Words by Issy Anthony
Upon my mother’s suggestion, I recently watched (read: binged) The White Lotus, a darkly comic satire following a group of wealthy elites staying at an exclusive resort in Hawaii, and the staff who work there. Perhaps one of the reasons I found it so easy to binge was because, despite it being satire, it was so realistic.
Take, for example, the scene where college students Olivia and Paula, who have been taken to the resort by Olivia’s family, use Olivia’s lighter to do ASMR. When Olivia’s mother asks why it smells of smoke, Olivia tells her mum they were ‘practicing witchcraft’. Olivia, played by Sydney Sweeney, divides her time on the holiday between reading Frederick Nietzsche and Camille Paglia, and mocking both guests of the resort with Paula. She debates her parents on all things that a wealthy woke white girl does, yet we all know that she wouldn’t dream of giving up her privilege. Her mother, who, admittedly, Olivia is often right in calling out, tells Olivia that her ‘generation’s only sacred value (is) biting the hand that feeds you’. It becomes clear that Olivia’s ‘wokeness’ is not a tool to disempower the bourgeois but rather one to make her feel better, with the added benefit of annoying her parents. While Olivia is entertaining to watch, her repeated utterances that she is ‘different’ to her family is a disturbing fantasy that she refuses to admit.
As the guests first arrive at the resort, manager Armond tells a trainee that ‘we disappear behind our masks as interchangeable helpers’, emphasising a ‘vagueness’. While this seems brutal upon first hearing it, we realise later on that actually it would have been a mercy, as the guests get attached, be it through romance, friendship, or revenge.
They form strong feelings toward the staff over a week, feelings that impact the staff, and then are able to leave, as if nothing has happened. And as for the staff, work is never over, forced to welcome another batch of ignorant holidaymakers who think nothing of the results of their mindless emotional abuse of the staff who serve them.
The resort is built on stolen native land, and serves as a form of escapism for the white privileged guests who holiday there. Many seem to be running away from who they truly are, or how they truly feel, and yet by the time they board the airplane to leave, they seem to have become even more painfully themselves than before. Even on a beautiful island where they can have whatever they want at their beck and call, they cannot see how disturbingly unequal their lives are with the staff who serve them. Despite their constant talk of how ‘lucky’ and ‘privileged’ they are, nothing changes, and even when the ‘masks’ that the staff wear begin to crack, it is too easy for them to board a plane, fly away, and never look back.
The White Lotus forces us to see the painful reality of the gaping differences caused by race and class, and the emotional space given to different groups, made starker in an ‘idealistic paradise’ that is anything but.
The White Lotus is currently streaming on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV