In an episode of the new Netflix series The Goop Lab, a young woman, Ana, gets a reading from the psychic medium Laura Lynne Jackson. Things do not go well. Jackson tells Ana, a Goop employee who is skeptical about clairvoyance, that she senses a twin in her family. Ana can’t think of any twins. “I have a female figure coming in, and I feel like it’s your grandmother’s sister,” Jackson says. “My grandmother didn’t have a sister,” Ana replies. Jackson asks whether Ana might be planning a trip to Mexico. (No.) “Is there, like, a funny story or a picture about a donkey? Or is there something with Shrek?” (Also no.) The reading, staged for the show’s cameras, quickly spirals from gauzy mysticism to blunt awkwardness. Even Ana seems surprised at how correct she was to distrust the premise of the exercise—which is also, as it happens, the premise of Goop as a lifestyle brand: that the physical world is, to some extent, a faith-based initiative.
But then, off camera, a producer’s voice interrupts the proceedings. “Hey, Laura? This is really strange. I think you’re actually reading Lindsay right now.”
The show’s camera pans over to Lindsay, an associate producer, who is crying. Lindsay explains that her grandfather died a week ago. And that her grandmother is a twin. And that she is getting married in Mexico next year. Even the Shrek note tracked: “My father was just joking that he really wanted, for the photo booth at our wedding in Mexico, to have a donkey,” Lindsay says. “And my grandpa, like, laughed about it in the hospital days before he passed.”
The people in the room seem shocked to have witnessed this moment of intra-realm wire-crossing. Jackson does not. “So this is what happens when I’m open and they’re determined,” she says breezily, explaining how the spirits of the dead might try to communicate with those who are not a reading’s appointed “sitters.” A title card echoes her claim: “Lindsay did not have any communication with Laura Lynne Jackson prior to this taping.”
Is this evidence? Is it trolling? Is it something else? Goop—the name, the story goes, derived from Gwyneth Paltrow’s initials and her assumption that the most successful websites have an “oo” in them—has evolved, since 2008, from a newsletter into a website into a commercial platform into a series of books into a powerful and lucrative brand. As it has expanded, it has also become infamous for selling products that traffic in the culture of “wellness” with little evident regard for the science of it. (In 2018, the company settled a false-advertising case brought by the state of California involving three of its products. One of them was a blend of essential oils that the site claimed could fight depression.) The Goop takedown, whether directed at the yoni egg or the coffee enema or the $125,000 gold dumbbells, has become its own branch of journalism, some of it authored by medical professionals and some by cultural critics who, correctly, take issue with the brand’s blithe assumptions about who can buy their way into wellness and who cannot.
The Goop Lab is best understood as a six-episode-long infomercial for Goop. You can also read it, though, as a show about the set of circumstances that led to the star of Shallow Hal becoming, to some, an authority on health. The show’s episodes, led by Paltrow and Elise Loehnen, Goop’s chief content officer, explore topics such as psychedelics (“The Healing Trip”), cold-exposure therapy (“Cold Comfort”), women’s sexual health (“The Pleasure Is Ours”), and energy-field massage (“The Energy Experience”). Goop employees often serve as the appointed topic’s guinea pigs, testing out mushrooms and plunging into Lake Tahoe in winter and explaining in talking-head interviews how the treatments improved their life. The show’s unifying assumption is that there is science beyond “science.” The series is a stylized argument for all that might be achieved, on behalf of the body and the soul and the culture that contains them, if humans could look beyond the dull contingencies of fact.
This is, on the soft-lit surface of things, an optimistic premise. The show’s appointed authorities often note, in discussions with Paltrow and Loehnen set in Goop’s gleaming offices, that progress requires its own kind of faith. (One of them points out that the world was assumed to be flat until people of vision determined it to be otherwise.) Several of them note as well that true visionaries are often mocked, in their age, by those who are insufficiently open of mind. They have a point. The show’s strongest episode features Betty Dodson, the feminist sex educator, discussing the physics of women’s orgasms; it reads as a timely corrective to American culture’s tendency to treat women’s bodies as agents of shame.
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But to watch The Goop Lab as a series, with its arcing assumptions about the limitations of medical science, is also to wonder where to locate the line between open-mindedness and gullibility. It is to wonder why Gwyneth Paltrow, celebrity and salesperson, should be trusted as an arbiter of health. To have a body is to live in a constant state of uncertainty. Goop transforms that anxiety into a sales pitch.
Goop also, at times, turns that anxiety into a joke. Its products get a lot of mileage from puns. The Goop Lab, its title suggestive of scientific rigor, makes fun of the brand’s reputation for the opposite. The poster for the show features Paltrow, clad in a pink dress, situated on a graphic that is unmistakably evocative of labia. (“REACH NEW DEPTHS,” the poster offers, winkily.) Late last week, Goop released a candle called This Smells Like My Vagina. Scented with geranium, bergamot, and cedar “to put us in mind of fantasy, seduction, and a sophisticated warmth,” the object cost $75, was the subject of much discussion, and sold out almost immediately.
The Goop Lab continues that lulzy approach—each episode begins with a title-card disclaimer that the show is “designed to entertain and inform” rather than offer medical advice—but combines the mirth with deep earnestness. That creates its own kind of chaos. What is the meaningful difference, legal niceties aside, between “information” and “advice”? When a medium talks about Shrek during a reading that claims to connect the living to the dead, how seriously are audiences supposed to take that? When Julianne Hough, a celebrity best known as a ballroom performer on Dancing With the Stars, joins the show to talk about a childhood trauma that she held in her foot, is that a testament to the body as a site of discovery, or to a kind of medical anarchy? “How Goop’s Haters Made Gwyneth Paltrow’s Company Worth $250 Million” is the title of The New York Times’ 2018 feature on the brand and its founder; the company’s Netflix spin-off, as well, has the potential to troll all the way to the bank.
The Goop Lab is streaming into a moment in America that finds Medicare for All under discussion and the Affordable Care Act under attack. It presents itself as airy infotainment even as many Americans are unable to access even the most basic forms of medical care. That makes the show deeply uncomfortable to watch. So does The Goop Lab’s just-asking-questions approach to health—its breezy mistrust of expertise itself. The show, like the online store from which it is spun, is perfectly calibrated to the post-fact cynicisms of 2020. Can you improve your immune system through breathing techniques? Can you lower your biological age, even if you cannot control your chronological one? Maybe. But it is telling that Goop, the lifestyle brand that treats health as a luxury good, is the one asking those questions.
Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers culture.
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