Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow became famous in her early 20s, she has made women feel bad about themselves. As Gwyneth’s former high school classmate told a New York magazine reporter in the mid-’90s, “Even people who don’t know Gwyneth measure themselves against her success. … Gwyneth makes us feel extremely lame.” And so it was Tuesday, when Paltrow and her husband, Chris Martin, announced their split in the most Gwyneth way possible by telling the world about their separation in her lifestyle newsletter Goop, with a personal note and an accompanying expert essay about something called “conscious uncoupling.” Because Gwyneth does not break up like the rest of us.
The gist of the essay—by Habib Sadeghi and Sherry Sami, doctors who integrate Eastern and Western medicine—is that the institution of marriage hasn’t evolved along with our longer life spans. Divorce doesn’t mean your relationship wasn’t successful, they say. It just means that this particular relationship has come to its conclusion; you may have two or three of these successful relationships in a lifetime. Instead of a typical, rancorous, regular-person separation, you just need to have a “conscious uncoupling.” You need to be spiritually “present” and recognize that partners in intimate relationships are our “teachers.” You need to “cultivate” your “feminine energy” to salve any wounds.
Underneath that psychobabble is the message that goes along with all Goop productions: Even Gwyneth’s separation is better than yours. The announcement of the split is accompanied by a gorgeous photograph of the supremely actualized couple lounging in the grass. After the news broke, a friend of mine texted, “Honestly it made me want to get divorced! And I am not even married.”
New-agey as it all sounds, Gwyneth’s sun-dappled breakup announcement is just the same tired keeping up appearances that wives and mothers have long been expected to do. Certainly for the sake of their children, it makes sense for Paltrow to refrain from bashing her husband in public. But there is no admission of pain (besides a nod to “hearts full of sadness”) or any other emotion that might be messy, inconvenient, or real.
I was thinking about Gwyneth when I read an article in Bethesda Magazine about another “super mom,” a woman named Melissa “Missy” Lesmes. She’s a partner in a big-name Washington law firm, a “party maven,” and mom of four children ages 11 to 18, one of whom has Down syndrome. She’s pretty, blond, and fit. She wakes up every morning at 5:30 a.m. and doesn’t go to sleep until midnight or later. She wears makeup when she’s working out.
Just as Gwyneth presents herself as an ideal to strive for, Lesmes is also offered as something of a model woman. Their stories are meant to make mere mortals feel inadequate, but I finally had the opposite reaction reading about Paltrow and Lesmes in the span of an afternoon. Both of their lives sound like a nightmare to me. Paltrow’s because she has to behave outwardly as if everything is glossy and perfect all the time lest she ruin her “brand.” Lesmes because she doesn’t get any sleep, and because while she buzzes around being übermom, her husband “lounges on the couch at the end of the great room, watching the day’s tennis matches at Wimbledon on a huge, flat-screen TV.”
Granted, these are all just images of people, whose internal selves and real-life relationships we don’t really know anything about. But as aspirational idols go, can’t we do better? It’s time to evolve past the 2014 versions of Betty Draper that continue to clog up our media space.