Dani Garavelli: Joke’s on us, but Gwyneth Paltrow’s snake oil sister act isn’t funny
There’s a comedy sketch aficionados of Horrible Histories might be familiar with. It starts off – as so many of their sketches do – with a familiar contemporary TV programme, in this case Casualty. As the theme tune plays, a nurse ushers a doctor over to a patient’s bed. This doctor looks a bit odd because – you’ve guessed it – he’s on loan from the Tudor period.
The patient has a blister which the doctor tries to cure with a burning hot plaster. He tries to cure the burn with some blood-letting, the drop in his blood pressure with beer and lice, the lice, which take up residence in his hair, with tobacco juice, and the baldness, caused by the tobacco juice, with fox grease.
When the patient slips on the fox grease, banging his head, the doctor gives him hemlock and opium, which, unsurprisingly, kill him.
It’s amusing because the Tudor “cures” are so outlandish to 21st century minds. I mean, “fox grease” to cure baldness: how could anyone have been so stupid as to believe all that?
And yet: welcome to Goop, the wellness brand turned Netflix docu-series that makes 16th century medicine look cutting-edge. Don’t be afraid: step on into Madame Gwyneth Paltrow’s New Age apothecary. Cross her palms with $100 bills and she will divulge the secrets of eternal youth and a permanently pepped-up sex life.
Is your uterus crying out for a spring clean? Why don’t you have your vagina steamed? Is your colon in need of irrigation? A coffee enema is the thing for you.
And which of us hasn’t, on occasion, been plagued by psychic vampires? Well, no more my friends. One skoosh of psychic vampire repellent and they will scatter likes bats out of hell.
On one level, this is all as amusing as the Horrible Histories sketch. Jade eggs to strengthen your pelvic floor; sex dust to nourish sexual vigour; a dildo made of gold: how arch, how post-modern, how tongue-in-cheek.
Paltrow understands the joke is on her. She has set it up herself by being so extravagantly ridiculous.
Why else would she call a candle This Smells Like My Vagina?
And yet, even as we laugh, we are publicising her products. Her candle has been the talk of the genital steamie. She promoted it on Late Night with Seth Myers; her right-hand woman Elise Loehnen promoted it on Good Morning Britain. You can’t buy publicity like that and – surprise, surprise – the candle sold out.
Over the years, Paltrow has made a stack of money from the wellness industry. Despite being mocked – or perhaps because of it – Goop has flourished. It is now said to be worth around $250m. Looks like the joke is on us.
Though, as jokes go, it is not very funny. And the more you think about it, the less funny it becomes.
Paltrow is building an empire on the back of female insecurities. Nothing unusual about that, you might say. Female insecurities – and most specifically the fear of getting old – is what the beauty industry is founded on. Corsets, creams and cosmetics. Detoxing, dyes and depilatories. All treatments designed to ensure we do not fall foul of social expectations by being too grey or wrinkled or hirsute. And that’s before we start on the diet industry: the pills and the potions which keep women constantly at odds with their own physiques.
What makes Paltrow so cynical is that she is pretending to be different. Her business is all about body positivity, she avers. That’s why she called her candle after her vagina. Because women worry about the aroma of their nether regions when, in fact, they are redolent of geranium, citrus and bergamot. No pressure there, then.
“I think a lot of us have grown up feeling a certain degree of shame around our bodies so this is a bit of a subversive candle for all of us,” the actor turned entrepreneur told Myers. Except it isn’t. It’s just a candle.
A piece of wax that will set you back £75. Can you think of anything less subversive?
Paltrow is trying to position herself as a feminist, liberating women from gender stereotypes. She is helping women to become body positive, so the story goes. But it’s just the same old, same old reframed for a contemporary audience. Unless you buy her products, you will never be clean enough, fit enough, tight enough, sufficiently up for it. Without following her lifestyle tips you will never be living your best life. Doesn’t this sound familiar?
Just like those snake oil salesmen of yore, Goop sometimes overstates the benefits of its products. In 2018, the company was fined $145,000 for falsely suggesting its jade and rose quartz eggs could “balance hormones, regulate menstrual cycles, prevent uterine prolapse and increase bladder control.”
Such claims are not merely unethical, they are potentially dangerous. They encourage menopausal women to place their faith in quackery instead of consulting their doctors.
Since the Goop Lab started streaming on Netflix, criticism from the medical profession has increased.
Last week, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens accused the series of posing “a considerable health risk to the public”. The practices it explores include bad energy exorcisms, ultralight beams and the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of mental health disorders.
Paltrow insists the programme is meant to entertain not provide medical advice. That might be a convincing argument were it being fronted by arch-sceptic Louis Theroux. One can almost picture him raising a sardonic eyebrow as magic mushrooms are passed around a spiritual circle.
Instead, it is being presented by a team of “investigators” from a company which has made its millions from similar alternative “therapies”, thus blurring the boundaries between probe and propaganda.
The Goop Lab is perfectly formed for the post-truth age. Its title hints at a quasi-scientific setting. And yet is peddling pernicious mix of alt-facts, belief and opinion to a susceptible audience that has lost the ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy. Stevens has accused it of pushing misinformation it is almost impossible to counter.
No wonder he is frustrated. He must realise how high the stakes are. The medical profession is currently engaged in an all-out information war with anti-vaxxers who insist the MMR jag causes autism. This theory was discredited more than 20 years ago, and yet still the myth prevails.
With Goop – its name specifically chosen because (just like a placebo, one might argue) it has no meaning or substance – Paltrow is pushing unproven treatments that could have repercussions for years to come.
It’s a piss-take. She is taunting the stupidity of her customers who will empty their wallets for a big dollop of nothing; and those who will gift her airtime to do so.
Fair enough, Gwyneth. Maybe the rich and gullible deserve your derision and ours. But when you start threatening the well-being of the women whose interests you claim to represent, it’s time to stop chuckling along with your hippy hokum and call it out for the sometimes reckless, brazen bullshit it is.