- By Katie CellaKatie Cella is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
Oprah Winfrey’s special program on India drew the ire of several Indian media outlets on July 21, who called the show "myopic, unaware, ignorant and gauche." The program was featured in the "Oprah’s Next Chapter" series, which has the long-time talk show star traipsing around outside the studio for "enlightening conversations with newsmakers, celebrities, thought leaders and real-life families."
Her foray in India aired in the United States in April but premiered in India this weekend. The two-episode special featured a trip to some Mumbai slums, the Jaipur Literature Festival and the glitzy homes of Bollywood stars.
Winfrey was criticized for reinforcing exotic and backward stereotypes of India, particularly when she commented that she heard that Indians "still" eat with their hands. "I don’t know what people in America are eating their hot dogs, pizzas and tacos with but perhaps Oprah’s home has evolved cutlery for all that," commented Rajyasree Sen, a columnist on Firstpost, an online Indian newspaper.
Rituparna Chatterjee, a blogger on the CNN-IBN website, slammed Oprah’s comment, saying: "Using our hands to eat is a well established tradition and a fact none of us are ashamed of. Our economic distinction has nothing to do with it… You should know that."
Winfrey’s interviews with slum-dwellers in Mumbai also provoked backlash. Sen notes:
And the slum is where Oprah’s ‘oh-my-god-how wonderfully-pathetically-quaint-to-be-so-poor’ avatar stepped out in full glory…She asked the children how they could live in such a "tiny" room and actually wanted to know, "Don’t you feel it’s too cramped?" She also asked the six-year-olds whether they were happy. Which must have made them wonder why they shouldn’t be. She then interrogated the father about whether he was happy and satisfied. He got teary-eyed and said that he wished he could earn more and provide for a more comfortable life for his children. After making him weep in front of his family, Oprah said that she knows how awful it is for children to see their father weep. She did look for a shower head in the toilet and seem amazed to hear they bathed with a bucket. And she marveled at how all their clothes fit onto a small shelf. She pointedly avoided any mention of the massive LCD TV which adorned their wall. That would have killed the sob story."
The OWN has not commented on the attacks from Indian media, but Winfrey had remarked earlier that the trip to India was "her greatest life experience." Looks like the feeling wasn’t mutual.