Magazine June 1, 2020, Issue

Your Self on Goop

(Roman Genn)
Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand and Netflix series offer a course in narcissism

Upset by criticism from the British tabloids, Meghan Markle, actress-turned-royal-turned-activist, told a sympathetic reporter that “it’s not enough to just survive something.” No, she continued, “that’s not the point of life, you’ve got to thrive, you’ve got to feel happy.” Reportedly, Markle is now consulting with PR experts to resurrect her lifestyle blog, “The Tig,” which she shut down shortly before marrying Prince Harry. Markle is not the only celebrity to try to preach and sell a philosophy on “the point of life.” Hers will, according to one royal expert, be designed to rival Gwyneth Paltrow’s controversial “lifestyle and wellness” brand, Goop.

Similar to Markle, Paltrow was keen to discover a “point of life” that amounted to more than “making out with Matt Damon on screen, or whatever.” She began a newsletter called “The Goop Lab” in 2008. Since then, it’s developed into a $250 million company complete with a website, a podcast, a magazine, books, stores, and its own Netflix series of the same name. The Goop Lab, Paltrow explains in the first episode, is all about the “optimization of self.” Each of the six episodes explores a theme related to this: psychedelics, “cold therapy,” female sexuality, anti-aging, “energy work,” and psychic mediumship. Put simply, Goop is about “milking the sh** out of [life].”

In many ways, Goop is like any other celebrity cult. Yet it also reflects something more widespread, embodying many of the characteristics laid out in Christopher Lasch’s 1979 bestseller The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch argued that escape into grandiose self-delusion, previously deemed pathological, had been mainstreamed as normal or even desirable. He outlined a distinction between “primary narcissism,” referring “to the infantile illusion of omnipotence,” which, applied today, describes many celebrities (including the 45th president), and “secondary narcissism,” defined by psychoanalyst Thomas Freeman as “attempts to annul the pain of disappointed love.” Lasch saw the problem beginning with the decline of the family as a dominant cultural authority. Into this vacuum unscrupulous market forces and a radical progressive social agenda had flown, offering the “propaganda” of commodities and therapeutic superstitions. “What remains to be explained,” Lasch wrote in an updated edition, “is how an exaggerated respect for technology can coexist with a revival of ancient superstitions, a belief in reincarnation, a growing fascination with the occult, and the bizarre forms of spirituality associated with the New Age movement.” Goop manages this by hiding behind feminism.  

The series presents a regular disclaimer that it is “designed to entertain and inform” and is “not medical advice.” As guru in chief, Paltrow is immaculately presented, interviewing two experts every episode, one who’s vaguely credible and one who’s completely wacky. In the episode on “energy work,” a licensed chiropractor first explains that “if you change the frequency of vibration of the body itself it changes the way the cells regrow, it changes how the sensory system processes.” Which perhaps sounds plausible. Paltrow’s Goop team, a band of employees called “Goopers,” including her friend and co-producer Elise Loehnen, participate in fieldwork and report back:

Loehnen: I had an exorcism [laughs].

He just sort of snapped his fingers and I just started retching. I dry-heaved for a little while.

Paltrow: Could you, like, get any goopier?

Loehnen: I could not get any goopier.

Unlike Markle, Paltrow disarms skeptics by anticipating criticism and working in self-parody. The New Yorker reported that Goop was fined $145,000 in 2018 when “ten county prosecutors in California sued the company after a consumer watchdog, Truth in Advertising, compiled a report detailing fifty dubious health claims made on the Goop Web site.” One such claim was that eggs made of jade and quartz could prevent uterine prolapse when inserted into the vagina. But in a stroke of genius, Paltrow incorporated this controversy into the brand. The cover image for the series shows Paltrow encased inside a pink vulva, with the twitch of a smirk on her lower lip. Even the name “Goop” seems self-consciously silly.

Earlier this year, I visited the Goop store on Bond Street in Lower Manhattan and found that, although the products amounted to little more than overpriced clothing and miscellaneous junk, many of them had amusing and quirky names. An expensive selection of dietary supplements had labels such as “High School Genes,” “Why Am I So Effing Tired?” “Madame Ovary,” “Balls in the Air,” “Knock Me Out,” and “Nerd Alert.” There was no sign of Paltrow’s famous $75 candle, “This Smells Like My Vagina,” which is reported to have sold out almost immediately. 

In one of the Netflix episodes, 90-year-old Betty Dodson, a “sex-positive” feminist, conducts a “genital show and tell” in which participants are encouraged to examine their reproductive organs by using a handheld mirror. If deriving “power” from staring at your own genitals is not narcissistic, I’m not sure what is. As the satirical publication The Onion once put it: “Women Now Empowered by Everything a Woman Does.” But who needs The Onion when you have the New York Times? When the series was first savaged by critics, two feminists mounted a defense in its pages, complaining that these objections were clearly “patriarchal devaluation.”

There is something even more troubling about Goop’s message than the genital-gazing. Lasch wrote that a culture of narcissism exists when “everything conspires to encourage escapist solutions to the psychological problems of dependence, separation, and individuation, and to discourage the moral realism that makes it possible for human beings to come to terms with existential constraints on their power and freedom.” By tapping into a full range of psychological problems, related to everything from sex to death, Goop seeks to profit from its customers’ escapist tendencies. 

In another episode, we meet Wim Hof, an eccentric Dutch athlete who, in response to his wife’s suicide, began to develop a three-part method of “cold therapy,” breathing, and meditation. Loehnen claims that Hof’s method proves that “we can impact and directly affect our immune system.” (Never mind that multiple people are reported to have died practicing his techniques.) It becomes clear that “cold therapy” is about much more than a desire for physical health. An enthusiastic participant also explained to Paltrow that once “you understand you can control your body [through] the ritual of a cold shower, you can tell yourself, ‘I’m in control.’” If current affairs in general and the coronavirus pandemic in particular have taught us anything, though, it’s that human beings are extremely limited in their control. Many ancient wisdoms and religions begin by recommending that, in pursuit of happiness, we surrender to that fact. 

Goop suggests that, with the right dietary supplements, the effects of aging can be suppressed. Even death can be overcome — through the power of psychic mediums. In one scene, participants form a circle and then bestow “nonjudgmental attention” on someone in the center. A medium instructs the group to “strike whatever pose we feel pulled to” and then “purposefully beam unconditional love” to the person in the middle. Later, the medium, making no headway trying to connect a skeptical participant with her deceased relatives, is interrupted by a tearful associate producer explaining that the medium is actually “reading” her. “My grandfather passed away last week and I’m getting married in Mexico,” she says, taking off her headset as if this information is supposed to make any sense to the audience. “He loves you so much,” the medium replies, with newfound confidence. “I needed to get that message to you.”

Clearly, some of the Goopers are struggling with grief and other mental-health problems. They frequently burst into tears and roll around sobbing on the floor. Lasch explained that the driving philosophy is “therapeutic, not religious,” the pursuit of “the momentary illusion of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.” And yet, in offering such fulfillment, Goop often mimics and appropriates religious language. Before Goop team members embark on a psychedelic experiment with magic mushrooms, for instance, their coach tells them, “This is a sacrament so we can be with the spirit of the mushroom, so blessings to everyone.”

When Aldous Huxley began writing enthusiastically of psychedelics in the 1930s, he did so in response to widespread despair felt by ordinary people during the Great Depression. His argument sparked fierce debate among his contemporaries. (For instance, Carl Jung later accused him of playing the role of the “Zauberlehrling,” the sorcerer’s apprentice, “who learned from his master how to call the ghosts but did not know how to get rid of them.”) With unemployment now soaring as the result of the coronavirus pandemic, it is plausible that the market for mind-altering drugs will grow as well. Lasch argued that “the best defenses against these terrors of existence are the homely comforts of love, work, and family life, which connect us to a world that is independent of our wishes yet responsive to our needs.” In other words, the cure to many psychological problems is the antithesis of narcissism — living for others, something that most celebrities and certainly the Goop team have difficulty grasping.  

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Letters

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