It dawned on me when I was tapping an extra preventive dose of zinc into my weekly vitamin sorter last week. That scene in Safe where the protagonist Carol White is sorting out a heroic pile of compounds and tinctures, an audiotape guiding her through an orthorexic regimen of supplements and elimination diets to determine the “maximum load” of toxins she can personally handle.
Seemed like a psychic nudge to talk about how an indie film from 1995 accurately predicted our current cultural obsessions with athleisure, essential oils, elimination diets, vocal fry, The Secret, class and privilege, and pretty much everything else you’ll find on the GOOP website short of a jade yoni egg.
It’s been 25 years since the release of Safe, but it feels like it came out a week ago. Part of this is because much of today’s wellness culture sprouted out of southern California, in the futuristic enclaves of privilege where the film takes place. Part of this is because a quarter century later, we still don’t have a reliable or equitable healthcare infrastructure in the US, and women still have way too hard a time getting doctors to take their pain seriously.
80s materialism was a dry run for 2000s aspirational content; both trends riding on a high tide of white privilege. Many scenes take place inside of sprawling McMansions: Carol White’s home is full of more settees and sectionals and egg-shaped lamps (so many great lamps in this movie) than should fit in any one domicile, trend-driven elements that mirror today’s social media-fueled fixations with fast fashion and home decor. Anyone who’s served time in corporate America knows at least five or ten middle managers leveraging this retail-driven lifestyle to the very limits of their credit score.
And still sadly true is that all this splendor is sustained by the fervent, thankless labor of nonwhite people. A perpetually humming vacuum is tended by a Latinx maid who never seems to go home; an Asian woman emerges day after day with armfuls of dry cleaning. Carol White and her community are as ivory toned as her name, as porcelain as the milk she compulsively drinks.
Noise and misinformation litter the airways of Safe in much the same way Facebook, Twitter, and cable news feeds pollute our psyches with faddish and conspiratorial thinking today. Radios and TVs in the film chatter incessantly about pollution, traffic, euthanasia, “holistic” ecology, and end times evangelism. In Safe, the word “chemical” is misappropriated over and over as a pejorative term, the same way present-day influencers ignorantly equate the term with toxins in their Instagram “clean beauty” and “clean eating” spon-con, the way modern fitness gurus conflate the aesthetics of wellness with medical confirmation of good health. Sub one of today’s hot yoga sessions for Carol’s weekly aerobics class and the studios look the same—both are full of white women, designer leggings, and the belief that this performative fitness is the guarantor of well being. It’s all reinforced by a locker room conversation about the merits of personal accountability versus a clean diet and positive affirmations—an argument you are as likely to hear on a podcast today as you were on an episode of Donahue back in 1987.
Some people are old enough to remember the Hayride: the experience of being an HIV positive man at the peak of the crisis in the late 80s, seeking solace at the feet of the original goop slinger, Louise Hay. She claimed that she cured herself of her own cervical cancer (don’t try this at home, ladies) through positive affirmations. She also believed that the cancer was her fault and brought on by childhood sexual abuse.
She built a billion dollar industry on the bodies of AIDS patients, who, with no place left to turn, grafted themselves to her philosophy of healing through self love (which sounds nice enough, except for the part where they had to agree that they brought the disease on themselves) and abandoned conventional medical treatments (which at the time were still incredibly limited and comparatively barbaric to present options). As several survivors of the crisis attest, Hay’s philosophy was ultimately untenable for those who sought solace in it. One man tells the story of a Hay follower who ultimately ended his life after discovering that no amount of good vibes could deter the excruciating ravages of end-stage AIDS-related illness.
Still, it was more than enough time for Hay to make her fortune and establish herself as a woo guru. These days her faux-spiritual inspirado is lauded by juice cleanse hucksters and distributed as bite-sized mantras in meme form by yoga instructors on Instagram, many of whom probably hadn’t even been born when she was in West Hollywood telling vulnerable and desperate men who had been abandoned by their families and by American society to heal themselves with love, just like she had supposedly done with her cancer.
In the film, Carol White, similarly alienated by the modern medical establishment after repeatedly being told her symptoms have no clinical basis, seeks refuge at an off-grid compound in New Mexico which is led by a Hay-inspired guru who claims to have AIDS. He brags about the fact he willfully ignores the news and world events (for the good of his immune system, he claims) and counsels his followers to consider that their illness is their own fault, brought on by a lack of self love and insufficient optimism. He denies them their grief and their fear by limiting their ability to communicate and interact apart from a weekly shared meal. He watches over this rustic silent retreat from the palatial comfort of a well-lit mansion on the mountaintop.
But Carol embraces the treatment, because unfounded as it may be, it’s the first time her symptoms are being acknowledged in any fashion, and it’s the first time any course of treatment is being offered to relieve her of them. That’s part of what makes Safe so relatable, even if you don’t totally buy it or don’t totally feel sorry for a rich white lady from the valley. We all know what it’s like to feel unheard.
When Carol has symptoms, they’re always just as performative as they are real, because she knows that if she doesn’t telegraph what’s happening to her, she simply won’t be believed. Because women aren’t believed. Heart disease remains the number one killer of American women because the vast majority of their symptoms, which present differently from men’s, are ignored or minimized when they seek treatment, a result of medical training that continues to be centered around male anatomy and its associated presentation of disease.
Think about that first coughing fit Carol has when she’s driving home. Her gasps for air verge on hyperventilation, yet she stays composed enough to park her car. She flings the door open and pitches herself out, but nobody’s there to help. If a panic attack happens but nobody’s there to witness it, did you really almost have a breakdown? She seems to already know, even at the first signs of her sickness, that nobody is coming to save her.
This aspect of the film resonated with me deeply. I myself was told for years to buck up, ride it out, do more yoga, and take more supplements before the right doctor found the apple-sized tumor that was feeding off my already taxed endocrine system. But I had to wait way too long—I was literally bleeding out in an emergency room when a consulting physician realized they had seen my symptoms just one other time before–when she was moonlighting in a Planned Parenthood during her residency. The financial and emotional crapshoot of treating your ailments in the US medical system are why too many people, especially women, end up seeking healing in the world of wellness, and sometimes end up dying as a consequence.
So the other key aspect of Safe is misogyny. As Dennis Lim rightly pointed out in his 2014 essay for Criterion, there’s some real dark Betty Friedan shit going down in Carol White’s marriage. Carol’s bouts of illness seem just as tied to interactions with the men in her life as they do to other environmental toxins. Merely embracing her husband results in projectile vomiting and loss of equilibrium. Carol’s husband doesn’t care if his wife enjoys the sex they’re having, gets mad when she feels too ill to put out, and begrudgingly totes her to doctor’s appointments and support groups when he can’t successfully guilt her into sucking it up and feeling better.
Beyond home—at the hospital, at the ranch—it’s still usually a man who tells Carol what’s wrong with her, and it tends to make her symptoms worse, not better. Carol’s general practitioner negates her at every turn and ultimately pawns her off to a psychiatrist—delivering the news of this referral to her husband, of course. An allergist needles her black and blue and ultimately concludes that though he can identify the symptoms of allergic response, he feels no obligation to investigate them. He seems to view her more as a clinical phenomenon than a person. At the ranch, the guru continues to question the origin of Carol’s disease and redirects her assessment of her symptoms. Is it really environmental illness, he ponders, or is she just overdue for some enlightenment?
And hell, even Dean Norris, in a bit part as a furniture deliveryman, shows up with the wrong goddamn couch.
Julianne Moore pointed out in an interview with Todd Haynes that shot composition informed the way she played Carol White, and that the performance and its portrayal were intended to reflect Carol’s lack of agency. Carol is frequently filmed at a remove, placed on the edge of a shot, washed out by the light, or draped in a shadow. She barely takes up any space at all, right down to Moore’s decision to keep her voice in a baby register for the whole picture.
In Safe, Carol discovers wellness following a series of dead-end doctor’s appointments. After losing her verve at aerobics and stumbling out to the lobby, she notices the following flyer:
The ambiguity of the flyer’s questions reflects her own inability to effectively communicate about her symptoms. The language and aesthetics of modern wellness, as evidenced by social media, engage directly with the cultural pressures women face by suggesting that they are choosing wellness out of empowered autonomy after centuries of shame, restriction, body modification, and mistrust. Wellness is something you do for yourself, a journey you take alone. Wellness is unique and intimate, it is not standardized or sanctioned.
Wellness is for women whose privilege, or stark lack thereof, cannot buy them the serious attention of the medical establishment. While insurance providers limit how Americans access basic healthcare, wellness provides direct, immediate, and largely unsupervised connection to treatments that don’t seek or require the endorsement of modern medicine. The freedom is an illusion, the empowerment is a lie, but it’s not something a true believer is likely to discover until it’s too late to turn back.
Wellness, ultimately, is a hell of Louise Hay’s own making: the only thing standing between you and a good vibe isn’t the existence of affordable healthcare, but rather your lack of belief that you deserve it. And thus, your lack of faith is the reason the woo fails; it can’t possibly be for its lack of scientific or medical soundness. That’s what makes “wellness”, as both an industry and a philosophy, so goddamn scary. Short of truth in advertising lawsuits, there’s no accountability on the part of the practitioner. All fault lies with the participant.
In the time since Safe was first released, the American obsession with wellness has deepened profoundly. It makes sense, since our bodily autonomy is getting chiseled away from us a chunk at a time. Denied consistent, quality access to the medical establishment by pricing and politics, the discipline and deprivation of a disordered diet, rigorous vitamin regimen, unregulated supplement dosing, or exhaustive fitness routine begin to feel like intentional choices we made to better ourselves instead of last resorts taken to survive. The appearance of youth and health remains more important than actual longevity. Keeping ourselves alive as Americans, particularly as American women, shouldn’t be the Homeric saga of magical achievement it’s turned into, yet, here we are.
Safe is a fascinating movie. It needs to be viewed and discussed until it becomes a relic of a time long gone instead of a reflection of a dynamic we can’t escape from. Its ending is harrowing, as brutal an indictment of our present era as the one in which it was made. As new pandemics force the realities of class and gender in America into starker relief, Safe reminds us that the fight for health as a human right is more vital than ever.