pointed out that:

“10 million viewers tuned in to watch the finale of a reality show about people trying to make the world a better place. Some of them went to the Oprah’s Big Give web site and clicked on the links to Network for Good or VolunteerMarch to, ‘donate or volunteer near you.’

Can you really say it would have been better if they hadn’t watched at all?”

Hmmm, well maybe watching OBG was better than watching, say, The Bachelorette, but, in many ways they are not all that different – they package reality, making it all glitzy and glammy, while giving the message that anything can be bought/purchased. In OBG’s case, justice can be bought, while in The Bachelorette, women can…

Ray Richmond sees the show in this cynical vein, noting that:

“Shallow as a birdbath, the program would appear to exist less as a true philanthropic exercise than yet another self-aggrandizing vehicle in Oprah’s divine quest to become synonymous with all that is virtuous and good on Earth.”

While I do sense that Oprah’s heart is in the right place, and while she has certainly done much good for the world both through her own contributions and through raising awareness, (the Angel Network being a good example of both), I wish Oprah would include social critique into her O-ing of the world – I wish she would incorporate a POLITICAL, ACTIVIST focus rather than the simple “live your best life” mantra.

Further, it is important to remember that while people such as Oprah and Bill Gates are often framed as wonderful philanthropists, the amount of philanthropy they do does not come close to the amount of money they make.  As the “profit chart” from Modern Minority reveals, Oprah makes more per minute than most of the globe’s populace makes in a week, month, or year:

“Oprah Winfrey has an income of approximately $385 million dollars a year. Allow me to break down the math:


$1.05 million per day


$43,000 per hour


$732 per minute”

Thus, while the fact that Oprah donated 52 million dollars in 2005 sounds impressive, when put in the context that this amount is about half of what she makes IN ONE DAY, well, the giving sounds a lot less big.

Now, don’t get me wrong here, I admire Oprah and feel she has done LOTS of good things for the world. However, precisely because she has so much fame/power, I am holding her to high standards. I love the fact that in her various venues (show, magazine, tours, books) she attempts to raise awareness about important social causes and encourages people to become socially active. But, I wish that all of this were not wrapped in such a consumerized package. I wish, in short, that Oprah would NOT give us the message, writ large, that we can BUY social justice (and further, that we should damn well look good while doing it, oh, yeah, and be on a diet as we do so…)

Up next, part 9, “Think Pink: Cancer Profiteering.”


3 thoughts on “What if you could buy social justice? (Part 8: Saving the world Oprah style: I’ll give you a million dollars to save the world…)”

  1. Great post – just one minor calculation error:

    $52 million is ~ 13.5% of her gross income (what she’d make in just a bit over 6 weeks). I translated that to my salary (not exactly comparable, since less of mine is “disposable”, since she can always fire her chef or get a smaller house and I . . . can’t), and it would be a hefty chunk of change for me. Not impossible, but definitely a stretch.

    Oprah’s at an income level where I don’t understand what she does with all the money, but I do imagine that’s a significant portion, even when you’ve got ~300 million (minus taxes) to go.

    1. Anita,
      Thanks for pointing out this calculation! With all respect to math as a discipline and the importance of being number-savvy, math is FAR from my strong subject!

  2. If one makes $20,000 in Canada, 13.5% of one’s income is significant – because $20,000 is pretty darn hard to live on.

    13.5% of $385 million ($52 million) means Oprah has $333 left.

    That puts things even more in perspective for me.


    PS Thanks for the math, Anita!

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