Making a Ruckus: Considering The Goop Lab
The six-episode series, The Goop Lab, launched in January on Netflix aiming to “explore ideas that may seem out there or too scary,” according to Goop’s chief content officer, Elise Loehnen. Goop is a “modern lifestyle brand” that covers everything from skincare to travel, but it has developed a reputation for focusing on controversial health and wellness topics. Since 2008, Goop has also grown from an e-newsletter and website founded by Gwyneth Paltrow to include wellness summits, pop-up stores, a podcast, and magazine. A streaming television series could only be the next logical platform. As a long time Goop observer, I was curious if the show would do anything to reposition the brand’s reputation for promoting questionable wellness advice.
Goop has consistently been the focus of controversy for marketing wellness practices and products that can cause more harm than good. In September of 2018 Goop settled a lawsuit brought by Truth In Advertising regarding its health claims about vaginal jade eggs and flower essences. Goop agreed to pay $145,000 in civil penalties and refund customers’ purchases of those products. The settlement also prohibits Goop “from making any claims regarding the efficacy or effects of any of its products without possessing competent and reliable scientific evidence,” and the brand now employs a fact checker following a split from the Condé Nast publishing group.
Goop is often easy to criticize, not just thanks to Paltrow, but because any beneficial advice it does offer is usually overshadowed by the promotion of products like the jade eggs, energy patches, and coffee enemas. The eggs have even become a symbol of the issues surrounding the brand. Gynecologist Jen Gunter is known for taking Goop to task over those and other practices like vaginal steaming, and her blog post from 2017 was cited in the lawsuit. Like many other brands, Goop also exploits the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act (DSHEA) passed by Congress in 1994 that puts the burden of proof on the FDA “to show that a dietary supplement is adulterated” or harmful to the public. This means that Goop and other companies that sell vitamins and supplements often provide a disclaimer that their products haven’t been directly evaluated by the FDA and aren’t a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Episodes of The Goop Lab also include a disclaimer. Paltrow and Loehnen have stated that they are “never making statements” and are “just asking questions,” which is a convenient attempt at positioning themselves outside of their own controversy. Would The Goop Lab make any new waves, I wondered?
Each episode features wellness spokespeople and includes discussions with Paltrow and Loehnen along with participation by Goop staffers in related activities. Some predictably Goop-y topics are covered but, like the website, the show attempts to position itself somewhere between mainstream health and wellness information and the more “out there” perspectives referenced by Loehnen. The first episode focuses on the psychedelic drugs psilocybin and MDMA as medical treatments for depression and anxiety. In opening up the discussion about psychedelics as an alternative, Will Siu, a psychiatrist featured in this episode, states that “we embraced [drugs like Prozac, Celexa, and Zoloft] that we all know give terrible side effects” in defense of his work with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). It is disappointing that Siu would make this statement since antidepressants do work and are a lifeline to millions of people. This episode also included people who discussed their positive experiences with psychedelics in managing PTSD and cancer. Presented as “case studies,” I found these segments to be relatable and more effective in proving the episode’s point that psychedelics can be beneficial.
The third episode featuring sex educators Betty Dodson and Carlin Ross was the highlight for me. I liked that the show gave such significant screen time to Dodson, who has been teaching her Bodysex orgasm workshops for over 30 years. Goop staffer Lexi also spoke candidly about her personal history growing up in Shanghai with parents who didn’t talk to her about sex and later learning to embrace her body and identity as a queer woman. The open and honest discussions in this episode about sexuality, anatomy, and shame are something we still don’t see enough of in the media. Oh, and the vulva photographs, of course. Some would say that perhaps those were included to play into Goop’s reputation of being preoccupied with vaginas, but Dodson had to remind even Paltrow that the vulva and vagina are different organs. In the midst of the mountain of criticism and hot takes about The Goop Lab, this episode is a stand out for its empowering messages.
Unfortunately, the show started to unravel after that, and the fourth episode almost overshadows the positive aspects of the previous one. It is primarily about perceptions of aging with Paltrow, Loehnen, and Wendy Lauria, Goop’s VP of Marketing, each trying a different diet and skin treatment in an effort to lower their “biological age.” They all struggled with their diets, and it was disappointing that this episode seemed to promote rather than challenge fasting and restrictive eating. Presumably, the content here is meant to provide a contrast to the body positivity of the previous episode, but it only reinforces damaging stereotypes that women must starve and maintain a youthful appearance in order to remain valuable. Episode five profiles John Amaral, an “energy practitioner” known for working with celebrities like Julianne Hough, who is also featured in the episode. A video of Amaral practicing his “somatic energy healing” technique on Hough recently went viral. He uses a series of hand gestures, appearing to draw energy out of the body as clients respond with physical movements. This seems harmless enough, except that Amaral also states his “hypothesis [is] that changing the frequency of the vibration of the body itself [changes] the way the cells regrow” in response to Loehnen’s question about “shifting diseases” through energy work. Such a “hypothesis” is not only scientifically wrong but dangerous. Finally, as if to truly live up to its reputation, the last episode focuses on psychic energy and includes a medium. These episodes only serve to reflect the justifiable skepticism that many have of the brand.
Goop is often described as pedaling pseudoscience and, while I don’t wholly disagree with the definition of the word, I also see it frequently used as a blanket statement to brush aside treatments that are outside the mainstream but that may have some benefit to those who choose them. Many procedures such as acupuncture and meditation that were once described as “new age” or “alternative” are now used alongside conventional medical treatments in integrative medicine. But where is the line between allowing consumers to decide for themselves and providing misleading information, particularly in a culture that targets women alongside a medical industry that frequently minimizes and ignores their health concerns?
I grapple with these questions as someone who has experienced positive results working with such Goop-approved practices as crystal healing, astrology, Reiki, and EMDR. I can appreciate that Goop includes a variety of wellness perspectives that “help us get closer to what “well” means to each of us individually” while remaining skeptical of many of its motives. For example, I feel that wearing an amethyst necklace is calming, and I subscribe to other beliefs about the benefits of crystals. Can I explain this feeling? Not really, aside from something like the placebo effect, but it’s not anything that’s harmful to me. Promoting crystals and energy work to treat or cure diseases, however, is harmful and potentially dangerous not simply because these practices aren’t considered scientifically valid but because it targets people when they are at their most vulnerable. Goop exists in this squishy space—but, as the Netflix series shows, it still doesn’t do a good enough job of excluding dangerous practices. Continuing to promote perspectives such as Amaral’s with only a basic disclaimer puts consumers at risk.
Making A Ruckus After All?
During the show’s intro, Paltrow asks her staff if they’re “ready to go out into the field and make a ruckus.” Unfortunately, I don’t think The Goop Lab succeeds in that effort at all. The episodes are only 35 minutes long, but I became bored at some point during all of them. I also found myself wondering just who Paltrow’s intended audience was. The mix of topics doesn’t generate anything groundbreaking enough to convince skeptics of the brand to come over to the Goop side, and the show still comes from the same place of privilege as Goop’s online and physical presences. Ultimately, it’s hard to take The Goop Lab seriously as it advocates for expensive and out of reach wellness treatments in a world where so many people are struggling to pay for basic healthcare, if they have access at all.