The Goop Lab practically dares you to be skeptical. The Netflix docuseries, brought to you by Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle site cum e-commerce hustle, was announced with promotional imagery that showed Paltrow standing inside monochromatic rings shaped like marquise-cut diamonds, each in a lighter shade of pink as they expand from the center. Put another way, she was standing inside a vulva. All this from a company that was fined for peddling jade yoni eggs meant to be shoved into the vagina to “balance hormones, regulate menstrual cycles, prevent uterine prolapse, and increase bladder control”? How could things possibly go wrong?
But despite Goop’s tendencies to lean into pseudoscience to sell products, there’s one thing The Goop Lab gets very right. In episode three, “The Pleasure Is Ours,” we watch a woman, Carlin Ross, masturbate to orgasm in real time. It’s not simulated. It threads the needle between sensual and clinical. And, most impressively, it does so without the creeping sense of male gaze. It does so without feeling like there is any sort of gaze at all.
Goop Lab executive producer Shauna Minoprio said an episode about female pleasure — about the ways women do and, more often, do not connect with their bodies — was always part of the plan. It was just a matter of figuring out what it would look like on-screen. After Paltrow and Goop’s chief content officer Elise Loehnen gave her “the mandate to go away and come up with some ideas,” Minoprio quickly thought of Betty Dodson, a famed sex educator whom she interviewed 20 years earlier.
Dodson, as The Goop Lab highlights, is fearless when it comes to talking about sex. She regularly leads workshops where everybody is required to be naked as they get to know their bodies and has developed a method for helping women reach orgasm. (Ross uses this “rock and roll” method during the episode, masturbating using both her hands, a vibrator, and a special Dodson-designed vaginal barbell, a penetrative toy made of medical-grade steel.) Hoping for inspiration from Dodson, now 90 and very much still active, Minoprio suggested Goop Lab senior producer Natalie Doerr reach out. Doerr came back “inspired” after that first conversation, Minoprio said.
“We thought about this idea of shame and women being able to connect with their bodies in order to receive pleasure,” Doerr said about the Goop Lab team’s early conversations for the episode. “Initially it was, ‘Let’s show the variety of female vulva.’ As we dove deeper, we realized all of this is connected in order to rid the shame, explore your body, and understand how to navigate your body to lead to the maximum amount of pleasure.” The team soon realized that just showing vulvas — which the show does, unvarnished, in all shapes and sizes — wasn’t going to cut it. They needed to show them in action. They needed to film a real orgasm.
Once they decided to pursue an orgasm scene, the next question was figuring out how, as Minoprio half-jokingly put it, to film it “without getting arrested for being pornographers.” Ironic, she noted, since most porn is not showing real orgasms anyway. (Doerr said she nevertheless watched porn clips for research, “to see what people were saying about the female anatomy.”) The goal was to find “a way to explore this for our female viewership that felt not exploitative, not titillating, not clinical, not cheesy, but very powerful,” Minoprio said. “We wanted to find a way to take ownership of female pleasure for ourselves as a group of female filmmakers.”
Enter Ross, who is Dodson’s business partner and had filmed a similar scene for a Norwegian reality-television show seven years ago. “I said something to Natalie about it [the Norwegian scene],” Ross recalled. “I just threw that out there. People thought it was very compelling, because we rarely see a real, authentic female orgasm.” Minoprio couldn’t remember who exactly was the first person to suggest the idea, but said shooting an orgasm scene became “inevitable” as their discussions with Ross and Dodson continued. Despite her prior experience, the idea of shooting this scene for a “much more mainstream” audience was intimidating for Ross. “There was a big part of me that was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I’m not an exhibitionist. I’d never made a sex tape. But I knew if I didn’t do it, I would regret it,” she said.
But that still left an essential question: How could they film the scene without it feeling porny or impersonal? They found help in their own office: As part of the episode, several Goop staffers attend a sex-education workshop where Lexi, a queer woman who works in Goop’s accounting department, talks about growing up in China with no understanding of pleasure. When Lexi heard about Dodson’s masturbation workshops, Doerr said she volunteered to visit and watch as Dodson coached Ross to orgasm. It’s Lexi’s presence in the episode — you don’t actually see her watching, but you know she’s there — that makes the scene work so well. You ideally learn something, but she does the potentially stressful task of saying, “Hey, I want to know more about how my body works” for you. “We didn’t ever want Lexi to feel pushed into anything,” Minoprio explained. Doerr also insisted they followed her lead the whole time. “She was the first one to say, ‘I have no problem opening up about myself and coming to New York and observing.”
In New York, Goop hired a female staff to shoot the scene. “We kept a very minimal footprint, it was a very skeleton crew,” Doerr said, noting they took extra care to be transparent with everybody they brought onto the project about what they were getting into. The shoot took place in Betty’s midtown apartment to help put Ross at ease. “Whenever I’m with Betty, I feel like I can do anything,” she said. But getting ready for the day still felt like getting ready for a date. “I did chuckle in the shower and think, I’d better groom. You gotta make sure that everything is tip-top.” After Ross threw back “a little bit of tequila just to take the edge off” before filming, all non-essential personnel left the room, leaving just seven people plus herself and Dodson.
Much of The Goop Lab is shot in Goop’s Santa Monica headquarters. It looks exactly like the polar opposite of most New York City apartments: open, bright, spacious, perfectly lit to make sure Paltrow looks as luminous as possible. Cinematographer Yamit Shimonovitz said she wanted to tell a different story with the lighting for this scene. “It’s one of the darker pieces in the whole show because it had its own feeling,” she said. (Ross was also grateful the lighting made it harder to see everyone else in the room.)
Shimonovitz thought a lot about how orgasms, in her mind, radiate from the head. “I knew her face and the emotion from her face would be just as strong at transmitting the feeling of the orgasm versus showing the actual mechanics of it,” she explained. She opted for positioning one stationary camera behind Ross’s head for a wide angle and using a second for more mobile shots, like those of Ross’s fingers and toes gripping the pad beneath her. Ross laid on top of a table, which Shimonovitz said made it easier to shoot around her. “We tried not to be too obtrusive,” she said. “It was very important to be more suggestive versus graphic.” At that point, Shimonovitz said they still weren’t sure they’d be able to show a real vulva in the episode, so she also shot Ross using a large diopter on the camera lens, which made “the vulva look like a mountain range” rather than genitalia. The idea was that Doerr would sneak the footage into the episode if they couldn’t go through with plan A, which was to show Ross’s vulva, uncensored.
Ross was unconvinced the footage would ever see the light of day. “I was in denial in the beginning. Natalie would talk about the episode and I’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, they’re never going to show that.’ Betty and I have done so much stuff on television and they always cut it. I really thought that I was going to get an email saying, ‘Thanks, but we’re not going to air it.’”
Ultimately, however, Netflix decided in favor of including the orgasm scene, opting to shorten it only slightly. The episode also includes a scene where Dodson and Ross look at her sex organs in a mirror, as well as a montage of other women’s vulvas. “We wanted to make sure that we were able to intercut it more with these journeys,” Doerr said of the final edit. The orgasm scene is spliced with clips from Lexi talking about what she’s learned from observing Dodson and Ross. “That was a creative decision we found worked better to round everything out,” Doerr explained.
“Act first, ask permission later,” Minoprio said of the team’s strategy. She also credited Goop’s “balls-to-the-wall approach” in getting Netflix on board. Doerr said she cried the first time they showed a cut to Paltrow. “In post [production], we really had to make a case for why it was important to show the orgasm scene,” she added. “We really had to do our research and gather statistics and studies.” Much of that research also wound up in the episode, including data from a 2016 study where 44 percent of women were unable to identify their vaginas.
While she masturbated, Ross said the room was pin-drop silent. They shot the scene in one take. “Everyone was really watching. Not watching like when you feel leered at when you’re walking down the street and you feel that up and down. It was a real kind of respect and curiosity,” she said. When Ross finished — it took about ten minutes for her to reach orgasm — the entire room applauded. Ross laughed and said she’d entirely forgotten when I asked her what hearing that felt like; the day had been very draining for her. “Afterward, I was done. I’ve had an orgasm after tequila. I put on my clothes and said, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m going to bail. I love you all, but it’s bedtime.’” Dodson, meanwhile, smoked a cigarette.