Oprah Winfrey is truly an inspirational figure, who has greatly influenced the world and touched millions of people through her work. The story of Oprah’s early childhood and teenage years only emphasizes how much potential every individual has to rise above their surroundings and turn their life around. Oprah has managed to utilize the power of media in order to create a lasting connection with people around the world. As a host and TV producer, she has helped extraordinary individuals to share their stories. The Oprah Winfrey Show was an award-winning sensation, which continued to entertain and inspire its fans for almost a quarter of a century. The purpose of this paper is not only to examine the life of one of the most successful women in the world but to explain each stage of her life using Freud’s theory. This essay is less centered on Oprah and more on the divergence between theoretical concepts and real life, with Oprah’s life journey serving as an example of certain shortcomings.
Prenatal and Infancy
In order to discuss one’s life, it is important to start at the beginning and examine the prenatal stage. Oprah herself reveals that her birth was a result of what she referred to as “a one-day fling under an oak tree” (as cited in Oprah Winfrey – Bibliography, n.d.). It is apparent that she has never been a planned baby. Moreover, the love affair between her parents has never resulted in a marriage, which means that Oprah was a child of a broken home. As a result, ever since she was born, Oprah was shuffled between different family members. As an infant, she already had somewhat of an attitude and liked to cause trouble (Oprah Winfrey – Biography., n.d.). Oprah was born on January 29 1954 in the relatively small town of Kosciusko in Mississippi (Oprah Winfrey – Biography., n.d.). Her father is Vernon Winfrey, while her mother’s name is Vernita Lee. The occupation of her dad at the moment of her birth remains unknown. It is revealed that Vernon Winfrey was a coal miner turned barber who soon changed his occupation to pursue a career in local politics. At the time Oprah was born, Vernon served in the Armed Forces. Oprah’s biography mentions her mother being a housemaid. As for Oprah’s ethnic background, she has Liberian roots, with some of her genetic make-up accounting for a small percentage of Native-American genes. As a result of her parents separating and her mother not being able to afford to raise a child, Oprah was sent to her maternal grandmother. Thus, the little girl spent the first years of her life in rural poverty.
It is evident that the first stage of development begins at conception. The prenatal period, as well as infancy, are crucial in terms of the child’s physiological development and health. Freud notes that, during this stage, the infant’s main source of interaction with the outside world is the mouth (Garcia, 1995). The little human-derived pleasure and comfort from oral stimulation through the acts of eating and sucking. An infant’s dependency on the caretakers who feed them contributes to a sense of trust and comfort associated with oral stimulation (Garcia, 1995). It is evident that Oprah’s mother has been neglectful and spent little time with her daughter. As a result, Freudian psychosexual development theory helps to explain Oprah’s issues with aggression and stress as a child.
Since her mother traveled north shortly after her birth, Oprah spent the first 6 years of her life in the care of her maternal grandmother in the rural area of Mississippi. Hattie Mae Presley was rather strict and frugal. Oprah wore clothes made out of potato sacks, which made her the subject of jokes and bullying from peers (Harris, 2005). It is important to note that Oprah’s grandmother was abusive, which impacted the little girl (Oprah Winfrey – Biography., n.d.). Hattie regularly took her granddaughter to the local church, which was the first place where Oprah felt a sense of community. As a child, Oprah was exceptionally lively and animated, often playacting to an audience consisting primarily of farm animals (Harris, 2005). At two and a half years old, Oprah learned how to read under the watchful eye of her grandmother. Ever since she was able to speak and read properly, she began to address the congregation. Oprah skipped kindergarten and went straight to elementary school.
The period from 1 to 6 years old is one of the most important developmental stages in terms of forming a child’s personality and behavioral patterns. According to Freud, these five years of early childhood are crucial to analyze in order to explain some of the aspects of a person’s character (Garcia, 1995). This is the period of exploration, growth, and transformation, which is why the role of caregivers as safeguards and educators becomes all the more important. The freudian theory implies that early childhood plays a key role in developing independence in a child. For instance, during the anal stage, a child has to be toilet trained. In regards to Oprah’s upbringing, she has clearly become independent at a very young age because her grandmother was especially strict. Moreover, the girl moved around so much that she learned how to take care of herself in the process. Freud notes that sometimes caregivers can be too strict in the first three years of a toddler’s life, which leads to the development of an anal-retentive personality (Garcia, 1995). However, although Oprah’s family has been exceptionally strict and even abusive, it is impossible to call her rigid or obsessive.
Between the ages of 3 and 6, the Freudian theory describes the phallic stage. Freud suggested that, during this stage of early childhood, girls develop the Electra complex and try to fight their mothers to gain the attention of their fathers (Garcia, 1995). It is hard to make conclusions about Oprah’s development during this stage since she has spent this time living with her grandmother. However, there is a possibility that having neither a mother nor a father present during this crucial time has left a mark on Oprah’s attitude towards relationships. Unfortunately, Freud’s theory is limited to the instances where a child has only one parent or no parents at all present during the phallic stage.
Between the ages of 6 and 12, Oprah lives with her mother in a very poor and dangerous neighborhood of Milwaukee often referred to as the “ghetto.” Oprah’s mother was far less encouraging or concerned over her children’s education or development. Her constant need to work to support her two daughters led to partial neglect. When Oprah was eight, she was sent to some relatives in Nashville, Tennessee, while her mother gave birth to the third daughter who was quickly put up for adoption (Harris, 2005). Evidently, Oprah’s mother did not have enough financial resources to raise her two daughters, let alone the third one. Oprah also had another half-sibling, a brother named Jeffrey who was born not long after Vernita’s third daughter.
Freud describes the years of middle childhood as a latent stage, which implies little to no sexual motivation (Garcia, 1995). Beginning at the age of nine, Oprah was repeatedly molested by her relatives, including her cousin, uncle, and an unnamed family friend. It has clearly influenced Oprah’s development and attitude towards the world. This has caused her development to falter as her libido was essentially forced out of the latent stage. Thus, the girl experienced difficulty suppressing her libido’s energy and focusing herself on developing self-confidence instead.
The beginning of Oprah’s adolescent years has been somewhat of a turning point for her. She has been sent to live with her father in Nashville, which impacted the girl greatly. The time spent with her dad provided a sense of true happiness. Oprah became comfortable enough to make speeches at churches. Moreover, speaking at social gatherings has once earned her 500 dollars (Williams, 2018). At this point in her life, she began to realize that talking to people was something she envisioned herself doing for the rest of her life. Oprah’s father was the one who gave her the guidance and structure she so desperately needed (Oprah Winfrey – Biography., n.d.). He took his daughter’s education quite seriously and made a rule out of completing book reports and learning new vocabulary on a weekly basis. If Oprah wanted to eat dinner, she had to recite the new words she learned that day (Harris, 2005). Despite the positive changes occurring in Oprah’s life, she was inevitably called back to live with her mother (Oprah Winfrey – Biography., n.d.). Vernita had to work odd hours at multiple jobs and was not able to supervise her children very well. As a result, Oprah was abused by family members, which was worsened by her living conditions in the poor urban ghetto.
Despite the challenges Oprah was presented with, she excelled at school and demonstrated incredible academic skills. She was a member of various clubs, including the drama production and student council. She was also interested in debate and speechwriting. At 13 years old, Oprah believed she was unable to continue living with her abusive family and ran away from home (Harris, 2005). At 14, she became pregnant but lost her child after he was born prematurely. It is important to note that even after such a traumatizing personal tragedy, Oprah remained determined to make something of herself. For instance, she entered an Elks Club speaking competition, where she won a scholarship fully covering tuition to Tennessee State University (Harris, 2005). She was also one of the gifted young teenagers invited to a White House Conference on Youth.
It is evident that Oprah utilized every opportunity available to her to get an education and make her life better. At first, she attended Lincoln High School in Milwaukee but soon transferred to the wealthy Nicolet High School in the suburbs (Oprah Winfrey – Biography., n.d.). Being constantly reminded of her socio-economic status, Oprah started to rebel and steal some money from her mother to show her classmates she could be a part of their inner circle. Once Oprah’s mother found out about that, she sent her daughter to Vernon once and for all, which had many benefits for the girl.
Her father was both strict and supportive, which was just the right environment for Oprah to show her full potential. At East Nashville High School, she was an honors student and one of the top speakers in the nation after she placed second among the U.S. high school students in the category of dramatic interpretation. In addition, Winfrey was voted the Most Popular Girl and won a beauty pageant called the Miss Black Tennessee (Harris, 2005). WVOL, which was a local radio station, recognized Oprah’s skills after she won the Miss Fire Prevention contest organized by WVOL (Harris, 2005). As a result, Winfrey went from working at a grocery store to being invited to do newscasts part-time, which she did during her last year of high school.
The fifth stage of development described by Freud is referred to as the genital stage between the age of 12 and a person’s 20s. The trauma of sexual abuse and teen pregnancy resulting in the death of her child has resulted in Oprah developing hostile feelings towards sex and having children, which she herself admitted.
For Oprah Winfrey, her emerging adulthood can be traced to her years at Tennessee State University and the start of her career in radio and television broadcasting. While getting her Bachelor’s degree, Winfrey managed to work at a local CBS TV station (Langone, 2018). Although some sources state that she moved to Baltimore soon after her graduation, Oprah had not actually graduated from Tennessee State until 1987 (Chon, 2020). She was one credit short from receiving a degree back in 1975. When TSU invited Oprah to speak at the commencement for the class of 1987, she asked them to allow her to earn one more credit in order to get a degree and make her father proud. As for her personal life during this time, apart from her move to Baltimore, another shift occurred since Oprah broke up with her long-time boyfriend William Taylor. According to Davis (2021), despite being on and off for about 4 years and Oprah getting Taylor a job at WVOL, William was set on settling in Nashville and did not want to move to Baltimore with his girlfriend.
Thus, Oprah moved to Baltimore, Maryland, at the age of 22, in order to pursue her career aspirations and become a reporter for WJZ-TV, an affiliate company to ABC News. Soon, Oprah found herself lacking interest in working as a news reporter and was given an opportunity to host a chat show People Are Talking in 1977 (Langone, 2018). According to Davis (2021), in the 1970s, Oprah began dating John Tesh although the couple soon broke up due to the pressures of being in an interracial relationship at the time.
Adulthood and Late Adulthood
After the decision to change the trajectory of her career towards a casual talk-show format, Oprah found success and moved to Illinois to host AM Chicago. In 1984, the program went from being a failure to attracting millions of viewers. In 1985, its name was changed to The Oprah Winfrey Show, which became the highest-rated TV talk show in the nation and won several Emmy awards (Langone, 2018). At the same time, Winfrey tried herself acting and appeared in multiple pictures, including Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Oprah’s first film appearance was highly acclaimed by various critics, which prompted her subsequent roles in The Women of Brewster Place in 1989, Before Women Had Wings in 1997, and Beloved in 1998 (Bradley, 2019). Notably, the last two movies were produced by Oprah’s newly founded production company Harpo Films. Since 1990, Harpo Films acquired film rights to a number of best-selling novels.
Winfrey soon expanded her media empire by launching Oxygen Media, which was partially a cable television network targeted at women. In the early 2000s, Oxygen Media created a satellite radio channel and partnered with Discovery to launch the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) (Langone, 2018). Thus, The Oprah Winfrey Show ended in 2011 and was replaced by Oprah’s new show on OWN in 2012 (Langone, 2018). In a matter of a couple of decades, Oprah managed to create an empire and become successful not just as a media personality but as an entrepreneur, an actress, a radio host, and a philanthropist.
One of the key aspects of Winfrey’s immense success is her revolutionary approach to everything she sets her mind to do. For instance, she revolutionized the publishing industry by creating an on-air book club in 1996 (Harpo Productions Inc., 2011). The effect this program had on the best-seller list and the trends in global publishing were hard to overestimate. Winfrey decided to dive further into the publishing world by launching a highly successful O, the Oprah Magazine in 2000 as well as O, at Home in 2004 (Harpo Productions Inc., 2011). Therefore, it is evident that the impact of Oprah Winfrey is strong not only in television programming but in the publishing industry as well.
Publishing, radio, and television were not the only career vectors for Oprah. She was the voice actor in Charlotte’s Web and the Princess and the Frog. Moreover, she continued her acting career by appearing in The Butler in 2013 and Selma in 2014 (Bradley, 2019). Apart from starring in the film, she produced it as well. It is apparent that Oprah chooses the projects she participates in and the products she endorses very carefully. Most of the books, which were discussed as part of the book club, were dealing with important social issues such as racism, sexual abuse, homophobia, and many others. In addition, Selma (2014) portrayed the life of a prominent civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.
Winfrey always wanted to make the most out of the influence and power she started to gain as a media mogul. Therefore, she created Oprah’s Angel Network, the goal of which was to sponsor charities worldwide. Apart from that, Winfrey engaged in a variety of philanthropic initiatives. In 2007, she opened a school for girls from low-income backgrounds in South Africa, which cost her $40 million (Harpo Productions Inc., 2011). As an outspoken activist fighting against child abuse, Oprah received a variety of awards. For instance, in 2010, the star became a Kennedy Center honoree (Harpo Productions Inc., 2011). In 2011, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts presented her with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award (Harpo Productions Inc., 2011). In 2013, Oprah Winfrey received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. These awards and pronouncements signify how involved Winfrey remains in philanthropic and civic activities.
When examining the stage of adulthood, it is impossible to exclude financial gains from the discussion. At the age of 41, Oprah’s net worth was estimated to be $340 million. Only a couple of years later, the number increased by $460 million, which made Oprah Winfrey the wealthiest African-American of the 20th century (Sinha, 2021). In 2006, the tycoon’s annual earnings were close to $260 million, which increased to $275 million in 2008 (Sinha, 2021). In 2003, Forbes announced that Winfrey is the first black female billionaire to ever appear on the world’s richest people list (Sinha, 2021). Oprah’s disadvantaged upbringing in the ghetto and poor rural Mississippi followed by such a financial success makes her life story extremely unique and inspiring.
Apart from discussing the star’s career accomplishments, it is crucial to focus on her personal life during adulthood. Winfrey battled depression at the beginning of the 1980s and even write a suicide note in 1981. During the same dark period, she smoked crack cocaine with several of her boyfriends (Edwards, 1995). Winfrey has begun dating Stedman Graham in 1986 who continues to be her life partner.
Even after turning 60, Oprah continues to remain highly successful in her career. In 2017, Discovery acquired a majority share of the Oprah Winfrey Network (Langone, 2018). In 2018, Oprah’s team made an announcement about the star’s agreement to produce exclusive content for AppleTV+. As of 2020, the streaming service has featured Oprah Talks COVID-19 and hinted at new partnerships with Winfrey. It is crucial to acknowledge that Oprah remains involved in the global discussions surrounding pressing social issues, which led to the creation of an anti-racism platform Where Do We Go from Here? It addressed the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. According to Bradley (2019), Winfrey continues to appear in and produce literature-to-film adaptations such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018). As of 2021, Oprah remains one of the most successful people in the world who develops her media empire and speaks out on the issues of race and gender inequality such as in her latest interview with Prince Harry and Meghan.
Freud implied that the development of a person’s personality occurs primarily between birth and adolescence. Thus, his theory focuses on the stages between conception and teenage years. Although the genital stage continues through emerging adulthood, it is apparent that Freudian psychosocial theory pays little to no attention to the stages of adulthood (Garcia, 1995). This is one of the framework’s main shortcomings. In comparison to Erickson, who believed that development continued through the entirety of a person’s lifespan, the Freudian theory is considerate of the changes that one can go through in their adulthood. Oprah’s example demonstrates that from feeling insecure and easily irritated, a person can go on to transform themselves and develop new personality traits. The sudden turn Oprah’s career took in the 1980s allowed her to adapt to her new environment and overcome some of her mental fixations.
Oprah’s life journey is interesting and fascinating in and of itself. However, applying developmental theory to a life of such an influential figure is all the more exciting. Although Freudian psychosocial theoretical frameworks can explain some of the behavioral patterns displayed by Oprah Winfrey as a child and a young adult, they fall short when it comes to adulthood. Freud believed that one’s personality is rigid after their 20s. However, Oprah’s example proves otherwise. Freud’s theory of development is limited in its ability to explain a person’s growth throughout their lifespan or to predict future transformations.
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