Media Review: The White Lotus
BY KATARINA QUINN
The second season of The White Lotus, named after the luxurious resort where the show is set, is all about sex—who’s having it, who isn’t, and who they’re doing it with. And where sex and money collide, we often find sex work. Lucía, a young Sicilian sex worker saving up to open her own store, meets an American client staying at the opulent hotel and gains access for herself and her friend (and sometimes duo partner), Mia. Jack, though not explicitly stated to be a sex worker, is shown to have sexual duties to perform for a man who could be his employer, his friend, or even a debtor; the nature of their relationship is left ambiguous, as many in this industry are. Their stories run parallel to those of the wealthy patrons of the hotel, and the season sees several of these characters become Lucía and Mia’s clients for the night.
On the surface, you could argue that that the show is taking a moral stance on sex work, as we see each of these workers lie, scheme, and manipulate their way to their goals. Lucía scams Albie, a young man with a savior complex, out of 50 thousand euros to fund her boutique. Mia trades sex with the sex-starved lesbian manager to get hired as the lounge singer after effectively, albeit accidentally, poisoning the man who previously held the job. Jack uses sex and the idea of a relationship to lie to Portia about his true identity and motives as he becomes an accomplice to murder. It’s not hard to see how the average person might leave with the trope-laden takeaway that we’re all immoral, fallen women, willing to do whatever we have to in order to get what we want. Yet throughout the show we are shown that all the guests are lying and scheming more than just the sex workers viewing sex through a transactional lens, as a means to an end. Lucía and Mia, at least, are clearly no worse than the show’s other characters, and are very transparent in their desires to better their economic circumstances and live out their dreams. In fact, Mia’s unrelenting honesty about what she wants and what she’s willing to do to get it is a breath of fresh air in a show so laden with secrecy.
The key issue with the way sex workers are written in this show is their lack of depth and consistency. Lucía, arguably most representative of sex workers as the full-time provider, is first shown to be so disorganized she lets herself be underpaid by one client, gets caught in another’s room when she’s not supposed to be there, and counts money in the hall outside her client’s room. Then suddenly she’s represented as a seasoned professional, manipulating Albie with ease. While initially it may seem stupid not to tell him he has to pay until after the overnight, it seems unlikely Albie would have agreed if he knew about it beforehand. Rather, she waits until he’s falling for her, putty in her hands, and makes up the threat of a dangerous pimp who will come after her for the money he’s owed. How could Albie say no to that? She even recruits a friend to follow them across the island pretending to be said pimp, giving Albie a visual representation of the danger he’s “saving” her from. So which one is it—is she an indiscreet mess, or a brilliant manipulator? In this instance the show seems to treat Lucía as a concept rather than a fully-formed character, allowing these juxtaposed traits to exist together without showing a hint of the transformation and character growth it would take to go from one to the other.
But what the show got right, in my opinion, is the friendship between Lucía and Mia. Besides a two-line disagreement over how to split a night’s earnings, they’re never competitive; they support each other’s dreams and desires, and never let a client or money come between them. The final shot of the season is the two of them, arm in arm, happily walking down a colorful Sicilian street toward their new lives. In a world that frequently represents sex workers as solitary, miserable creatures in constant competition for clients and money, it’s refreshing to see their comradery and love as they get their happily ever after.
All images are screenshots from White Lotus copywrite of HBO