Oprah Winfrey first said “me too” on national television in 1986. During The Oprah Winfrey Show’s very first season, she looked straight into the camera and told her viewers about her own experiences of sexual assault that began when she was just nine years old.
“There really is no darker secret than sexual abuse,” she said. “I’m telling you about this so that maybe the closet where so many sexual abuse victims and their molesters hide will swing open just a crack today and let some light in.”
Last night at the 75th Golden Globe awards—while accepting the Cecil B. deMille Award for her “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”—Oprah again used her platform to elevate the voices of survivors of sexual abuse and take a stand against the harassment of A-list celebrities and domestic workers alike at the hands of powerful men. She told the story of Recy Taylor, a black woman who was raped by six armed white men in 1944, none of whom were ever prosecuted. “She lived as we all have lived,” said Oprah, “too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. And for too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.”
Though it’s been less than 24 hours, her words seem to have struck a chord with both those inside the venue who met her words with a standing ovation and Americans across the country. Quotes from her speech quickly began trending across social media, alongside suggestions that she run for president. We spoke to two speech and communication experts about why and how Oprah’s words were able to touch the masses.
Dr. Mary E. Stuckey, Professor of Communication at Pennsylvania State University and the author of a dozen books on rhetoric in politics, points out that Oprah’s speech, unlike that of Meryl Streep last year, has received little criticism from the Right. That is “partly because it's a good speech and partly because the way it's a good speech,” she says. “The way she does personal narrative, the way she does its evocative nature, the way she does politics, and the way she talks about a hopeful future—it's not just these themes which are kind of unattackable, but also her approach to them was deft.”
The first thing that Dr. Stuckey noticed while watching Oprah’s speech was her tone of “gracious humility.” Oprah said that it was both an honor and a privilege to share the evening with those listening to her in the audience and at home. Dr. Stuckey juxtaposes her tone to that of "bombastic entitlement,” which she says has been dominating political discourse in this country for at least the past year. “Both the Obamas had that kind of graciousness about sharing the stage and there's been so little of that from either side of the political spectrum [recently].” Her approach was refreshing following a year of angry speech after angry speech, causing viewers to pause and listen.
”I think it’s notable that apparently not a single man felt the need to refer to the broader context."
Another factor that contributed to the efficacy of Oprah’s address was the ironic way in which she hardly spoke about her own career and achievements while accepting an award based solely on them, says Dr. Stuckey. Instead, by bringing attention to Recy Taylor, giving a nod to domestic laborers and farmworkers, “the women whose names we’ll never know,” Oprah took a moment where she had every right to be self-centered and used it to highlight the experiences of women who will never be able to share their own stories on such a platform. “She uses her celebrity to praise the common person,” says Dr. Stuckey.
While the movement against sexual assault was the underlying theme of the night, with attendees wearing black and “Time’s Up” pins, no one commanded the cause to the center of attention like Oprah, and certainly not in an acceptance speech. People like Natalie Portman and Debra Messing took their jabs at sexism, but Oprah was the only person to focus an entire speech on the epidemic of sexual abuse in America. ”I think it’s notable that apparently not a single man felt the need to refer to the broader context,” says Dr. Stuckey. “She wore black, but by choosing to underline that with a speech about the context, she made sure that [sexual assault] would be part of the conversation today. She very much pointed the spotlight right there.”
According to both Dr. Stuckey and Kim Hannah-Prater, Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland, it mattered that it was Oprah Winfrey who ultimately said what no one else would. “Her ethos as Oprah made the speech more impactful,” says Hannah-Prater. "There have been people in the past who've discussed issues related to sexual assault. For example, Rose McGowan. But she doesn't have the ethos or name recognition of Oprah, someone who's been in millions of people's homes for the past 30 years.”
Lastly, Oprah’s words carried an element that’s been particularly scarce for Americans in the past year: hope. “There was a real clarity to [her speech] but it wasn't angry and she remains hopeful while acknowledging that the hope requires effort and work and dedication,” says Dr. Stuckey. Oprah was able to seamlessly discuss the brutal realities at the intersection of racism and sexism in America’s history while dropping clear signs of hope: She began by explaining what if felt like to see race representation on a stage like the Academy Awards for the first time when Sidney Poitier won an Oscar for Best Actor in 1964. In the middle of her speech, she gave a shout out to all the “little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this… award.” And at the end she announced that a new day is on its way, a day “when nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again.”