‘The White Lotus’
Each season of The White Lotus takes place over seven days at a luxury hotel; the first was set in Hawaii, the second in Sicily. I doubt that it is necessary for me to extol the series. Written and directed by Mike White, the first season was the most celebrated TV series of last year and the second, which I will discuss here with spoilers, is likely to outdo it.
A luxury hotel is an ideal setting for understanding contemporary capitalism, since it is occupied by rich elites or ‘guests’, who expect perfect service, and ‘staff’, who do their bidding. The racial and class conflicts between the two groups are prominent in the first (Hawaiian) season, in which a hotel worker is incited to steal a valuable bracelet by a teenage guest with whom he is having sex; and a black spa manager who is thinking of starting her own business is led on by a white would-be investor but then stiffed. The series offers a valuable contrast to shows like Downton Abbey, which portray master-servant relations in organic, mutually satisfying, quasi-medieval terms.
While sex plays an important role in the first series, it is central to the second. A luxury hotel is not only a metaphor for capitalism in the economic sense; it is a place where people go on a ‘moral holiday’, throw off their inhibitions and discover their ‘true’, i.e. sexual selves. By foregrounding the sexual relations and fantasies among and between the staff and the guests, The White Lotus analyses capitalism not only as a system of race and class hierarchies, but also as a libidinal economy.
There is a further twist to this. Hotels, like the entire luxury sector, work by anticipating and calibrating what customers desire. TV viewers are also ‘guests’ – consumers of a quasi-luxury product (HBO). A show like The White Lotus is not only a lens; it is also a mirror. The long, cinematic shots – of the food, the beaches, the scenery, the hotel buildings, the actors – implicate the audience in the fantasy-laden sales pitch of the resort hotel. It often looks more like an ad than a drama. Class does not disappear in the libidinal framework. On the contrary, the show’s array of desires is enmeshed in racial, national and economic hierarchies.
The White Lotus, then, is a modern version of an old narrative technique – Plato’s Ship of Fools, the Decameron, the Canterbury Tales – that purports to describe an entire society by isolating representative types. Where earlier works played with Christian, feudal or classical topoi, The White Lotus riffs on two contemporary theories of the ways that sex, gender and race are enmeshed with power.
The first, derived from popular feminism, argues that children are set on very different paths from the moment they are born, simply because of a relatively minor biological difference. One sex accrues wealth and power while the other is kept subordinate, and this is fundamentally unjust. The feminist idea is complicated by an understanding of race and class. Two substantial pieces in the New York Times have criticised The White Lotus for not being feminist enough: Michelle Goldberg argued that the show ‘didn’t care about toxic masculinity after all’, and Pamela Paul that it is more concerned with the ‘plight of the American man’.
The show also relies, however, on a second theory of sex and power – let’s call it popular Freudianism – according to which, gender is a relatively minor factor when it comes to the important things in life. What all people seek is ‘love’, in the sense of satisfying idiosyncratic, fantasy-laden desires. This is the theory that the luxury goods industry rests on and that feminism has sought to displace, especially since the 1970s. Most people in fact believe versions of both theories, feminism being a correction of popular Freudianism, and both are operative here.
One storyline in Season Two concerns two interlocking and contrasting marriages: Ethan and Harper Spiller, and Cameron and Daphne Sullivan. Ethan has just sold a startup and suddenly become rich, but Harper genuinely doesn’t care about money. What she cares about is that Ethan is sexually uninterested in her, as she realises when she discovers him watching porn and masturbating. Cameron, a financier, was at college with Ethan and rekindled their friendship when Ethan got rich. Cameron is a womaniser, chasing Harper, while Daphne pursues her own liaisons. She is not a caricature – there are no caricatures – but she comes close with her repeated advice to Harper: ‘Don’t allow yourself to be a victim.’
The show has a strong, affirmative theory of marriage. The key to Ethan and Harper’s success in resolving their marital difficulties is that they are honest with one another. Ethan proved this when he confessed to masturbating. When Harper tells Ethan she hasn’t had sex with Cameron he believes her and is right to do so.
A second set of characters comprises a grandfather, father and son. The grandfather, Bert, is a widower; the father, Dominic, is losing his wife because of his philandering; and the son, Albie, a Stanford graduate, is sexually insecure. Dominic blames Bert for passing on the habits that are destroying his marriage, but Bert replies: ‘I loved your mother and your mother loved me.’ Albie learns to become more assertive through a relationship with a sex worker, Lucia, but it turns out she is scamming him. Before he discovers this, however, he persuades Dominic to give her €50,000 and, in return, promises to intervene with his mother to save his parents’ marriage.
The three generations of men have returned to Sicily as the seat of patriarchy – they visit locations from, and argue about, The Godfather – but far from unmasking their patriarchal illusions, the series affirms their masculinity and their paternal and filial relations.
As for Lucia and her friend Mia, far from the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ stereotype, they are happy and successful businesswomen, one interested in money, the other in a singing career, while their exploits help resolve various conflicts among the hotel staff, all of which revolve around repressed or forbidden sexuality. Prostitution, to be sure, is essentially economic in origin. The White Lotus does not deny this. Still, the show’s basic argument is that prostitution is the counterpart to marriage, its necessary and inevitable complement.
The final story line is the only tragic one, and the one where feminism may have the most to teach us. Tanya is an older rich woman whose husband, Greg, is secretly gay. She has protected her fortune with a pre-nup, so her husband can only get his hands on it by killing her. His lover is part of a circle of older gay men – supposedly friends of Gore Vidal – who play on her vulnerabilities in the attempt to get rid of her. At the end, Tanya kills the men (though not her husband), but dies herself in the effort.
In terms of understanding the libidinal logic of the show, Tanya may be considered a mother-figure. If this interpretation has merit, The White Lotus includes the story of a matricide. What is the relationship between the gang of unmarried gays and the crime of matricide? On the one hand, there are definitely homophobic implications. On the other, the show points up the way male homosexual culture has been transformed by the right to marry.
Taken as a whole, The White Lotus might seem culturally retrograde, relying on outworn stereotypes and discredited conventions. I am sure it sounds that way from my summaries, but it isn’t. The show is very much the product of the feminist and sexual revolutions of our time. However, as with all modern revolutions, not everything is revolutionised. For one thing, the gay rights movement, at least in the United States, evolved in such a way as to prioritise marriage. For another, the mainstream feminist and gay rights movements developed so as to affirm capitalism, and neglect or reject alternative economic systems. For still another, these revolutions occurred against a background of longstanding assumptions concerning gender and sexuality – visible in the Republic, the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales – that were by no means simply negative. The feminist and gay rights movements formulated ideas concerning gender and sex that could hold their own with, and improve on, such assumptions. Society picks and chooses among innovations, affirming some, rejecting others, modifying still others. This is the case with all revolutions, in every sphere.