Gwyneth Paltrow got real women’s vulvas onto Netflix. Here’s how she did it
Since she founded her lifestyle brand Goop 11 years ago, Gwyneth Paltrow has been the target of nearly relentless — and sometimes justified — criticism. She’s been accused of peddling pseudoscience and being out of touch with the needs of regular women, of building a multimedia empire on overpriced, even dangerous, woo woo.
Goop and Paltrow have taken particular heat over issues related to sexual health. There were the unsubstantiated claims that $66 jade eggs sold by the company could boost “feminine energy” when inserted into the vagina. There was Paltrow’s endorsement of a spa that offered “vaginal steaming” as a treatment for “cleans[ing] your uterus, et al.” More recently, there was the $75 candle made with bergamot and cedar named This Smells Like My Vagina, which didn’t put anyone’s health at risk but was probably not scrupulously accurate marketing.
But Paltrow may finally win the grudging praise of naysayers with an episode of “The Goop Lab With Gwyneth Paltrow” all about women’s sexuality. In the Netflix reality series, released Friday, Paltrow and a team of Goop staffers led by chief content officer Elise Loehnen become wellness guinea pigs, sampling an array of regimens, therapies and treatments, some decidedly out there (energy healing), others less so (the Mediterranean diet). Each episode is preceded by a strongly worded legal disclaimer.
The standout third installment, “The Pleasure Is Ours,” is devoted to dispelling the shame many women feel about their genitalia and voicing their desires. Netflix has put the episode at the center of its marketing campaign for “The Goop Lab”: An image of Paltrow standing in what looks like a giant pink Georgia O’Keeffe painting led to yet another collective Twitter meltdown earlier this month.
Yet the real star of the episode is not the glamorous, Oscar-winning actress, nor one of Goop’s game employees. It’s 90-year-old sex educator Betty Dodson, who has been leading sexuality workshops and advocating masturbation as a tool for women’s liberation as long as Paltrow has been alive.
In “The Pleasure Is Ours,” Dodson — lively and denim-clad — and her business partner, Carlin Ross, visit Goop’s airy headquarters in Santa Monica to preach their message of sexual awareness.
Later, we watch Dodson guiding Ross as she explores her sex organs with a mirror. We see her vulva up close, and then — in the interest of genital diversity — a slideshow of other vulvas ranging in size, color, shape and hair growth. The cameras also follow Lexi, a Goop accountant, as she has a (clothed) consultation with Dodson and Ross. The episode culminates with Ross masturbating on camera using a method devised by Dodson, who is there to coach her like an orgasm doula.
Although it will be easy for skeptics to roll their eyes at many aspects of “The Goop Lab,” “The Pleasure Is Ours” provides a genuine public service by dispelling misinformation about the female body, showing what real women’s private parts look like from an angle rarely seen outside the gynecologist’s office. Oh, and by teaching Paltrow the difference between a vagina and a vulva.
Here is a look at how it got made.
‘Why can’t we get past this, culturally?’
When the Goop team began brainstorming episode ideas, they knew they wanted to do something about women’s sexuality — a subject that never fails to touch a nerve. Says Loehnen, “I think it’s very telling that the things that continue to inflame people are women’s reproductive organs.”
Executive producer Shauna Minoprio and senior producer Natalie Doerr zeroed in on Dodson, with the hope of bringing her work to a larger, mainstream audience. (Coincidentally, Minoprio had interviewed Dodson two decades earlier for a documentary about the female orgasm and said she was “rather delighted to learn she was still in action.”)
Paltrow and Loehnen were intrigued. Dodson “has been doing this for decades and it’s so scandalous, right? Why can’t we get past this, culturally?” says Loehnen, who “could feel my own anxiety and shame and awkwardness coming up” during her on-camera chat with Dodson and Ross. The goal of the episode was to explore this “cultural revulsion,” she adds.
Previous TV appearances had taught Dodson and Ross not to get their hopes up.
Reports about their work often “came out really cheesy or salacious,” says Doerr, portraying Dodson as a ridiculous caricature or getting watered down by executives with cold feet. But Ross was encouraged by the fact that the key players in the episode — the producers, director, editor and cinematographer — were all women.
An immediate challenge was how to involve Goop employees — a central element of the show — without committing an HR violation. As Minoprio put it, “Are we going to bring a bunch of Goop staffers to sit around and look at each other’s private parts? Probably not. It was definitely a process of figuring out what was possible and what was appropriate.” In the end, they sent Lexi, who was raised in China, where she says she had little access to sex education, to watch Dodson and Ross at work (while she kept her clothes on).
‘It’s better to take action and ask permission later’
When it came to asking for permission from Netflix to include up-close images of women’s vulvas or footage of a woman masturbating in “The Goop Lab” — well, the producers didn’t.
“They say it’s better to take action and ask permission later,” says Minoprio, who was wary of getting bogged down in discussions. “What we decided to do was just go and shoot it, then put it all together and hope that it worked — and that I would still have a career in this industry after this.”
Showing an array of female anatomy was “always something that we had planned on doing,” says Doerr, as a way to learn about sex and pleasure through imagery other than porn.
Even though Ross was willing to show her vulva on-camera, producers felt it was important to show many different kinds of bodies. So Ross reached out via email to women who’d participated in her workshops and shared photos of their genitalia. “I tried to remember everyone’s vulva styles,” she says, so that they’d have a range. The women had to sign a 20-page release and include a copy of their driver’s license with the pictures.
Doerr says she and editor Jennifer Roth spent hours “in a closed room together, staring at these images, trying to figure out how we show diversity of women’s bodies without completely shocking everybody.”
Ross gives credit to Paltrow for supporting them throughout the process. “She’s the one who’s going to be on late-night TV and they are going to be talking about vulvas.”
‘She’s like your dirty grandmother’
Ross is used to being naked in front of other people at work and speaking candidly about her sex life.
But she’s never made a sex tape or taken naked photos of herself. And she’d only — “only” — masturbated on-camera twice before “The Goop Lab”: once for Norwegian television, once for tutorial videos used on the Dodson and Ross website.
The scenes for “The Goop Lab” were shot by a small, all-female crew in Dodson’s apartment. Before filming, the team, which included cinematographer Yamit Shimonovitz, had lengthy discussions about using lights and camera angles to create a feeling that was sensual and celebratory, rather than clinical or salacious. The goal, according to Doerr, was to ensure “that [Ross] was comfortable and that everybody involved that day felt good about it.”
Producers were adamant that filming a fake orgasm would defeat the purpose, so Ross was also under pressure to get the job done in one take. She requested a shot of tequila prior to the masturbation scene — just enough to “take a little edge off,” she says.
Having Dodson at her side also helped, Ross says. “She’s like your dirty grandmother. She just gives you permission to do whatever.”
When Ross was finished — after maybe 10 minutes, she estimates — the crew erupted into celebratory applause. There were also some tears. “It was very supportive,” she says. “I didn’t ever feel like I was being judged.”
There was an ongoing conversation with Netflix about the edit of the final sequence, which ended up being shortened slightly, Loehnen says. “They were like, ‘Let’s watch this again and make sure this doesn’t feel gratuitous in any way.’”
Now that the show is available to stream around the world, Ross admits to some anxiety about potentially being recognized at Trader Joe’s. “Someone’s going to be like, ‘I saw your vulva!’” But, she adds, “I can handle that.”
‘The Goop Lab With Gwyneth Paltrow’
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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