Contagion vs. Goop: Did Gwyneth Paltrow Sell Out Alternative Medicine?

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Sept. 8 2011 12:39 PM

Contagion vs. Goop: Did Gwyneth Paltrow Sell Out Alternative Medicine?

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Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

You've never seen Gwyneth Paltrow's face quite so large and splotchy as it appears in the opening shot of Steven Soderbergh's new disease thriller, Contagion. The glowing beauty and guru of good health looks uncharacteristically under the weather: Her character, a promiscuous, Minnesota-based mining executive, turns out to be patient zero for a global epidemic that threatens billions of lives.

Nor has Jude Law's handsome face ever looked quite so squirrelly, with the snaggle teeth and basement skin-tone of a fame-seeking blogger. Law plays the villain—an anti-vaccine advocate, pharma skeptic, and hawker of snake-oil remedies for the movie's Paltrovian plague. He sets off riots at the health food store after touting the healing power of a Chinese herb called Forsythia on his web-cam; on television, he claims the government wants to cover up the all-natural cure, on account of Washington's being in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry and its stooges at the U.N.

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The skewering of such claims—both medical and political—gives the film much of its narrative thrust, and defines its strangely conservative message. ("If I could throw your computer in jail, I would," a federal agent tells the rogue blogger.) Unscrupulous proponents of alternative medicine threaten to bring the world to ruin, while the scientific establishment strives to beat back the virus with conventional means. In the end, the mainstream authorities are the ones who can save the day, through a series of tense board meetings, PowerPoint slides, cell phone calls, and purposeful walks down hallways (in biohazard suits or otherwise). Salvation turns out to be a matter of getting all the well-meaning technocrats at the CDC and the WHO on the same page, their experimental monkeys in a row, so the proper vaccine can be invented, outsourced, and distributed in a manner that's both rational and just. Trust in Western medicine, the movie says. Do what the government doctors tell you. And above all else: Ignore those health-nut bloggers!

As the film flashes back to the pandemic's beginning in Paltrow's throat and on her hands at a casino in Macao, one wonders what this health-nut blogger in particular might think of the film's overriding message. At her real-life health and beauty website, Goop.com, Paltrow has endorsed an all-natural apothecary of elixirs and salves that remain untested and unproven. She's celebrated the healing power of goji berries, cupping and acupuncture; advocated for Vitamin D dosing (in spite of ambiguous findings from the CDC); pushed a line of skincare products that offer healing in "both a physical and emotional aspect;" and pitched for a celebrity "detox" doctor who claims that global warming is merely one symptom of a more general problem that can be reversed with his 21-day cleanse. Neither has Goop.com shrunk from declarations on more pressing matters of public health: After the meltdowns at Japan's Fukushima nuclear reactor, Paltrow's site advised readers to incorporate more seaweed into their diets, along with red fruits and vegetables and other antioxidants of questionable value, so as to ward off the effects of any radiation that might come a-blowin' over the ocean.

Maybe she forgave the Chinese-herb-bashing on account of the movie's moralizing epilogue, which [minor spoiler] blames the global disaster on the environmental crimes of the mining company her character works for. (One of its bulldozers knocks over a palm tree, which facilitates the bat-to-pig commingling that makes the virus so lethal.) That’s a message Goop can get behind. "'Going green' is no longer just the ideology of left-wing hippies," Paltrow assures us on the site. It's the ideology of Contagion, too.

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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