‘The White Lotus’ says nothing at all, except for what we already know, which is that those who benefit from whiteness are very rarely willing to divest from it.
By Arielle Gray
[CN: this article contains spoilers for HBO’s “The White Lotus”]
In the opening scene of HBO’s The White Lotus, viewers know that someone is going to die. The season finale on Aug. 15 revealed that it’s Armond, the manager of the White Lotus resort, who is in the casket being boarded onto the plane in the first episode. But Armond isn’t the only one who dies. Beyond the decimation of the brain cells it took to endure all six episodes of The White Lotus, there are many other (metaphorical) deaths.
Billed as a satire that tackles wealth and privilege, The White Lotus follows patrons visiting a Hawaian resort and the staff who wait on them. There’s Steve and Nicole Mossbacher, a couple traveling with their children, 16-year-old Quinn and college-aged Olivia. Olivia is accompanied by her brown-skinned, racially-ambiguous friend Paula. Shane and Rachel Patton are newlyweds on their honeymoon. Tanya, a rich, aging blonde, is there to scatter her mother’s ashes. Armond, the white gay hotel manager, stands at the resort’s shore to greet the incoming patrons who arrive on a boat. Beside him is Belinda, a Black masseuse and healer, and Lani, a trainee, who we’re supposed to assume is a native Hawaian.
The White Lotus sets itself up as a show that may say something of substance about the service industry (with the geographic and social particularities of tourism in Hawaii), privilege, and racism. In episode one, customer-oriented Armond trains Lani. He tells her they must be “pleasant interchangeable helpers” before admonishing her for a white stain on her generic, Hawaiian-themed hotel uniform. What we learn is that Lani is pregnant, unbeknownst to Armond, and that white stain was breast milk. When Lani suddenly goes into labor in Armond’s office, Armond is distraught at how he treated Lani and can’t get over how he didn’t realize she was pregnant. But the next day, Armond, consumed by his own struggle with sobriety, promptly forgets Lani’s name and after a conversation centering his own trauma, asks Belinda to send Lani flowers on behalf of the resort.
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The White Lotus is a well-produced show about the dark side of tourism but despite the beautiful set and superb acting, it says absolutely nothing. In a Vulture interview with White Lotus showrunner Mike White, writer Kathryn VanArendonk prefaces the Q&A with the assertion that the show “adds an awareness of Hawaii’s lasting colonial damage, the complicated dynamics of a place that relies on tourism…” But The White Lotus doesn’t even do that. It tries hard to charm viewers into thinking it tackles racism and privilege through witty, buzz word laden banter between its characters. However, the show replicates the same violences it claims it’s critiquing by offering up POC as consumable products, without backstories or nuance, for the show’s white characters.
Lani and the way the show treats her character is indicative of how The White Lotus treats all of its characters of color. They’re foils for the white characters, mere background props who serve as human receptacles for white trauma and desire. Olivia, a white teenager disillusioned with the “white patriarchy,” uses Paula to satisfy her own innate desire to be the “other.” “I’m not like them,” she says to Paula about her parents, trying to distance herself from the white and class privilege she’s inherited. She seems romantically interested in Frantz Fanon-reading Paula but Paula is more interested in Kai, a Hawaiian who performs at the resort for the guests. Kai is only given a 5-minute backstory when he tells Paula, while on a romantic walk on the beach, how he and his family were evicted from their land by the White Lotus. Belinda, who has no depth beyond her profession and amiability, is used by Tanya, who pulls her into her vortex of pain. Belinda goes out of her way to mentally and physically heal Tanya and the latter suggests an interest in funding Belinda’s dream of running a health center. But it doesn’t end well for Belinda at all.
In reality, tourism is an enduring colonialist project that tries hard to mask its insidious underbelly. It requires that there be an “other,” like Kai and the Hawaiian dancers, for tourists to experience. Pioneered by 18th century British “Grand Tours” of its colonies, tourism was predicated on voyeurism of the “other.” Many “tropical” destinations like Hawaii, which was colonized in 1778 by Britain and then annexed by the United States in 1898, are former or current colonies of Western imperialist powers. We can see the remnants of this today in tourist advertising and brochures, promising travelers “exotic” full-service getaways, language which the White Lotus uses to draw in its guests. Tourists, submitting to their own savior complex, think they’re helping the places they visit by spending money there. But studies show that economic impacts of tourism rarely reach the local working class and “that nearly 80% of the money spent at tourist destinations end up leaving the host countries.” Resorts are a drain on natural resources and people who stay at all-inclusives, like the White Lotus, rarely leave the property to patronize locally-owned businesses.
The “other” are often people of color like Kai who are strong-armed into working in the tourism industry as massive Western-owned companies buy up large tracts of land and resources. Indigenous culture and customs are then mutilated and commodified to suit the taste and the desire of the tourist. As bell hooks writes in her essay, “Eating The Other: Desire and Resistance,” commodity culture turns ethnicity into a “spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.” White people, like Tanya, Olivia and even Quinn, interact with the “other” as a way to “make themselves over, to leave behind white ‘innocence’.” Having used Belinda, Tanya leaves White Lotus transformed, in the arms of her new white male lover. Quinn, in all of his “well-meaning” interest in the Hawaiian sport of outrigger canoeing, is using Hawaii and its people as a means to escape his meaningless “dead” life in the United States.
The White Lotus makes it a point to note these imbalances in power perpetuated by racism and classism but making note of these things doesn’t mean that White Lotus effectively (if at all) addresses them. The show fails to contextualize the racism and colonialism that allows that power imbalance to exist in the way it does at the resort. And instead of dismantling them, the show provides a springboard for further erasure of Hawaiian culture, using Hawaian music in every episode while showing no other parts of Hawaiian history or culture beyond what is replicated for guests at the White Lotus. Paula notes that the resort’s hired Hawaiian dancers are forced into pimping out their culture for guests. However, the show makes zero attempts to center any of the Hawaiian characters. Instead, they are squeezed into flat caricatures and Kai, the only character we learn a little about, is punitively punished for stealing bracelets from the room of Steve and Nicole.
The show is more of a horror story than it is a satire, a deeply realistic horror story that’s an accurate representation of a tourism industry that justifies its continued extraction of the time and resources of people of color under the guise of “travel.” Belinda, depleted by Tanya’s energy vampirism, has nothing left in her but a tired smile she dons to greet the White Lotus’ next set of guests. Kai is arrested while immensely wealthy Steve and Nicole, who are refunded thousands of dollars for the cost of their room, blithely discuss the attempted theft over a lavish dinner (the theft also conveniently reinvigorated the passion in their marriage.) Rachel, who attempts to use Belinda for her own healing after considering ending her nascent marriage to Shane, goes back to him. And Lani? Well, in the final episode, we still don’t know what’s happened to her and her baby. Her pregnancy served only as plot point to expand Armond’s character.
The White Lotus relegates its characters of color to a slow death through its six episodes, drawing out their slaughter and consumption for the sake of an anti-climatic finale. While Armond is physically killed, the people of color of the show are trapped in a perpetual hell, a hell penned and created by the white writers of the show. Steve sums up The White Lotus as a series when in episode three, he says “I don’t want to be the center of the narrative” in response to Paula asking him what he stands for. But he is indeed the center of the narrative, through the past and present violence of white hegemony, and ignoring those systems doesn’t make them disappear. And he, like the creators and writers of The White Lotus, isn’t willing to divorce himself from the systems that center him in the narrative. Like Steve, the series stakes a claim in somehow providing an incisive critique of privilege, yet the show flattens and erases Hawaiian history and its characters of color instead of taking the chance to highlight them as full, breathing, colorful characters.
In the end The White Lotus says nothing at all, except for what we already know, which is that those who benefit from white privilege, even if they acknowledge it exists, are very rarely willing to divest from it. The show ends up being a useless, self-masturbatory exercise in the self-efficacy of white privilege, one that may be slightly enjoyable to watch, but still useless.
Arielle Gray is a Black queer Boston-based writer and artist. She is the Arts Engagement Producer for WBUR’s arts and culture team. Her freelance writing has appeared in VICE, Glamour, Bustle and Huffington Post. Most recently, she co-curated “Combahee’s Radical Call,” a yearlong exhibition celebrating the work of the Combahee River Collective in Boston. Her artwork has been featured in The Boston Globe, BBC Arabic, ATTN and Boston Art Review. She is the co-founder of Print Ain’t Dead, a publishing and literary platform centering the work of LGBTQIA BIPOC.
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