When we first saw the trailer for the new Netflix series The Goop Lab, we couldn’t help thinking Gwyneth Paltrow was trolling her critics. For years, Goop — her lifestyle and wellness media brand — has been accused of misusing science and misleading the public. In the show’s trailer, Goop promised to lean in to “dangerous” and “unregulated” treatments, like energy healing and cold therapy.
When we watched the actual show, we found it was generally less edgy than the trailer suggested — some episodes were downright boring (like the “health-span plan” about dieting for longevity), while others contained useful health messages (such as caring for and loving your body).
Yes, there were detoxes, energy healers, and smatterings of woo-woo — but what could have been more dangerous claims were watered down, and presented with numerous warnings to consult with your doctor.
The episode topics range from the benefits of psychedelic therapy, to psychic intuition, and women’s sexual health. Each one featured Paltrow and Goop’s chief content officer Elise Loehnen interviewing a couple of experts on a health-related topic and intervention, mixed with scenes of Goop’s (attractive, young, diverse) staffers — and sometimes Paltrow and Loehnen — experimenting for themselves. Watching the series helped us understand why Goop’s lifestyle brand is so compelling to its audience.
Here are three things to know about the show.
1) Goop isn’t afraid to show us lots of female genitalia. It feels revolutionary.
In the episode about female sexuality, we thought Paltrow and her Goop cronies might tell women they need to buy stuff to make their vaginas sexier, better-smelling, even cleaner. Goop, after all, once sold the infamous jade eggs for vaginas, which it said could do everything from fix your hormone levels to help with bladder control — “unsubstantiated” marketing claims that got the company fined by the state of California. The site also boosted vaginal steam-cleaning — another activity gynecologists, such as Paltrow’s arch-nemesis Jen Gunter, railed against as unnecessary.
But The Goop Lab takes an entirely different tact: empowering women with knowledge about their vaginas.
In the episode, called “The Pleasure Is Ours,” we meet feminist sex educators Betty Dodson and Carlin Ross, who have coached thousands of women on orgasms. One Goop staff member participates in their workshop, while others take a crash course in body positivity, learning to celebrate their sexuality in ways that are meaningful to them, not just their partners.
Along the way, Dodson and Ross extol messages about the need for women to understand their own bodies, and explain the crucial difference between the vulva and vagina. (The vulva is external — the part you can easily see; the vagina is the internal part, where a tampon might go.)
In a scene showing a series of vulvas in many different shapes and sizes, we get a genuinely educational look at women’s anatomy. And these are the vulvas of real women, not just the touched up, pink ones showcased in pornography. The point is that there’s lots of variation, and no single ideal form.
The, er, climax, though, comes later — when Dodson coaches Ross through achieving an on-camera orgasm. It’s provocative, and potentially groundbreaking, television. And for a brand that has promoted $15,000 dildos, the episode is framed in a surprisingly sensitive manner. Instead of telling women to steam clean and insert foreign objects into their lady bits to make them better, it emphasizes the message that vulvas and vaginas are great, just the way they are.
2) Goop is remarkably uncritical of energy healing
But, to be sure, this is still Goop. Two episodes focus a lot of attention on “energy,” and how working with it and letting it flow can heal our bodies, help us resolve trauma, and even give us psychic powers. “Energy” is uncritically presented as an amorphous catch-all cause, and treatment for, so many our ailments.
Have a bum foot? Energy is being trapped in the ligaments and fascia, we’re told.
Feeling psychological distress? Stuck energy is storing that distress in particular parts of your body.
Wish you had the power of clairvoyance? You can, if only you let the energy flow.
The psychic element is fun, and probably pretty harmless. The energy healing show, however, doesn’t really discuss the research on the efficacy of this treatment, or point out when it might be better to see a mental health counselor for psychological distress before going to see an energy healer. We’re told to take it for granted that a vague form of energy (a physicist might ask the simple question: which kind?) lies at the root of ailments and stubborn mental trauma. Evidence for energy healing is presented purely through testimonials, anecdotes, and showy demonstrations.
“If you just change the frequency of vibration of the body itself, it changes the way the cells regrow, it changes the way the sensory system processes,” an energy healer says on screen, though admitting it’s just a “hypothesis.”
The energy healing sessions seem to induce real catharsis on the show. But a more curious show would ask the question: What are other explanations for what’s going on?
The scientific evidence on reiki (a commonly practiced form of energy healing) is inconclusive about whether it can help people cope with anxiety or depression. And a randomized control trial comparing found that reiki is as effective as a sham form of it (i.e. reiki conducted by an unskilled practitioner) in helping cancer patients deal with chemotherapy. Which is to say, it’s a placebo effect. (That said: Placebo effects are hardly useless.)
Paltrow herself seems to wink at the notion this is all very woo-woo. “Could you get any Goopier?” she asks a Goop staffer after they described an exorcism-like experience while working with an energy healer.
No, you could not.
3) The show effectively exposes the pain and frustration of being unwell in America
There’s crying on The Goop Lab. A lot. People cry about their experiences with panic attacks. They cry about their histories of trauma and their relationships with their parents. And they cry when attempting to send “energy” from their body into a coworker.
This pain and frustration are relatable: Many of us have had conditions that aren’t always adequately treated by mainstream medicine — depression, anxiety, or postpartum mood changes.
On the one hand, Paltrow is wonderfully empathetic, getting cozy on a couch with wellness gurus, and exploring potential solutions. But instead of highlighting evidence-based approaches, the show features fringe therapies with limited evidence as treatments for serious mental health issues.
In the “Cold Therapy” episode, a self-described “ice man” named Wim Hof appears, suggesting people can overcome emotional struggles and even sickness by taking regular plunges in the cold. One Goopster with panic attacks proudly declares she stopped having them after his cold therapy.
In the midst of hawking an unproven treatment, an important truth goes unexplored: The causes for many people’s pain simply aren’t understood, even by the best researchers in the world. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should lean on pseudoscience and gurus. Paltrow doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that uncertainty; instead she wants us to believe there are fixes out there for everyone. And surely, many of them can be purchased on the Goop website.
This type of television is entertaining at times. It’s compelling to watch people say they overcame terribly wrenching emotional hurdles in the course of a psychedelic trip, or with a jump in a cold lake. We’d all like to believe how we age has nothing to do with our genes or life circumstances, but that we can instead take “biological years” off our lives by just changing our diets.
The Goop Lab points out that big lifestyle changes related to your health should be done in consultation with a doctor, or clinician. But the overall implication is that your doctor probably won’t help you as much as an alternative healer who knows the truth about health, like the ice man. Mainstream doctors write off the benefits of cold therapy and energy healing, the show insists. And too much mental health care is delivered in the form of pharmaceuticals, it declares (though Goop’s alternative, psychedelics, are also drugs, and the show glosses over the potential side effects).
The pain is real, and should not discounted. But the alternative treatments Goop celebrates ought to be looked at with a more skeptical eye.