WDYTYA Episode 207: Gwyneth Paltrow

This week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? returns to a more tra­di­tion­al research method­ol­o­gy, start­ing from what is known, and mov­ing back­ward to illu­mi­nate the unknown.

While many crit­ics will note that the star did not engage with much of the research, and was being hand­ed hours of research in a moment, I appre­ci­at­ed the use of fam­i­ly lore (a Bar­ba­dos back­ground on the moth­er’s side; a line of rab­bis on the father’s side). Instead of mak­ing assump­tions that this lore was gen­uine­ly true, the researchers took it as clues to what they might find. There was an acknowl­edge­ment that the lore could be true or false, mis-remem­bered, mis­un­der­stood, or very very close.

In addi­tion to the lore about the line of rab­bis and the ances­tor from Bar­ba­dos, the third inter­est for Ms. Pal­trow was find­ing out if there was any way to under­stand what had hap­pened in her pater­nal grand­fa­ther’s youth to make him ret­i­cent to talk about it oth­er than to say that he did not live in a home like she did. She dis­cov­ered details about her great grand­moth­er, the loss­es that she endured, which helped her put it in per­spec­tive. This would have been a per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss the change, his­tor­i­cal­ly, in life expectan­cies. Some­one in the mid­dle class los­ing a child today is more rare than it was 100 years ago.

The episode was enter­tain­ing, and pro­vid­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty to see spec­tac­u­lar vis­tas of Bar­ba­dos as well as con­sid­er how var­ied Amer­i­can fam­i­lies are. Ms. Pal­trow was vis­i­bly moved by some of the dis­cov­er­ies. This was a sol­id episode, which would still have been improved with a brief state­ment of the amount of research done to get to these dis­cov­er­ies; how­ev­er, I know that con­tra­dicts with the Ancestry.com mar­ket­ing mes­sage, which can be boiled down to: “This is so easy, even you could do it!”