A few years ago, Gwyneth Paltrow seemed to be waging a one-sided war against vaginas. Steam your uterus, the actress turned entrepreneur advised readers in 2015 through her headline-generating wellness venture, Goop. Store a rock in it for hours, she suggested three years later, alarming doctors anew. Paltrow recommended using not just any old stone, but “jade eggs,” currently sold on her website for $66, or more than nine times the federal minimum wage. Her unearned authority, combined with her defiant out-of-touchness, made her a latter-day Marie Antoinette – except the beheaded royal’s biggest sin was trusting in the soothing power of carbs a little too much.
Goop was the Oscar winner’s second act, which from the start has induced many a question, like: Will there be a third? Surely there’s more to Paltrow than hawking $600 sweaters and an array of “dusts” with names like Yoga in a Cup? (I’ll save you a Google search; the primary ingredient in the latter is powdered mushroom.) Does Paltrow have anything of substance to say, even if it’s just to other wealthy White women? Or is she content enough to be the world’s most famous influencer, dedicating her patrician beauty and sardonic-mean-girl charms in the service of clickbait capitalism?
With “Sex, Love & Goop” – her new Netflix reality show – the 49-year-old Marvel alum may finally have found a career pivot worth getting behind. Seeds of it were sown in last year’s “The Goop Lab,” an unconvincing showcase of mostly woo-woo treatments I called “QVC for one-percenters.” That series’ one worthwhile episode tackled the orgasm gap between men and women and featured scenes of sex educator Betty Dodson attempting to close it.
Female sexual pleasure is Paltrow’s cause celebre in “Sex, Love & Goop,” and it’s a savvy one. Erotic dissatisfaction probably afflicts women of all races, classes and sexual orientations, allowing for the semiretired actress to make her usual vague gestures toward female solidarity in ways that are both market-friendly and studiously apolitical. (There’s no soapboxing about the patriarchy here, even if it’s the obvious and primary cause of the problem Paltrow’s trying to address.) A lack of sexual fulfillment is the kind of highly individualized issue many women have a reasonable chance at solving through buying stuff, like one of the many adult toys on offer at Goop dot com.
But it’s probably more pertinent that Paltrow truly seems to care about female pleasure and about normalizing (non-steamed) lady parts. (Another Goop product: The $75 “This Smells Like My Vagina” candle, a perfect blend of her earnest intentions, cheeky narcissism and outrageous prices.) Paltrow is a curious and empathetic host on “Sex, Love & Goop,” evincing genuine care for the four or so couples – mostly but not entirely straight – undergoing multi-episode therapies with professionals for their unsatisfying or negligible sex lives.
There’s a compelling and accessible procedural structure to their stories: symptoms, diagnosis, treatment. Damon and Erika are the couple we meet first – a Black husband and wife who appear to be in their late 20s or early 30s. Theirs is a familiar situation: He wants more sex, and she wants to climax during it, wistfully asking, “Am I going to have an orgasm before I have a baby?” Their journey, guided by a sexologist named Jaiya, is surprisingly moving, as they rediscover how to explore each other’s bodies and take poignant delight in each other’s rapture. Though the series is focused on female dissatisfaction, Jaiya also discusses how some men, like Damon, are sexually blocked by self-restrictive notions of masculinity.
A selling point of Goop, and by extension the show, is supposed to be Paltrow’s “cutting-edge ideas that could really help us optimize our lives.” That’s not really the case with lesbian fiancees Camille and Shandra, whose lovemaking has been dampened by body-image issues, internalized homophobia and an overall confidence crisis. Most of the treatments suggested by Darshana, their “erotic wholeness coach,” are far from groundbreaking: look at their own private parts, experiment with toys, cover up when uncomfortable exposing skin. But even when the advice couldn’t get more basic, there’s still something heartwarming in watching this particular pair, with their histories of fluctuating waistlines and a religious, sexually repressed childhood, grow more assured about and intrigued by their bodies, as well as those of their partners. With these two couples, love blooms before our eyes.
There’s certainly something bracing about the series’ normalization of sex therapists and intimacy coaches, even if it occasionally irks that the show will acknowledge carnality only within the confines of committed relationships. (Kudos to the couples for being brave enough to candidly discuss their erotic discontent – and the sometimes hands-on treatments thereof – in front of cameras.) Partly shot at Goop headquarters, the production boasts a minimalist, soft-lit chic, with an attractive, well-dressed cast that hardly challenges the kinds of people we’re used to seeing on-screen.
But Paltrow’s language of innovation and intervention ultimately ended up giving me some pause – as if sexual optimization always requires third-party observers, who presumably come with the kinds of price tags we associate with Goop. A later episode, dedicated to an experimental form of group therapy called Family Constellations that involves acting out intergenerational dynamics, underscores how unevenly the series sometimes explains the concepts at hand. And yet despite all its faults, “Sex, Love & Goop” might be the most meaningful project Paltrow’s put her name on in years.
Sorry, vagina candle.
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“Sex, Love & Goop” (six episodes) premieres Thursday on Netflix.
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