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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!”

 
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