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Tuesday, June 25, 2024
The Observer

Gwyneth Paltrow and the fall of the American empire

Trey Paine | The Observer

Ubi sunt?” or “Where are they?” medieval poetry constantly asks. As historian Ronald Hutton puts it, in the Early Middle Ages, Europeans lived in wooden huts surrounded by “imposing stone ruins of Roman towns, villas, fortresses and factories” which “awed and troubled” them. They felt a profound “sense of melancholy and disorientation provoked by a new life among the wrecked constructions.”

From this era — its awe, its trouble, its melancholy and its disorientation — were born some of the most compelling poems in our literature. In one, “The Ruin,” translated by Richard Fahey, the speaker laments the ruined city of Bath: “Wondrous are these wall-stones, / broken by fortune, the citadels crumbled, / the work of giants ruined.”

But why the history lesson? Why the history major’s dreaded “one pre-1500 course?” Because this is how I feel watching Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent ad for DS-01 Daily Synbiotic by Seed.

Taking the video with her phone in one hand and the product in the other, Paltrow — her skin lusterless and strangely orange, her hair unkempt and washed out — silently tosses the pill in her mouth and then immediately spits it out. Is it a joke? Unclear. She’s expressionless and silent; she quickly moves on.

“So this is a 24 strain probio–,” she begins, but before Paltrow can finish the first clause of her first sentence, a loud noise starts in the background of the video. She apologizes, “Moses [her son] is… steaming some milk,” but she doesn’t stop. She tries in vain to explain the product: “Um, it’s not the kind you find in yogurt and stuff like that. And it’s so good for bloating and regularity.” Then, before she’s even mentioned the name of the product, she cuts the video off.

Do you see the connection yet? I’m reminded of the poem “The Wanderer” whose speaker begs, “Where have the treasure-givers gone? / Where has the place of banquets gone? / Where are the joys of the hall?” This is how I feel. Where has “the goop lab with Gwyneth Paltrow” gone?

Once, we were like the Romans with their marble mansions and spring-fed bathhouses — we were a people who could afford to produce lavish, six-episode ads for vagina-scented candles and $2,000 yoga mats. We were like the Romans in the Colosseum screaming for blood as we watched Paltrow make her employees do ayahuasca with indigenous shamans, learn about their yoni and unpack their traumas. Now, we’re the Anglo-Saxons sitting in our barns and hovels. No more sprawling ads of operatic scope, just sponsored TikToks. Paltrow does one take, gives nothing and hits “post.”

In this way, I am more certain than any Mendoza student that this recession is getting bad and will only get worse. Celebrities stooping down from art films to ad gigs is always the sign of a downturn, but there’s something more.

Take Elizabeth Taylor. She was not only a mainstream star but a genuine artist. She made hit movies like “Cleopatra” and was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood. She also starred in productions about lesbian neurotics and prostitute murderers like “Boom!” and “Secret Ceremony.” Like Paltrow’s “modern lifestyle brand” goop, Taylor peddled her own line of cheap perfumes. Taylor and the stars of the past, however, would never trade profit for glamour. 

Even during the Great Depression’s darkest days when money was the tightest it had ever been, people could still spare a dime or two for the movies. When America was at its nadir, Hollywood was at a zenith because stars understood a people humiliated want to see glamour, want to see a little dignity.

It seems our stars have lost this stoicism. In our culture, Paltrow IS glamour — she’s effortlessly glamorous. So what does it mean if, under the pressure of inflation, she can’t keep it up either? It means things aren't getting better for us any time soon. Like the Anglo-Saxons living among the ruins of a more advanced culture, we live among the ruins of a more glamorous one.