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On White Guilt In The White Lotus
The more I think about The White Lotus, the more I dislike it. It plays out in my head progressively as meek-bodied, jelly-spined, and convenient.
Last week I wrote about Bhuj: The Pride Of India, and how films like that empower an idea of patriotism that is bloodletting. I asked if there is space for doubt in love — not just interpersonal, but between person and country, and if we should tire the Mother India figure, a relic of female-patronizing.
This weeks I watched The White Lotus, which unlike the raves, I just didn’t like. I also happened to read Kiley Reid’s very compelling novel Such A Fun Age. Both foregrounded whiteness as either guilty or entitled, which made me ask, can we only talk of whiteness today in terms of guilt or entitlement? Perhaps the same questions can be asked about most hegemonic categories — caste, gender, sexuality, ethnicity. I am thinking of caste very specifically because of my own relationship with my Brahmin roots, which is full of guilt, but one I don’t know what to do with except to just feel it and resist any of its iconography. Write to me your thoughts. I really appreciate some of the things you bring up.
A friend said it best — “Satire is lame”. This was in the context of Lorde’s new music video Mood Ring, which was such an exceptional satire of the wellness industry that for those unschooled in Lorde’s irony, the video of women in sage green outfits and photogenic solidarity almost felt like an ad for it.
Further, the friend — who had just read and given up on a book about farming after reading the latest IPCC reports squarely blaming humans for the climate catastrophe, sure that we’ll overshoot the 1.5 degree C mark, warning an increase in floods and fires, a reorientation of the ocean currents, moving monsoon around like a stray piles of books on the floor — wondered, not in these words exactly, what is the role of snark when the world is burning. Can someone say something true and useful for once? The novelist Edward St. Aubyn said it second-best — “Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.”
I am inclined to agree with both, but there might be something less obvious lurking under such sentiments — a desire for clarity. I like to be told how to feel. I don’t like vague endings, or vague insinuations whose point is its varied reception. When a director or writer prides themselves for writing characters that have received varied moral responses from viewers, I tend it see it as a failure of characterization, instead of a mark of success. How do you spend so much time writing and thinking about a character without really caring for its moral reception? When some people watching Tamasha think Ved is bipolar, and others think he is just confused, stuck, like most people between dil and dimaag, feels and facts, I see it as a failure on maker Imtiaz Ali’s part to write and direct a character with a semblance of spine, a moral conviction that roots him. This is not to say I have a discomfort with greyness, but that I have a discomfort with a performance of greyness. To show a character as most people are — flaws and flaunts — is very different from screaming off of rooftops that your character cannot be grasped by a moral binary. Greyness isn’t an invitation to muddle your moral compass as much as it is to keep it aside for a second — a recognition of its futility.
This lacking clarity just happens to be more obvious in satire, in shows like The White Lotus —following 1%-er white people on holiday in jaundice-filtered Hawaii — and in books like Such A Fun Age — where two white people jostle for the attention and love of a black woman, playing “a losing game called ‘Which One of Us Is Actually More Racist?’”. In both there is a white woman, rich, supporter of Hillary Clinton. In both, that is seen as a swipe at the character. In both satires, there is an eventual decision to align with reality. In both, this decision sort of falls apart towards the end, because satire is a concerted genre — you cannot dip your art in the honey pot of satire and then dry it on the laundry lines of reality and then wonder why ants are piling up. Jolting out of a satirical world is exceptionally tricky. Neither does it well, but the show takes the cake.
This is why the more I think about The White Lotus, the more I dislike it. It plays out in my head progressively as meek-bodied, jelly-spined, convenient, and really, after a point, a little boring. This is not to say it is bad television. That, it certainly isn’t — it invites you into its world with a promise of bizarre one-upmanship, but somewhere along the way it loses this mojo, settling for an ending that, Erik Satie’s remixed music aside, is tonally all over the place. There is something so incomplete about its storytelling, it rankles the more you think of it.
Its goal is to make us uncomfortable — and this was its most compelling success. There is a dinner table conversation. The mother, a CEO of the lean-in, girlboss feminism ilk, describes her support for Clinton. Her college going irony-indoctrinated daughter, Olivia, rolls her eyes, and Paula, a woman of colour, Olivia’s best friend who tagged along, makes her disagreement visible. The mother wonders what the kids believe in — capitalism? socialism? sarcasm?
Olivia and Paula are always reading Nietzsche or Freud, embodying the collegiate moral entitlement to any discourse before it even begins — the kind of people untested by adult life, but theorizing around it successfully with notions of fixed meaning. In one crackling scene, they are worried about boredom in Hawaii, and they realize they have some drugs. Worried that the drugs will make them bloat, they consider popping Adderall after. But worried the Adderall will make their heart sputter into speed, they decide to have Ambien, Xanax and Klonopin after — a cocktail, including ketamine, injecting their moods with pace and podge, speed and sedation. An existential exuberance.
Olivia and Paula’s friendship bares the cracks of allyship — where Olivia’s politics and her personality are at odds, that even while she articulates the history of white people plundering the belongings of others, coopting it as theirs, she constantly tries to steal Paula’s men. It’s not the same, of course — one a personality tic, and one a systemic, historical massacre. But Mike White, the creator, makes us wonder if the personality itself stems from the system it partakes in. It’s a glorious set-up, and like all the glorious set-ups in the show, including murder, it fizzles, and after a rousing riot of satire, settles for realism. This makes sense on paper because the show is book-ended by scenes in the airport, the portal between the edenic Hawaii, where they can stew and stutter about their beliefs, and their world of hustle, that values action over articulation.
But there is such a disappointing, shocking, tonal swerve from satire to realism, I almost didn’t understand some of the conclusions. For example, take the moment at the end when the puff-piece writer is seen rushing to the airport, where she makes eye contact with her newly wed husband — the entitled white man who calls her ‘bubba’ — whom she had left the night before. She cries, he holds her and she promises that she will be happy. I didn’t know what that meant, and I thought, at first, that she was going her own way and promised to be happy even though she was leaving him. It was only when reading the interview of Mark White that I realized that she was coming back to him.
You could argue I am stupid. But let me place the counter-factual. Through the season, we are not shown a single moment where she feels anything resembling love towards him. Even the sex is either guilt induced or lazy. So, when people are saying that she compromises and goes back to him, what is it that she gets after she gives up her career and ambitions? Just money? In trying to satirize her husband as the entitled mamma’s boy trust fund real estate kid, they forgot to even imply that she might be a gold digger, or do it so subtly so as to not have done it at all. Instead, they give her a struggling back story.
Take also the scene where Olivia’s younger brother, constantly glued to his phone, but having suddenly acquired an epiphany that he belongs to nature after kayaking with the locals, in the final moment, leaves his parents at the airport. The next scene shows him kayaking, with a swelling score implying its beauty, and the crashing azure waves. A show that constantly satirizes the white man’s pursuit for a getaway, suddenly realizes the romance of it, just because it is not a white man but a white boy? What is going on? Vulture didn’t even believe that scene; they were convinced it was a dream sequence. As noted by Hawaiian writer Mitchell Kuga, “Part of my confusion was not always understanding the show’s intentions; in a series that’s purportedly satirizing white privilege, was using Hawaiian music to soundtrack the spiritual epiphanies of entitled tourists meant to be ironic?”
The show brought up such an alarming range of issues — capitalism, colonialism, racism, feminism, entitlement, and Gen Z irony — complicating the narrative sympathy at every turn, twisting its characters with jolts of disagreeable dialogues, that it was bound to stutter. The final episode was a consummate disaster — because the realism wasn’t convincing, because the fantasy wasn’t deserving, because the bizarre climax, a promise of exaggeration, had its wildness framed with such a documentary-like gaze, it felt mundane, registered as disgusting, not shocking. In the midst of this, the satire lost its double-edged glint.
I’ll bite. Part of the frustration of watching the show is promising a bunch of obnoxious white people being taken on a ride that will perhaps shake them out of the lull, but soon we realize that it is not the larger, systemic issues, but the more personal ones that they must grapple with — infidelity, emasculation, grief, new marriage. You could argue, that is life — white people being white people and landing on their feet. That’s fair. But I don’t buy into the idea that you could write an entire show, sell it as satire, and end it as kitchen-sink realism drama, and say, that’s life. It’s too stilted, too convenient an explanation.
I also cannot entertain any support for that jaundiced filter, the flattening colour correction that made it impossible to distinguish between dusk and dawn, morning and afternoon, afternoon and evening. You could say, maybe that was the point, a kind of lull in the life of a holiday goer where one can only distinguish between light and dark. But if that was the case, it was an awful point to make, aesthetically speaking.
If this show depicts whiteness as entitlement — not budging from its position that racism sucks but racial hierarchies exist, so what to do? a rhetorical question — Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age shows whiteness as guilt. 25 year old Emira, a black woman who “[doesn’t] love doing anything, but … [doesn’t] terribly mind doing anything either” is working as a babysitter for Alix, a blogger, a Clinton supporter. (Emira loves her daughter, a curious thing who “doesn’t consider hugging a legitimate form of affection unless she could lay her ears against a welcoming shoulder”. Since reading this I have been noticing in movies, if, when the characters hug, the ears touch the shoulders. They did, in this beautiful Greek queer film The Man With The Answers, showing at the Kashish Queer Film Festival. It’s a form of intimacy I never considered — shutting one half of our sensual, aural connection to the world in the arms of comfort.)
Alix begins to reorganize her life, looking at it as if Emira was looking at it — Alix would go through her Instagram photos imagining Emira seeing them, she would remove the tags off clothes and other items so Emira wouldn’t know how much she spent on them, she would be afraid of leaving her Marie Kondo hardcover book on the table.
Emira’s boyfriend, Kelley, is also white — a man who exclusively hangs out with black friends, and has exclusively dated women of colour. Mid-way through the book we realize that Emira’s boyfriend and Emira’s employer have a past with each other, and each tries to convince Emira that the other is using her blackness for street-cred. It’s obnoxiously fun, till some things strike. When confronted about Kelley’s fetishizing he notes that while he has always had black friends, he has always stuck by them, is still friends with them, and has been the best man at their weddings. So where is the fetishization? When does a preference become a fetish?
A helpful way of perhaps thinking about fetishization, or theorizing fetishization, is to think of how Plato spoke of justice. In The Ring Of Gyges, Glaucon (Plato’s brother) wonders if we perform justice because we believe in it, or because we can can then be perceived as just. Glaucon believes the latter — that if we were to be unobserved, performing our lives under an invisible cloak, we would find no reason to be just. It’s the same thing with progressive movements and their marriage with social media’s incendiary self-involvement — the simple act of feeling observed is enough to provoke us to believe and perform justly. The problem is that the performance, what was public, is now happening even in the bedrooms, under our blankets as we tease out the best way to tweet an opinion. Suddenly, we are in a position where we are unable to distinguish the reason we believe in something — is it because we believe it or because we would like to be seen as believing it. Olivia’s friendship with Paula has all the trappings of that performance — when Paula is there, Olivia has an apologetic, almost fierce relationship with her parents. Fetishizing feels like a logical, internalized extreme of that strand — to be wired to only love a certain colour, a certain race, a certain ethnicity. When Kelley says he has spent all his life wanting to be around black people, considers them cool, bringing in the erotic edge when he hits his teens, what does that mean? What is it about blackness that he finds so totally absorbing and magnetic? Could that be an expression of white guilt?
For a few years now, I have been wondering if fetishization — a forced visceral inclusion — is the opposite of discrimination — a forced visceral exclusion. Philosopher Amia Srinivasan in an online webinar made this more explicit vis-a-vis sex — the Rice Queens who fetishize Asian men as opposed to the No Rice No Spice people who refuse to have sexual encounters with Asian and South Asian men.
Both, we consider problematic, but one of which we consider more so. What Srinivasan did in the talk was tease out an additional issue, that isn’t moral, but rather erotic, “It reinforces a certain logic of sexual desire and preference, where we don’t think of ourselves as being open and being surprised by our desire.” The “it” in the above sentence could refer to both fetishizing and discriminating.
And maybe that’s what happens when you live in an insular world — you are convinced that your desire, your rancour, your guilt won’t surprise you. And that is what writer Kelly Corrigan was arguing against when she speaks about neuroplasticity, that we are closer than we realize from turning a vice into a virtue. That we are just brains on a stick, waiting to be re-routed. The question is what is that route when you feel entitled about whiteness? What is that route when you're feeling guilty about it?
“You cannot build a liberatory, egalitarian politics around just wanting to preserve everyone’s feeling, of just being understood and unthreatened in every possible way. It just is what it is to live in a democratic society, we come against people who live their lives very differently, and in so doing, pose questions about how we live our own lives.” — Amia Srinivasan
But of course there are also fundamental differences we cannot account for merely by changing our beliefs. For the longest time I used to be wary of arguments that men can never be feminists, but am growing to understand that line of inquiry — that men who have had no lived experience of a woman, can only theoretically understand the additional veil of horror, doubt, and attention that women are subject to. That at best, men can stand-by, and be allies, cede space, cede voice, cede entitlement. Similarly with caste, race, ethnicity, sexuality. I don’t mean to list requirements for allyship — god knows I roll my eyes at Instagram slides telling people how to be good allies to queer people during Pride Month, as though queer people are one kind of people requiring one kind of support — but I just want to complicate the idea of an ally as someone who recognizes guilt, perhaps even embodies it as solidarity. Or am I being too Catholic?