‘The White Lotus’ And The Limits Of White Self-Critique

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Media.
*Spoilers for Season 1 of  The White Lotus 
The White Lotus is the latest HBO prestige dramedy satire on whiteness. A mix of its predecessors Succession and Search Party, The White Lotus centers rich, messy white people, their children and one acceptably Black friend, Paula, on a vacation at the titular resort in colonized Hawaii. The title is a reference to the Greek myth of the Lotus-eaters who indulge in luxury, pleasure and forgetfulness rather than deal with the concerns of the world around them.
Non-rich college student Paula (Brittany O’Grady) and her motivations for being friends with — let alone traveling with — her rich classmate’s family are underdeveloped because the series is most interested in exploring intraracial classism. The white, gay hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) is the most prominent character among the hotel staff of Hawaiians and one Black staff member, the spa director Belinda (Natasha Rothwell). Armond and his epic battle to the death with the spoiled, rich honeymooner Shane (Jake Lacy) make clear the frustrations of the white middle class. White supremacy promises supremacy  — the kind that the generationally wealthy elite like Shane get to experience. Instead, Armond is stuck in middle management, serving the Shanes of the world, stunted and cannibalized by homophobia, capitalism and mediocrity.
Excellent performances (and performers) like Rothwell as Belinda are wasted as the Black and Hawaiian characters — the ones actually best suited to critique their white oppressors through the lenses of race, class and gender — are sidelined to focus on The Real Story: the humanity of rich and powerful white people. In the characters’ fight for power, the rich white people emerge victorious as ever, the exploited white hotel manager winds up dead, and the Black and Hawaiian characters barely even get to play. This is, after all, a six-episode story about white people for white people, created, written and directed by one white man, (pun inherent) Mike White.

The Black and Hawaiian characters — the ones actually best suited to critique their white oppressors through the lenses of race, class and gender — are sidelined to focus on The Real Story: the humanity of rich and powerful white people.

The White Lotus is far from alone in its shallow, self-congratulatory attempts at white introspection. Most of the so-called prestige dramas centre on horrible, rich white people, with their racist, classist obliviousness as part of the appeal: Big Little Lies, Billions, Arrested Development, Succession, The Crown, The Undoing, and on and on.
Each show parades these horrible rich white characters across the screen and we’re supposed to laugh or shudder at or empathize with their messy ridiculousness, as each series flirts with the idea of disrupting the status quo. We cheer when that one outsider character calls bullshit, and — like The White Lotus’ Belinda, who believes her rich white client is really going to invest in her and make her dreams come true — we think maybe this time, maybe on this show, things will be different
But it’s Lucy with the football. Before the nails even come out, the white saviour jumps down from the cross, unscathed. The rich and powerful are only more humanized, more excusable. Even if individuals change, the system of the powerful remains powerful; the system of the rich remains rich; the status quo remains intact. 
White explains what’s going on in all of these Rich White Shows (perhaps unintentionally) in an illuminating and stunningly meta interview with Vulture. Responding to a criticism he read that white people like The White Lotus because they get to remain the centre of the conversation and nothing ever changes, he says, “If I took that assumption to its fullest, it would make it so that I shouldn’t even be creating anything anymore. It’s a deep criticism of who’s getting what stories made, which is a completely valid conversation.”
White — who, again, wrote and directed every episode of The White Lotus by himself — has taken the critique of whiteness being centered in his show and distilled it into the nonsensical conclusion that “white people shouldn’t exist or create things.” Even as White finds the question of “who’s getting what stories made” to be a “completely valid conversation,” clearly, there are limits. After all, what would happen to him if marginalized people got the chance to tell stories too?

It’s a plugging of the ears to silence the cries for what we’re really demanding: Reparations Now. Give up your ill-gotten power. Give up your stolen wealth.

Shot: “[O]bviously, it would threaten me in some way! Because this is all I can do! I don’t know how to be a general manager of a hotel!”
Chaser: “I’m that white kid, I guess,” he says. “Am I going to hate myself? What do you do?”
Therein lies the frustrating end of the line for white wokeness. If you do a little digging beneath the surface of white supremacy and all of its damage, you quickly hit on the obvious answers to the question: What do you do with all of this undeserved power? These answers are carved in stone with lightning, like The Ten Commandments: give up your power; redistribute your wealth. And the white woke’s response to those obvious truths is, “But wait, like, not really, though, right? I’m that white kid. Am I going to hate myself?”
White people hating themselves is useless to us. Nobody asked for that and nobody cares how they feel about themselves. It’s a common deflection —the entire argument for why Critical Race Theory shouldn’t be taught in schools is that it might make white children feel bad about the legacy of white supremacy. It’s a plugging of the ears to silence the cries for what we’re really demanding: Reparations Now. Give up your ill-gotten power. Give up your stolen wealth. But they can’t seriously entertain that. (“Obviously, it would threaten me in some way!”)
So instead, Mike White ate his own lotus, took every dime of that HBO money and made himself the creator, the writer and director of every episode of a show that takes place on stolen land, using marginalized characters and colonization as props, instead of giving a shit in a suitcase about putting Hawaiians in place to tell their own stories — in front of and behind the camera.
It’s a satire of a satire within a satire.
Unlike HBO’s canceled series Lovecraft Country, which did not centre white people (but also failed in its attempts to critique whiteness by upholding grotesque colourism, queerphobia, transphobia and eroticized trauma), The White Lotus gets to fail upwards. HBO announced the season two renewal before the finale even aired. The show will move on to a different exotic-to-white-people location, presumably with new people of colour to disappear into the background of The Real Story.
But perhaps Mike White might cede a sliver of power and bring on, say, a Connie Britton girlboss type to showrun next time. The title of the aforementioned Vulture interview is “Mike White Accepts the Criticism,” after all.
Or perhaps, like White admits in the interview, “accepting” criticism after you’ve been paid, praised and promised even more is literally the least one can do. “Accept” the criticism all the way to the bank. The series enjoyed steady ratings through the finale and dominated Twitter talk during its Sunday night run. The Emmy buzz for the show continues to grow. The people who keep winning are the Shanes of the world (who are really just Armonds but with the promise of white supremacy actually fulfilled). So, what incentive is there to change?
Which leaves the marginalized viewer and critic alike as Paula. We, the Black friendTM, have come to the realization that our white liberal shows love to talk a good talk, sprinkle in a little “white supremacy is wrong!” Add a dash of, “Obviously, imperialism was bad!” (an actual line from The White Lotus recited by Steve Zahn). But when it's time to act, to divest, and to redistribute — both on the page and screen and behind the camera — they bristle at the thought and slink away with White’s infuriating conclusion on their lips: Am I supposed to hate myself? 
They’ll serve us up the next unseasoned critique of whiteness (here’s looking at you, Nine Perfect Strangers), but now we know. The camel won’t be educated, dragged or willingly walk through the eye of the needle. And we’re left to decide if we want to burn it all down in a righteous blaze or be complicit in exchange for a glimpse into a world in which we were never meant to belong.

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