Past Present Podcast: #OscarsSoWhite, Oprah and Weight Watchers, and the Iowa Caucus


On this week’s Past Present podcast, Nicole Hemmer, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, and Neil Young discuss #OscarsSoWhite, Oprah Winfrey and the history of Weight Watchers, and why Iowa’s caucus goes first.


For the second year in a row, the Academy Awards will feature only white nominees in the acting categories, leading to an #OscarsSoWhite boycott. Natalia mentioned Marc Bernardin’s Hollywood Reporter piece that argued black movies have to be about African-American heroes like Martin Luther King or major historical moments like Selma in order to attract Oscar attention. Neil noted Hattie McDaniel won the first Oscar by an African-American actor in 1939 by playing Mammy in “Gone with the Wind,” but her acceptance speech was prepared for her and she was not allowed to sit with the white audience at the awards show. Niki discussed an Economist article which questioned how racially skewed the Oscars are.

Oprah and Weight Watchers

Weight Watchers’ stock has surged since Oprah Winfrey’s purchase of a 10% stake in the company in October, but Natalia mentioned a Slate article pointed out Winfrey’s investment was a particularly shrewd one because Weight Watchers doesn’t work long term. Neil noted Oprah made her own struggles with weight a recurrent theme of her talk show, including the famous 1988 episode when she brought 67 pounds of animal fat onto her stage to represent how much weight she had lost. Natalia cited Trysh Travis’ history of the recovery movement, The Language of the Heart, which explores how Oprah has played a key role in the feminization of American confessional culture. But Natalia also remarked that Oprah’s Weight Watchers turn has drawn critics, including Melissa Harris-Perry’s plea that Winfrey think more about her accomplishments than her dress size. Niki explained Weight Watchers began in the early 1960s when Jean Nidetch created a program that combined calorie counting with an emotional support system. Niki traced the history of weight loss in America back to Sylvester Graham’s nineteenth-century diet program which was also intended to curb Americans’ sexual appetites. That moral dimension to weight loss, Niki observed, has other historical examples, including the “holy anorexia” female saints practiced in medieval times. Niki also recommended Katy Waldman’s recent essay, “There Once Was a Girl,” that thinks about these themes in a contemporary context.

Iowa Caucus

It’s Iowa caucus time, but why does Iowa get to vote first? Niki explained how the McGovern-Fraser Commission reforms after the 1968 Democratic National Convention led to Iowa being moved to the front of the primary calendar in 1972. Jimmy Carter’s 1976 win in Iowa, Niki also commented, helped cement Iowa’s importance for the media. Neil discussed how Carter won Iowa in part thanks to his standing with the state’s evangelical voters and his suggestion he’d be a pro-life president, but those evangelical voters now largely vote for Republican candidates in the state. Neil noted Public Religion data that showed evangelical voters were increasing in Iowa as a constituency even as they were decreasing nationally.

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