Can Christians learn from Oprah Winfrey’s boundary-shifting friendship with Gayle King?
In one of the most talked about friendships in the Western world the past decade, the Oprah-Gayle bond has shifted the boundaries of sexuality, female autonomy, and friendship.
Arguably, no other contemporary relationship has so expanded the boundaries of sexuality and friendship and female personal autonomy in the Western hemisphere.
It would not be farfetched to say that Oprah has been instrumental for a spiritual awakening for millions of women--awakening to the virtue and power of female autonomy. In fact, she's been ridiculed as "Deepak Oprah." Phyllis Tickle sees Oprah as “the high priestess of America’s Judeo-Christian ethos.”
My “angle” (think Bing Crosby in the movie White Christmas, “Everybody’s got an angle.”) for exploring what Christians can learn from Oprah and her friendship with Gayle is simple: to highlight her personal autonomy.
Autonomy is an important virtue in friendship. Female autonomy is an important virtue in female friendship. It is also an important virtue in female-male friendship.
Female personal autonomy is at the heart of every female friendship
and it is at the heart of every cross-gender friendship.
Christians can learn the virtue and beauty of personal female autonomy as they look to Oprah. Although I am sure there is no question we could explore so many areas where Oprah reveals her robust autonomy in her intimate friendship with Gayle.
There will be Christians who would scoff at the idea that Christians could learn from Oprah’s autonomy. If you are one of them reading this, I’m not going to change your mind. Unless you’ve been in a coma for many years, many Christians have been critical of her focus on self. Other Christians have not drawn so many black and white lines and have critically engaged her.
Is there a way though, we can say that Oprah’s autonomy has been worthy of the Jesus story? That indeed Oprah embodies a way of life Christians can learn from? Could it possibly be that Oprah has something to teach Christians who are deeply embedded in individualism?
It is one of the deepest ironies for evangelicals: pointing fingers at Oprah for her self-centered messages while simultaneously advocating their own brand of individualism. I know. Because I did it myself.
I suggest Christian men and women can learn from Oprah’s autonomy expressed in her friendship with Gayle.
Christians can learn from Oprah as she has maintained a sense of self in the midst of social pressure to conform.
This is female autonomy.
In psychological language this would be known as differentiation.
Oprah hasn’t chosen a life to live out of other’s formulas. Others want to sexualize intimacy—sexualize intense closeness. Oprah has been criticized. She’s been pressured to admit she’s gay and her friendship with Gayle involves sex.
“I have a best friend, Gayle, and I never wanted a sexual experience [with her]”
No question about it: if you are a woman who is going to be a spiritual mentor in boundary-shifting friendship you have to see the value in personal autonomy and critical engagement in the public square.
Oprah's autonomy encourages Christians to reconsider women's autonomy within faith communities. What makes Oprah's witness so powerful is that it asks Christians for creative engagement of women's autonomy beyond the role of wife and mother. Her deep bond with Gayle challenges Christians to reconsider the presence of female autonomy in sexuality and friendship.
She hasn’t allowed others to determine her boundaries for her friendship with Gayle.
Personal autonomy for women within the Christian tradition means, among other things, women taking responsibility to discern for themselves what is good, what is beautiful, what is Truth.
Someone is more autonomous the more she can succeed in pursuing her concerns despite resistance…An autonomous life is one lived by someone who has the capacities for autonomy and is able to exercise them frequently over a substantial stretch of time.
Oprah’s autonomy has stood out in the midst of one the most scrutinized friendships in the western world. Oprah is no Rosie O’Donnell. She’s Oprah.
One woman's voice.
A woman of African descent.
One African American woman's resilient, audacious, self-determination to embrace female autonomy before a gendered, male-dominated, sexist world.
autonomy out in the open like Oprah's before the world where so many millions
know the history of mankind has been for men to oppress and intrude upon female
autonomy--inspires hope over powerlessness, dignity over shame, authenticity
over social conformity.
Oprah's personal autonomy has given prominence to the power of female friendship in the modern Western world.
Oprah’s autonomy becomes even more apparent in the midst of enduring stereotypes of African American women. In a white heterosexualized world blackness has meant uncivilized, untamed, and “wild sexuality” in contrast to white women (see Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics).
“I think if you’re gay, that’s fine; it’s your business and it’s fine.
But what offends me about anybody implying that I’m gay or
Stedman is gay is this: that means everything I’ve done or said is a sham.”
I say again, No other contemporary relationship has so expanded the boundaries of sexuality and friendship and female personal autonomy in the Western hemisphere.
For ongoing clarity, what I mean by sexuality and friendship is not “friendship with benefits.” So much conversation about sexuality has a genital focus. Important as genital relationships are, I’m intending a broader meaning-- sexuality encompassing embodied sexual beings relating to others. Personal/relational sexuality is much broader than genital relationships.
“If my life is to be lived by me according to someone else's
plan or conception, then it somehow ceases to be genuinely me. I would
become a mere instrument of someone else's intentions.”
Christians can learn from Oprah’s autonomy in her resistance of the modesty culture.
So many posts have been written in the blogosphere about modesty. Much of the focus has been on clothes. But there has always been a deeply embedded bias against women for them to not step out of line—do not get become intimate friends with another.
In a male-dominated world of privilege, women were not allowed to be authentic in forming intimate friendships in many Christian communities. They were discouraged from learning what intimate belonging in friendship with others.
“Autonomy is promoted when one acquires a plurality of standpoints from which to assess one’s own choices, one’s values and principles, one’s very character.”
What Oprah has deeply embodied before the Western world is not an autonomy of separation but an autonomy of deep connection. And this is known as differentiation. Therapist David Schnarch defines differentiation to be “the ability to stay in connection without being consumed by the other.”
In so many modern, masculinized models of autonomy, autonomy has meant separation and self-sufficiency. Masculine models autonomy meant emotional separation and distance. Any model of friendship where two individuals would choose to remain in daily contact like Gayle and Oprah have chosen would have been seen as immodest, excessive, immature.
Oprah has reframed autonomy for the purity culture. Differentiation doesn’t imply emotional distance, self-sufficiency or individualism. In fact, the autonomy Oprah has embodied is an autonomy of deep emotional connection and passionate commitment to Gayle. Oprah is not a mother. She is a friend. A friend who knows she desires intimate bonds of daily companionship (one thinks of the “four times a day” connection for thirty years).
In this sense, Oprah's autonomy has inspired women from all over the world to rethink closenness, rethink the romantic monopoly on deep connection, rethink the language of love. Women are free to say no to man-centered traditions of separated autonomy.
Now, because of the likes of Oprah, evangelical women like Angie Schuller Wyatt, a pastor and spiritual director can write: "Forming positive and nurturing friendships is much like dating and falling in love. It takes commitment, selflessness, and patience to be a great friend...Like romantic relationships, friendship is about us." We're no longer in the modesty culture anymore with voices like that. She goes on to say something significant about autonomy: "Autonomy and responsibility are also signs of a mature faith." This is the legacy of Oprah in friendship.
Do not be conformed to the world's standards. In a male-dominated world where autonomy was prized as separation, "plenty of what passes for healthy detachment is far from healthy, reflecting an attachment to being detached" (Robert Augustus Masters).
"Let me remind you: you are loved. And you are free. I say, let them bicker. Let them make up the rules, we don’t abide by them. Let them add and add and add to the millstone around their own poor neck. You, you are called to freedom, you are called to wholeness, you are called to love and mercy and justice, you are called to the better way, and it will not be taken from you. "