Oprah Winfrey, already the star of her own talk show, was also the subject of an academic conference at Yale this weekend.
The conference, “Global Oprah: Celebrity as Transnational Icon,” took place in Luce Hall and consisted of six panel discussions which examined the way Oprah and other celebrities define America, and the role they play in international human rights and politics. Kathryn Lofton, a professor of religious and American studies who organized the conference, said the event attracted a “very disparate group” of roughly 20 scholars from around the world.
“There is no field of academic study of Oprah, but she is just such an important figure,” Lofton said. “[The conference] is less about her particularity as a person but more about her circulation as a product.”
Lofton added that she feels that because celebrities are so influential today, they have become integral to modern understanding of activism and conflict.
A panel titled “Oprah Therapies: Relief and Intervention in Haiti” examined Wyclef Jean and other celebrities’ involvement in post-earthquake relief in Haiti. Dana Cloud of the University of Texas at Austin spoke about Jean’s run for the Haitian presidency and its implications for the role of celebrities in politics.
“Wyclef calls himself a one-person [non-governmental organization], recognizing that as a celebrity he has considerable clout,” Cloud said, adding that Jean’s involvement in Haiti denies that the nation’s problems are geopolitical.
Cloud added that Jean’s Haitian nationality allows him to straddle a line between the inaccessible celebrity and the personal human being. She presented a video of Oprah interviewing Jean, pointing out that the clip focused heavily on Jean’s emotional response to the devastation in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, not on his charitable work in the country or the likelihood that he would run for the presidency.
Another panel, “Exporting Oprah: Philanthropy and Empowerment in the Geopolitical Now,” examined the trend of celebrity philanthropy.
All of Oprah’s philanthropic gifts go to the creation or maintenance of private institutions, not public ones, said Janice Peck of the University of Colorado at Boulder. She added that Oprah’s decision to fund a private school in South Africa was widely criticized because it did not support the South African educational system, but rather helped only a small group of students.
Roopali Mukherjee, a professor at Queens College in New York, said this focus on privatization could be driven by the fact that Oprah is black. She said that black Americans were historically left out of social services available to others. Instead, they had to rely on private help from wealthy blacks.
Lofton said she felt pleased with the conference. She added that when she approached scholars about attending, asking them if they thought Oprah or other celebrities related to their areas of expertise, she was afraid she would be laughed at. Despite her fears, only one scholar she contacted declined to attend, she said.
“No one could really claim expertise, so no one was really afraid to ask questions,” Lofton said. “The atmosphere was very convivial.”
Roughly 15 undergraduate and graduate students and professors attended the conference.
Kim Schisler DIV ’11 said she went because the material was relevant to her graduate degree, which focuses on how gender and media affect mission work.
Schisler said her roommate showed her a link to a story published by the Yale Herald that criticized the conference.
“[The article] was like, ‘Who cares about Oprah?’” she said. “I understand that humor is necessary in all academic disciplines, but pop icons lead society and should be studied.”
The conference was funded by the MacMillan Center and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department, among other sources.