Oprah’s High Priestess of Public Shaming

Posted by on Nov 8, 2015 in Voice-Over | 0 comments

After five seasons, Iyanla: Fix My Life is still somewhat niche—it’s only available on OWN, which is a premium-cable channel. It’s fairly popular, though: According to OWN, this season is averaging 1 million total viewers, and is consistently among the most popular cable series watched in African American households. It’s centered on a deep human need: People are broken, and they want to be fixed. Sometimes, this is a matter of common sense. Stop fathering babies with handfuls of women; stop cheating on your spouse; stop crutching on meth. More often, though, it takes the pattern of a spiritual healing: confession, penitence, absolution. This emotional performance is a reminder that religion has never faded from American culture; its rhythms echo everywhere, even reality television. The satisfying spiritual flayings of Iyanla: Fix My Life embody a specific kind of secularism: light on metaphysical details, but still deeply yearning for meaning, morality, and salvation.

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Usually, when Iyanla tackles people’s problems, they’re fairly run-of-the-mill: mother-in-law conflicts, relationship drama, marital boredom. In season five, though, she took up a complicated religious problem in a three-part “mega-fix” of two gay pastors in Louisville, Kentucky, who had not yet come out to their congregations. Homosexuality is “a secret that’s been buried in the African American community for far too long,” Iyanla says in the intro. The goal, as she says repeatedly, is to get the men, Mitchell and Derek, to “tell the truth.”

Iyanla’s method is a little reminiscent of another throw-back reality-television giant, Supernanny. She meets people in their homes; she sits in their living rooms and grills them on their deepest, darkest secrets; she tells them, solemnly, that they must change their ways. Soon into the “mega-fix,” we hear a lot of dirt on the pastors: how Mitchell married a single mom even though he knew he was attracted to men and soon started having affairs (tear count: moderate). How Derek fears that God doesn’t love him (tear count: astronomical). Iyanla has little patience for Mitchell, who gives her some ’tude, so she hazes him a little: She makes him look into a pink hand-mirror labeled “man” and tell her what he sees in it. It takes her a while, but she finally breaks him down; he retreats to a bed, bawling, and in a solemn voiceover, Iyanla details how this vulnerable state requires him to be swaddled and massaged, to “move the energy out of his body.” Derek’s big bombshell comes later, when Iyanla forces him to confront his family about his sexuality; he confesses that he was sexually assaulted by an older man when he was a child, as if this were a normal thing to share for the very first time when you’re on national television.

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