When I was 17, I worked at a big bookstore in Phoenix, Arizona. It was the late nineties, so I idolized one of my cigarette-smoking managers. She was in her late-30s had black nails, loved Marilyn Manson and hated bullshit, a stance she publicized heavily. When bookstore customers would ask where the “New Age” section was, this cool manager — let’s call her Jet because she would have liked that— would say, without irony, “New Age is over there, next to fake science books and things that aren’t real.” Jet’s tenure at the store was brief, but I still think about her. What she lacked in customer service acumen, she made up for in honesty.
Jet taught teenage me a valuable lesson: Alternative medicine, crystal healing, primal scream therapy, and the bulk of the untested solutions to life’s ills are simply cheap products sold at premium prices. Jet didn’t refuse to point people towards the answers they wanted, but she did decline to conflate astrology and crystal healing, whatever their rhetorical or emotional merits might be, with science.
I wonder what she would have made of Goop and the Goopaissance.
The truth is that I wish she was around because I’m personally reluctant to channel her. Calling out Goop feels like a bad look on progressive men. Dismissing Gwyneth Paltrow’s branded bullshittery feels like insinuating that women can’t or shouldn’t have nice things. Of course, they should. But they should have genuinely nice things, not mid-century modern snakeskin oil. And, watching the highly triggering trailer for the Netflix series The Goop Lab, it’s hard not to see an interesting bit of gender politics at play. By intentionally conflating nonsense with women’s empowerment, Paltrow is inoculating herself (if she believes in that) from male criticism. (Arguably, this is also the point of Goop for Men, a bizarre section of the site seemingly designed to appeal to three dudes, all of whom live in Laurel Canyon and are currently doing a juice cleanse.) Broadly speaking, I don’t care about the gender politics of Gwyneth because I don’t care about Gwyneth. But I do care about relationships and the whole nodding-while-looking-thoughtfully-at-a-spiritual-medium bit seems specifically designed to drive a wedge.
“She knew something even my husband didn’t know!” Gwyneth Paltrow exclaims at one point in the trailer. She’s talking about Mr. Coldplay, who failed to read her mind as well as this psychic medium. And, fine, but this is the part of the Goop discourse that bothers me. The men in this trailer — there aren’t many — are selling therapeutic or spiritual experiences. The women in the trailer who aren’t selling are pampering themselves with “Energy Healing,” “Cold Therapy,” and “Physic Mediums.” So, Gwyneth Paltrow’s message is loud and clear: House-husbands, leave the room! The women are about to get together in a circle and drink the blood of prehistoric chickens in order to get silky smooth skin and to exorcise the demons of past lives!
The problem here isn’t that women are being given a space in which to engage in self-indulgence. No problem there! It’s that they are being asked to engage in a sort of spiritual consumerism foreign to most men and, let’s be real, most people not in Gwyneth’s tax bracket. This is how fights about money start.
Pseudoscience has long been more heavily marketed to women. Most things are, but this is also a function of the press. Women’s magazines publish horoscopes and articles about chakras and, yes, the dubious powers of crystals. And though it’s not unusual to see untested supplements in men’s publications, they are mostly advertised and rarely covered editorially. The result is interesting. Truth be told, I’d probably rather read an issue of Cosmo than Men’s Health because it’s a hell of a lot more fun. But perhaps that’s not enough. Perhaps there’s real moral hazard in the pushing of New Age-y ideas not because they lead to Marianne Williamson, who wants us to love each other, but because they lead to Paltrow, who wants a routing number.
Last year, author Sasha Sagan (daughter of Carl Sagan) published a book called For Small Creatures Such As We. It’s a kind of non-fiction self-help book for secular people who want to sort of get some of the warmy fuzzies Goop sells, but still feel warm and fuzzy. Sagan’s goal with this book was to let everyone know that it was cool to have ceremonies and traditions, but there wasn’t any need to actively believe in things that aren’t scientifically tested to experience the beauty of being alive. In a profile written by science journalist Sarah Sloat, Sagan said: “Science isn’t thought of as romantic, but it should be… In my opinion, the things that really provide fulfillment in that area are backed up by evidence.”
I’m really glad that Sasha Sagan said all of this. She’s becoming the public intellectual equivalent of Jet (minus the smoking). I like scented candles and talking about ghosts. I just don’t like people trying to sell me on the idea that believing in things that are either demonstrably untrue (like the idea that people can relive their birth) or impossible to prove (ghost exorcisms) are all some kind of earned luxury, or more dishonest, that these things constitute some kind of empowerment.
Think this is a minor critique? Consider that according to more than one study, the vast majority of online anti-vaxxers are women. In fairness, this makes sense. Many women are rightly suspicious of power structures in general and science is certainly a power structure. But it’s also a process — and a pretty smart one at that. Now, I’m not saying that Paltrow is an anti-vaxxer, specifically, but it’s a hop-skip-and-a-jump from her brand of nonsense, to the really dangerous folks, like the former Scientologist Jim Humble who created a “secret elixir” out of Chlorine dioxide and sold it to moms with the promise that it would cure autism. (Thankfully, other smart moms are online, fighting constantly fight to expose this kind of stuff.)
The point is, Patrlow is a marketer and marketers like to create demand to move units. Want to sell lip balm kits? Popularize a very specific Instagram look. Want to sell vagina-scented candles? Convince your audience that they need them because to not buy them would somehow be anti-feminist. The problem here is that whereas Kylie Jenner is getting rich selling a look, Paltrow is getting rich sending an alternative reality. That’s not good for anyone. That’s gonna fuck up some relationships.
So let’s just say that — duh — husbands should support their wives and encourage their exploration of the world and of themselves, but add the caveat that this support doesn’t need to extend to getting bilked. I, for one, am an optimist about this stuff. Not all the people Jet directed to the back of the bookstore bought something. Many read a bit and got the scam and left. Gwyneth wants exposure, but she may not like the result. People of all genders will see her for what she is, a next-gen multi-level marketing with a phony bologna schtick as thin as the Goop Juice face cream she sells at multiple.
I’m done talking now. Buy Sasha Sagan’s book. Get her lifestyle show on Netflix. Book Jet as a guest. She gets it.