Just 20 seconds into her new Netflix show “The Goop Lab,” Gwyneth Paltrow lays her cards on the table: “It’s all laddering up to one thing,” she says, seated at the head of a conference desk. Her skin is glowing, her blonde hair tumbles neatly down either side of her face and a large window behind her fills the room with natural light.
“Optimization of the self,” Paltrow says. The camera cuts to her attentive co-workers nodding slowly, seemingly entranced in earnest admiration. “We’re here one time, one life — how can we really milk the shit out of this?”
They all laugh, but Paltrow isn’t joking. Her company, Goop, has already inspired plenty of online mockery — from 200 character Twitter take-downs to a longform Times investigation — for its obsession with ruthless self-improvement through expensive, scientifically dubious products.
For example, in 2017, Goop marketed wearable stickers called “Body Vibes.” The company claimed the product (only $60 for a pack of 10) used technology from NASA spacesuits to “re-balance the energy frequency in our bodies.” A former NASA scientist called the product “a load of BS,” and soon the company apologized for its mischaracterization. But Body Vibes lived on — at least, long enough to score a promotion by Lizzo in the form of “100% That Bitch” “frequency activating” stickers.
Pseudoscience scams have followed Goop since its inception. Paltrow founded the company in 2008 as a “lifestyle brand.” Originally just a blog, Goop began to grow. It spawned an online shop, a publishing imprint, a fashion line, a podcast and now a Netflix-produced TV show. It doesn’t take long, when watching “The Goop Lab,” to realize what Goop fundamentally promises: a cure to our individual suffering, an answer to our desires, a way to literally optimize our lives.
The language of “optimization,” of constantly bettering ourselves as if we exist on a linear spectrum of quality, is, like Goop’s very existence, embedded in capitalism. Sure, the idea of self-improvement is not new. But as Alexandra Schwartz notes in her New Yorker article “Improving Ourselves to Death,” “survival in the hypercompetitive, globalized economy, where workers have fewer protections and are more disposable than ever, requires that we become faster, smarter, and more creative.” We optimize to survive.
We internalize capitalism’s logic of endless growth, endless desire for growth — and it’s not making us feel any better. “The Goop Lab” seeks to solve this problem, or at least it claims to. The opening sequence establishes how depression, anxiety and suicide are increasing, despite the ‘90s renaissance of psycho-pharmacology. Psychiatrist Will Siu says that these drugs “gave us terrible side effects,” leaving us “hungry for something else… to help us heal.” His solution? Psychotherapy.
So naturally, in the show’s first episode, Gwyneth Paltrow sends her loyal Goop workers to Jamaica, on a quest to heal their own personal traumas with magic mushrooms. Real life testimonies of psychotherapy’s curative powers are interspersed with footage of Paltrow’s Goop troops writhing on an appropriately psychedelic rug. Sometimes they’re sobbing, sometimes they’re giggling hysterically and sometimes they’re waxing poetic about the “weird quality” of clouds — but no matter what, it’s always a “life-changing experience” afterward.
When the Goop team assembles before leaving Jamaica, Gilian, their hippie grandma guru, gives them her parting words of wisdom. “The place you want to stay in, you want to be in, isn’t linked to Jamaica or Los Angeles or anywhere,” she says. “It’s in you. So you can actually create that for yourselves in the middle of a war zone.” The camera pans to smiles all around.
While the “The Goop Lab” seeks, through alternative means, to cure the anxiety and isolation produced by an increasingly privatized and corporate culture, it operates within the very framework perpetuating these problems. Goop offers therapies, products and lifestyle changes — all costly — that it claims will get you results, ease your trauma and fulfill your desires.
But the issue with desire, especially in the age of neoliberalism, is that it never really goes away. It can never really be solved. Our skin is never quite perfect enough and our productive output can always increase. Goop is just one of many products of our culture that promotes this endless, unfulfilling cycle where desire leads only to more desire.
Activist and historian Rebecca Solnit, in her book “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” frames desire as “the blue of distance.” Renaissance painters, Solnit explains, used the color blue to indicate distance. The farther away a mountain is, the more it is coated in a haze of blue until it blends into the sky. If you were to chase after this blue horizon, it would only relocate farther away, to “tint the next beyond.” The blue of distance is, like desire, unattainable.
So Solnit proposes a change in perspective. What if, she suggests, the “blue of longing,” the space between us and the object of our desire — be it a better life, a better self or a literal object — were “cherished as a sensation on its own terms”? Then, instead of climbing the ladder of optimization, as Gwyneth Paltrow promotes in “The Goop Lab,” we can stop, look around and take in the beauty of our ever-blue horizons.
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