Oprah Secedes from US, Forms Independent Nation of Cheesecake-Eating Housewives. There was a time when I found this headline, taken from satirical newspaper The Onion’s Our Dumb Century, highly amusing. Let’s all laugh at Oprah, daytime TV’s cheerleader for middle-aged women living dull, boring domestic lives!
The accompanying article describes “Ugogirl” as “a nurturing, supportive republic […] subject to a set of laws and provisions which prioritise access to healthy, low-fat recipes, creative home-decorating tips and inspirational stories of personal triumph over adversity”. Hilarious! A place, in short, in which serious concerns – male concerns – are side-lined and replaced by the fluffy trivialities and mawkish sob stories that constitute female experience.
It’s only now, two decades later and particularly in light of Winfrey’s stunning Golden Globes speech, that I can see the white privilege and misogyny behind this mockery. That a woman who’d grown up experiencing racism, poverty and sexual abuse had become rich and powerful, only to spend hours on air listening to mere mummies and housewives, was seen, not as admirable, but pathetic. It wasn’t that she’d chosen the wrong genre or target market – after all, Jerry Springer had done the same – but that she actually appeared to be taking these women’s lives seriously.
As #metoo has been reminding us, no amount of wealth and power makes a woman safe from misogyny. However, it’s one thing to express solidarity with women across all social strata, quite another to put this into practice. It’s notable that in her speech, Winfrey did more than ride the tide of righteous anger at Hollywood sexism. She took care to mention Rosa Parks, Recy Taylor and “all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue”:
“They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.”
They’re the women whose lives are all too often picked up and dropped again, considered unimportant – too “cheesecake-eating housewife-y” – the moment the drama isn’t deemed obvious enough for male-centric tastes.
Here in the UK, BBC China editor Carrie Gracie’s resignation over unequal pay may have lacked the same emotional punch, but it too is a call for gender equality that includes more than just the wealthiest women. In an open letter to BBC viewers, Gracie makes it clear that her original demand was not for more money for herself, but simply “for all the international editors to be paid the same amount”. She goes on to point out that “many of the women affected are not highly paid ‘stars’ but hard-working producers on modest salaries. Often women from ethnic minorities suffer wider pay gaps than the rest”.
While Gracie’s argument is less far-reaching than Winfrey’s – and certainly less engaged with questions of visibility and representation – it makes a crucial point about the difference between parity for some and equality for all. Yes, Gracie may be speaking out on her own behalf, but she is painfully aware of the cost of this and clearly conscious of being more able to bear it than others.
It’s been noted time and again that feminism does not represent all women unless it includes all women. It is not enough to have some women in positions of power; we also need to think about what they do with it. Admittedly, this argument is sometimes used to denigrate the idea that we need powerful women at all (why bother, when you could end up with another Margaret Thatcher or Theresa May?).
I don’t buy this particular line. There’s no equality in expecting women to be morally superior to men. However, we absolutely need there to be a clear, solid link between the centre-stage rhetoric of women such as Winfrey and Gracie, and the day-to-day challenges most women face.
In a recent piece for the New York Times, Susan Faludi discusses the problem of “harnessing the pure politics of personal outrage to the impure politics of society building”. Here, she differentiates between defeating the patriarch – the Harvey Weinstein of the day – and taking on the patriarchy itself:
“It’s easier to mobilise against a demon, as every military propagandist — and populist demagogue — knows. It’s harder, and less electrifying, to forge the terms of peace. Declaring war is thrilling. Nation building isn’t.”
It’s one thing to talk about BBC boardrooms and casting couches; another to talk about domestic chores, unpaid care work, male violence, Universal Credit, pregnancy discrimination, arbitrary distinctions between public and private economic concerns, all the little things Marilyn French captured as the “shit and string beans” side of female disempowerment. Right now, while there is momentum on both sides of the Atlantic, we need to be willing to get our hands dirty.
And as a figurehead for that, I can think of few women more suitable than Oprah Winfrey. A woman who’s had more than enough personal tragedy to offer up to those hungry for tales of “real” distress, she’s also been unafraid to deal with the less showy, more mundane side of female experience: diets, relationships, motherhood, friendships, women as human beings, not just bearers of pain. It’s all very well to bring the audience to tears, but there’s also work to be done in the aftermath.
Bring on the nation of cheesecake-eating housewives, I say. We’ve waited long enough.