Let’s spill the pop culture tea: ‘The White Lotus’ comments on colonialism, virtue signaling, emptiness

A group of around 15 men and women dressed formally pose in front of a camera.
Anna Tolkien CM ’24 argues that “The White Lotus” accurately depicts the racism and classism of the tourism industry. (Courtesy: Kevin Winters/Getty Images)

This article contains spoilers for “The White Lotus.”

The fictional White Lotus Resort is unraveling at the seams. Despite picturesque views and breakfast buffets, twisted guests and staff lurk beneath the surface. It is a gathering of lonely, selfish and broken white people exploiting Hawaiian culture for their own personal enjoyment. 

HBO released “The White Lotus” on July 11 and it’s been gaining popularity ever since. The show traces the lives of three groups of people visiting The White Lotus Resort in Maui — unhappy honeymooners Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), the wealthy white Mossbachers and Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), an unstable, grieving single woman.

These characters are all seeking some sort of personal entertainment or rejuvenation at the resort. In their quests to do so, the show depicts how they appropriate Hawaiian culture, defend colonialism and act like they are above being racist or classist. These characters paint a picture of entitled tourists who take no accountability for the privilege they have, and how the travel industry exploits Hawaiian culture as a background to entertain rich people.  

Armond (Murray Bartlett), the hotel manager, explains in the first episode that the guests must be treated like little children. They are there to be wowed with all of their different luxuries: pools, luaus, drinks and spas. Hawaiian culture is there to be a backdrop for their enjoyment, not something they actually immerse themselves in. 

Tension grows between Armond and Shane to become one of the main sources of conflict on the show, as Shane is unsatisfied because he’s been given the wrong room and wants an even bigger, more over-the-top space. Unable to be calmed with free alcohol, trips and more, Shane becomes obsessed with this room error and drives Armond to a point of hysteria. 

Armond’s descent into a drug fueled mania resulting from this hysteria is horrifying and keeps your eyes glued to the screen. We see him snorting cocaine and having an orgy in his office while rich resort-goers meander in the lobby outside his office. His character arc is like watching a train run right off the rails. 

Armond and Shane’s fighting speaks to the constant consumerist appetite privileged tourists have, and their inability to accept anything as good enough. Shane is the male version of a ‘Karen’ who will stop at nothing to find fault in his situation. These tourist ‘Karens’ are self-centered and rude to staff, as well as disrespectful to the different cultures they visit. 

Shane’s character embodies the entitled Karen stereotype, completely ignoring his wife to focus on his outrage that he doesn’t have the even more luxurious room he paid for. The show’s portrayal of him as a Karen-type emphasizes white privilege through the entitled behavior of the characters towards staff, locals and the natural environment. Everything is a plaything for their own amusement. 

Olivia Mossbacher (Sydney Sweeney) uses her time at the resort to virtue-signal. She lounges by the pool in her expensive clothes flipping through political theory books which she never actually reads, and criticizes her pseudo-progressive parents for their views while enjoying her luxury vacation which they paid for. She uses her best friend Paula, a woman of color, as a prop for her progressivism and treats her like a handbag. 

Her character is vapid and portrays the performative activism many white wealthy people cling to in today’s society to be deemed not racist, while in reality they continue to perpetuate and benefit from systemic privilege. 

Olivia’s brother Quinn (Fred Hechinger) is one of the few redeeming characters on the show. He’s isolated and lonely, clinging to his phone and Nintendo Switch. Compared to his sister, who feels empty and numbs it with drugs, he feels empty and numbs it with watching porn. He feels frightened when he drops his devices in the water, panicked he’ll be alone with his own thoughts. 

Instead, however, he sees the sunrise reflecting the ocean’s surface and the stillness of the beach and feels peace. He immerses himself into Hawaiian culture, joining locals on a canoe expedition. 

His character arc speaks to the emptiness and loneliness of technology and pornography in today’s world, and shows viewers that to authentically connect with other cultural groups, they should learn, ask questions and throw themselves into new experiences. 

All these resort-goers are empty, lost and searching for meaning by appropriating Hawaiian culture. None of the characters are particularly likeable, and most of them are rather repulsive. But there is something intriguing and fascinating about watching people who are supposed to have everything and yet are so unbelievably unhappy and bored in their lives. 

Diversity is just a backdrop for the white characters to ‘escape’ from the trauma of their busy lives into this Hawaiian paradise. They want native dancers to perform on the same grounds which were stolen from them, and they want their experience tailored to their own personal enjoyment. “The White Lotus” shows the entitlement white resort goers have when visiting new places, and how they see different cultures as backgrounds for Instagram selfies and ways for them to unwind from their busy jobs.  

The show has received some criticism for speaking over Native Hawaiians. Vox points out that the show uses “Hawaiian music to soundtrack the spiritual experiences of entitled tourists,” and that “locals appear as exotic fodder and naive natives to further white characters’ enlightenment.” This is a disappointing aspect of a show that is attempting to call out white privilege and the toxic tourism industry. 

However, despite these critiques, “The White Lotus” does address classism, racism, emptiness and colonialism in our society through satire, and is an uncomfortable, addictive six episode series that will start conversations about privilege and disrespect in the tourism industry.  

Anna Tolkien CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. She’s a media studies and literature dual major and loves her pugs, iced coffee and Timothée Chalamet movies.

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