The Surprisingly Delightful Spectacle of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Ski Trial

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Rick Bowmer-Pool/Getty Images

Since Gwyneth Paltrow glided into the Park City, Utah, courthouse last week, wrapped in an aspirational olive coat and chunky cream sweater that probably cost more than the average worker’s monthly rent, her ski trial has become an unexpected social-media spectacle. In short: Retired optometrist Terry Sanderson is suing Paltrow, claiming that she crashed into him on the slopes in 2016. She is countersuing for a single dollar, insisting he caused the collision. The trial has ended up on TV, bringing what would typically be a mundane legal process right onto our screens, and turning it into a true-crime series, a courtroom drama, and a fashion show all in one. It’s a classic American story.

The so-called “trial of the century” — for women and gay men, specifically — has been full of bizarre moments. On Friday, Paltrow was grilled on the witness stand, where everything from her height to her friendship with Taylor Swift (and the implication she gifted the singer a vibrator for Christmas) was mentioned. When asked how the crash inconvenienced her, Paltrow uttered eight words that changed pop-culture forever: “Well, I lost half a day of skiing.”

People are fixated on this trial, in part, because the stakes are relatively low. Sanderson originally sued Paltrow for $3 million for his injuries, which he later lowered to $300,000. This is a lot of money, of course, but not to someone like Paltrow. (Her net worth is reportedly in the region of $200 million.) With recent trials like Depp v. Heard, the societal consequences felt high and the allegations were distressing. Compared to the multimillion-dollar fraud scheme led by Real Housewives of Salt Lake City star Jen Shah, or the college-admissions scandal that ended with Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman serving jail time, this celebrity trial stems from an accident. It can be enjoyed in a more light-hearted way.

Still, the reaction to this unserious trial has been fascinating. Before proceedings commenced, you might have expected people to side with the retired optometrist. After all, he’s a senior man who alleges that Paltrow skied into him, gave him a brain injury, then fled the scene. But it’s been impossible not to notice the widespread support for Paltrow in the comments of YouTube clips, on Instagram and Twitter. Most of the memes about the trial celebrate her, satirically characterizing her as a martyr who is being unfairly persecuted, or a freedom fighter who threw the first ski at Stonewall.

As the #FREEGWYNETH movement gathers pace, I’ve once again been mesmerized by Paltrow’s ability to swerve controversy. Barely a week before the trial, she faced backlash after sharing her diet in an interview with Dr. Will Cole on his podcast, The Art of Being Well. Paltrow’s routine included bone broth, coffee, and intermittent fasting, which critics claimed glamorized disordered eating. But all it took was a few suffragette-chic courtroom outfits and memeable moments for naysayers to change their tune.

Why does Paltrow get away with so much? Perhaps because we’re never quite sure how much of her persona is real, and how much is a performance. She rose to fame as an Oscar-winning actress, but it’s now implicit that “Gwyneth Paltrow” is a character in her own right, too — one that she has shrewdly tapped to turn Goop into a global wellness empire. Out-of-touch quotes are a quirk of this character that fans love: from claiming she practically invented yoga, to insisting she’d “rather smoke crack” than eat cheese from a can — or now suggesting that missing “half a day of skiing” is a hardship. Was this comment unplanned enough to come from the real Gwyneth? Or was it improvisation work from a skilled actor?

The popularity of Paltrow’s public persona is, essentially, a scammer story. In Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino writes that, far from being subversive, scamming is “the quintessential American ethos.” To be American, she argues, is to learn that “one of the best bids a person can make for financial safety in America is to get really good at exploiting other people.” It’s the aspirational small-print of the “American Dream”: If you have accrued wealth, or inherited it, you’re entitled to use it to scam people who are less wealthy.

Fans know that Goop candle didn’t actually smell like Paltrow’s vagina, and that several of the methods from her Netflix show were debunked and branded “pseudoscience.” Whether she’s cashing in on the wellness grift, or offering “treats” to the security guards in court, we’ve come to expect a level of manipulation from her. In this court case, there is a thrill in knowing we’re being manipulated because — unlike so many scams — it doesn’t feel like there are serious consequences here.

This trial both subverts and strengthens Tolentino’s scammer thesis. Paltrow has won favor because it seems unlikely that she would be in this courtroom if she weren’t rich and famous. Whether or not she was responsible for the collision, it might seem “unjust” (her words) to be sued when accidents like this one are simply a risk of skiing. People have asked: Is she the one being scammed?

Paltrow responded by upping the ante of this scammer arms race. Watching her on the witness stand, dressed conservatively and barely concealing a smile as she apologized for her foul language in the aftermath of the collision, I felt like I was watching Roxie Hart in Chicago describing how she and Fred “both reached for the gun.” This trial might not have music or murder, but it shares Chicago’s central observation about American society: In America, you can get away with pretty much anything as long as you are entertaining enough. Spectacle always has the power to distort or distract from the truth — and spinning a scam into a spectacle might be the most American thing of all.

Whoever actually caused this collision, it seems like Paltrow has already won the court of public opinion. Sure, she could have settled this case quietly and spent more time fasting in her infrared sauna. She could even have released a This Smells Like I Poured Bone Broth in My Vagina candle to cover the bill. But that wouldn’t have been as much fun. Instead, she’s sent out a message to anyone who thinks they might be able to one-up her.

As this epic chapter in American legal history comes to a close, there’s now a much more pressing issue than the jury’s verdict: When can we shop the Goop skiwear line?

The Delightful Spectacle of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Ski Trial