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‘The White Lotus’ And Why Whiteness Cannot Truly Critique Itself

The reason “The White Lotus” can’t fully commit to its critique on whiteness and power is simply because then white people wouldn’t watch it.

By Ebony Purks

HBO’s latest hit series The White Lotus aired its sixth and last episode on Aug. 15. Many viewers (particularly viewers of color) were left with a lingering dissatisfaction after the credits rolled to close out this first season. Our apprehension was not because the show lacked in production quality or because character arcs were tanked; rather, the series’ ending felt all too real to pretend The White Lotus was mostly rooted in “make-believe” storytelling. 

The HBO show was focused on one setting, that being a fictional Hawaiin resort of the same name. And the show’s characters were either the wealthy white guests luxuriating at the hotel for the week or the hotel’s staff who largely consisted of working-class, Black, Indigenous and/or POC individuals. After a week of exploiting the resort’s staff, in the season’s finale, the guests caught their flights elsewhere while the workers had to welcome a new cohort of exploitative, rich people who will just do the same as the last batch. 

Viewers and critics have, of course, noted the show’s satire as it seeks to critique the grossness in excessive wealth and the inherent narcissism of whiteness (in an individual sense and institutionally), juxtaposing the rich white guests against the marginalized workers who maintain the resort. However, after having watched the series from start to finish — glaring irony, capitalism critique, satire and all — I’m left thinking, what comes next?

In one scene, Mark (Steve Zahn) sarcastically asks his pseudo-socialist daughter Olivia (played by Euhporia’s Sydney Sweeney), “How are we going to make it right? Should we give away all our money?” His series of questions are in reference to what white people should currently do about the colonization their ancestors enacted on Indigenous people in past decades (as if colonialism isn’t still an ongoing occurrence). Zahn’s line was delivered with an obviously sarcastic tone to display just how much of white people’s cruelty lies in their inaction and apathy for others. 

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But what does The White Lotus want Mark and people like him and his damily to really do with the privilege they’re satirizing? What does the series want white people to do after watching the show apart from being entertained? These questions are never genuinely answered. So, white viewers are just going to do what the show’s white characters have done: move on, with no further thought or analysis to how their power and privilege come at the expense of vulnerable communities. 

Because, ultimately, whiteness can’t effectively critique itself as The White Lotus tries to convince us is possible. Brooke Obie agrees in an article for Refinery29 Unbothered. She deduces history has shown us this repeatedly, saying “when it’s time to act, to divest, and to redistribute — both on the page and screen and behind the camera — [white creators] bristle at the thought and slink away.”

A show like The White Lotus (one solely written and directed by a white man, Mike White, aired on a multi-million dollar network, starred predominantly white actors, and was aimed to entertain predominantly white audiences) can’t do conversations on power and those who wield it mercilessly justice. Why would it? The show itself is another example of the problem. The reason the show can’t fully commit to its critique on whiteness and power is simply because then white people wouldn’t watch it.

And, truthfully, revolutionary thought, particularly around race and class has no real place within mass media. Shows like The White Lotus will always fail in their mission to disrupt the complacency of white supremacy because white supremacy is the same oppressive system that upholds our capitalist-driven, American pop culture. It’s evident these shows may want to be a part of all the aforementioned conversations and subjects, but only with as much self-awareness that allows them to still center white characters over the more capable and more interesting BIPOC narratives. 

We must then ask ourselves, what do we want or expect from white creators? Like The White Lotus’ first season’s ending, we’re stuck in a loop. White people know better but refuse to do better because it’s easier. Therefore, no show by a white (male) creator such as this one will ever be able to be so self-aware and so transparent in its critique that it does service to BIPOC communities and makes white people uncomfortable. 

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It is of use for us as viewers to practice centering revolutionary education and politic regarding how we consume our media. In doing so, we’d be better equipped to view these shows through a clearer, more accurate lens. And then sometimes, we just read, watch, and listen to things to enjoy them, regardless of the content, simply because it helps us decompress. This could be the case, and it doesn’t negate one’s revolutionary politic.

After all, American entertainment is entertainment and will always have its limits. Whatever product that’s created is inevitably diluted by capitalists, by whiteness, by what is profitable, and by what is comfortable. (White) creators pitching to major networks will always prioritize meeting quotas for representation without actually threatening their bottom line. 

As Obie perfectly concluded in her Refinery29 article, the glimpses into the lives of the wealthy and powerful perhaps weren’t meant for the rest of us anyway. We already know the work it’ll take to build better worlds. Maybe it’s time we stay focused on achieving those goals on our own. 

Ebony Purks is a recent college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in professional writing. She is currently a freelance writer and Junior Life Editor at The Tempest. Ebony specializes in writing about pop culture, social justice, and health, especially examining the many intersections between those subjects. Though when she’s not writing, she’s rewatching her favorite comfort shows or excessively tweeting.

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