For thousands of years, Eastern and South Asian cultures have thought of the white lotus as a symbol of purity and transformation because this beautiful flower grows out of filthy water. Not only does Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and enlightenment amid ignorance, sit upon a white lotus, she often is depicted holding the flower in her hands embracing the perceived purity of a flower that grows best out of manure. HBO’s limited series The White Lotus is a murder mystery about a group of wealthy white people on vacation at a luxury resort in Hawaii and the multiracial hotel staff who care for them. Actually, the series is also a clever commentary on the American caste system.
From the moment the guests meet the staff in Episode 1, the audience is drawn into the power struggle between the wealthy and the working class. Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) steps off the arrival boat complaining. She whines that she is in desperate need of an immediate massage. The spa manager, Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), gently informs Tanya that all of the appointments are taken, but Tanya is rich and the wealthy don’t take no for an answer, especially when it comes to self-care. Belinda makes space for Tanya, scheduling her for a cranial sacral massage treatment that Belinda has to administer. Tanya is blown away after the massage and is immediately infatuated with Belinda’s talent. Tanya showers Belinda with tip money, schedules more massages, insists that Belinda dine with her, then later offers to be her angel investor.
Belinda is working-class exhausted. In Episode 2, we immediately see how caring for others weighs down her soul with a simple exit, in slow motion, from an elevator. Belinda’s talents are not fully realized as spa manager, so when Tanya believes in Belinda’s talent, Belinda allows herself to entertain the possibility of actually being able to get the financial investment to create her own vision of a wellness center and make an abundant living doing what she loves, with autonomy. What Black woman doesn’t want that level of freedom?
Tanya is the worst kind of wealthy parasite. Yes, she is going through the actual trauma of mourning the death of her abusive mother, and Tanya is overbearing, always in crisis, and unapologetically tone-deaf, taking up all of the oxygen in the room with her histrionics. Belinda’s empathetic nature allows Tanya to dominate Belinda’s precious time. But Belinda honestly believes Tanya will be her way out of the working class, so she keeps saying yes when she really means no, hoping this white woman will recognize her worth.
As Belinda, Natasha Rothwell’s performance is flawless. Any Black woman who works in the wellness industry can relate to Belinda’s yearning to leave the corporate-industrial wellness machine that The White Lotus represents. In The Cut’s August 2020 article, “Wellness Doesn’t Belong to White Women,” several Black women who work in all facets of the wellness industry, from yoga teachers to diversity inclusion educators, share experiences of being undervalued, overworked, and mistreated. In the article, internationally renowned yoga teacher Sara Clark notes, “I have mostly taught in white spaces. My intention has always been to treat everyone equally in my classes, on my retreats, and at my workshops. Those who practice with me have always been kind and gracious in return. However, the companies and corporations that I have been under contract with have been incredibly harmful. They have utilized me as a product even after claiming that they have brought me on as someone whose work they admire. I have had to fight for the same essentials my white counterparts have access to. For instance, a colleague confirmed that a teacher on the same platform that I was on was able to buy a house with the money [they] earned. My salary was nowhere close to allowing me to buy property, let alone rent a decent apartment in NYC.” Fed up with the white-dominated corporate-wellness industry, Sara Clark moved to Grenada and took her yoga practice online just as the pandemic was beginning, and her business is thriving.
The tragedy of Belinda’s situation is that she’s depending on Tanya’s money to fix her life in an industry focused on a form of unspoken “purity” that centers whiteness. Once the seed of angel investment is planted in Belinda’s mind, she’s laser-focused on Tanya’s money being the only way out.
Belinda’s faith in Tanya as her financial “white savior” sets her heart up to be totally broken by the classic, liberal white woman who makes promises she really doesn’t want to keep. Through the not-often-recognized lens of class, The White Lotus writer/director Mike White (HBO’s Enlightened) has actually written a series about the impact of white dominance, toxic capitalism, and colonization, using the luxury service industry as the perfect setting. Rothwell embodies Belinda’s complexity beautifully, giving us flawless comedic timing with elegant nuance. As Tanya, Jennifer Coolidge is spot on. It’s infuriating to watch Belinda make herself small because she thinks she needs Tanya’s money — given that we instantly love Belinda. She just radiates unconditional love and is a genuinely good person. How much of herself will Belinda have to give up to achieve her dream? Will Belinda be the person who finally snaps? We can’t wait to find out.
The season finale of The White Lotus, directed by Mike White, premiered on HBO Sunday, August 15, at 9 p.m. EST. The entire series is available to stream on HBO Max. The White Lotus has been picked up by HBO for a second season.
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Jeanine is a Writer, Actor, member SAG/AFTRA, AEA, Podcast host, Producer, CEO VisAbleBlackWoman Productions, Certified Health Coach and Conscious Dance facilitator. Jeanine's mission, centering Black women's stories to preserve our legacies.