Image sources: HBO and illustration by Aly Lim
“White Lotus” creator Mike White has a knack for pissing people off. The first season of the HBO series, which aired last year and focused on the privileged (and mostly white) guests of the five-star resort in Hawaii and the more diverse staff who served them, sparked heated debates online about the classism, imperialism, and the physics of suitcase defecation. The second season, which airs its finale on December 11, offers viewers another anxiety-inducing stay at the luxurious hotel – this time located in the Italian town of Taormina, Sicily – and the chance to hang out with a sliding scale of licensed vacationers played by the likes of Aubrey Plaza, Michael Imperioli and Jennifer Coolidge, reprising her role as Tanya McQuoid, the likeable or insufferable socialite, depending on the day.
That’s the thing with “The White Lotus”: we love watching them, even if we find something to hate about each character. This one percenter’s gleeful condemnation on social media could be chalked up to good old-fashioned schadenfreude, but there are several psychological explanations why we love to hate “White Lotus” characters.
Clinical psychologist and YouTuber (and ‘White Lotus’ fan) Dr. Ali Mattu thinks ‘White Lotus’ viewers — as well as other shows like “Succession”, another good series about most “bad” people – form intense imaginary bonds, called parasocial relationships, with these characters.
“It’s a one-sided relationship, but it feels very real to us,” says Mattu. “The more you identify with a character, the more powerful that relationship can be.”
They are neither heroes nor villains, but fall somewhere in between, like most humans.
In recent years, the term parasocial relationship has become shorthand for a fandom’s toxic bond with a celebrity. Most notably, it was used to explain the intense criticism comedian John Mulaney received after divorcing his wife of nearly seven years, Anne Marie Tendler. But not all parasocial relationships are negative. They can be a psychologically healthy way for someone to build community.
As Mattu explains, “It’s much easier to talk to someone about Tanya [on ‘White Lotus’] and all she has to do is talk about the Tanyas we have in our own lives.” And that’s especially true for people trying to find a connection after years of pandemic isolation.
This need for connection can cause people to form strong attachments to characters who are objectively horrible, but whose horror seems relatable. They might even see the character as a kindred spirit, another complicated figure who deserves forgiveness for his mistakes, no matter how small. They see themselves in these dubious characters and feel compelled to protect them. Where it can get tricky is when that love for one character leads to intense hatred for another. The viewer can have “a certain sense of justice” if a character they are rooting against gets their reward, says Mattu: “It might seem like proof that money doesn’t solve everything. That even if these characters are in this beautiful place, their problems continue to torment them.”
But he cautions that the more you learn about each character, the harder it is to take pleasure in their misery. “You might realize you have more in common with them than you thought,” he says. “You might actually realize you sympathize with the character” you once thought you despised.
Even so, hating these problematic characters can help boost our egos, says psychologist Dr. Hayley Roberts, who co-hosts the “Pop Psyche 101” mental health podcast with licensed clinical social worker Ryan Engelstad. “You find these things that you don’t really like about that person,” Roberts says. “And you’re like, ‘Well, maybe I’m not that glamorous, but at least I’m not like that. I’m not as bad as that person!'”
Sharing our feelings about these characters on social media also allows us to create distance between us and their perceived problematic behavior. The fan “can choose a side and can explain why they think that person was right or wrong,” she says. “It almost gives them a sense of control over their own thoughts and feelings about what’s going on on the show, but also over their own lives.”
“The White Lotus” encourages viewers to play not only armchair psychologist, but also armchair detective. This season, like its predecessor, is a murder mystery, which begins with the revelation that several guests have died while staying at the Italian resort town. From this point on, every character is victim or suspect, but White does his best to keep viewers on their toes, writing frustratingly complex and flawed humans who are so rich they can’t remember if they’ve voted or not in a recent election. . (Honestly, it’s hard not to admire and be absolutely horrified by Daphne’s laissez-faire attitude, played by Meghann Fahy, towards extramarital affairs and reading the news.)
They are neither heroes nor villains, but fall somewhere in between, like most humans, which makes for a difficult mystery to solve. “We try so hard not to be judgmental, but the truth is, it’s a natural part of being human,” says Hannah Espinoza, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) and co-host of the “Popcorn Psychology” podcast, which delves into the psychology of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. While we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, Espinoza says “part of survival is to compare, and to compare is to judge.”
Espinoza, who is based in Illinois, says that in the Midwest “there’s no way to tell someone you don’t like them. You’re just going to be friends with them on Facebook until that you are both dead”. and no one will ever say why you’re mad at each other.” Being honest about how much you hate a character is cathartic, but it can also encourage you to trust your instincts about people in your own life.
Expressing your distaste for the “White Lotus” characters online could lead to more meaningful conversations about the show’s big themes, including toxic masculinity. “The patriarchy really fucks up about gossip, and because of that, we don’t really recognize the social benefits of gossip,” says Espinoza’s “Popcorn Psychology” co-host Brittney Brownfield.. “It’s community building, and for women, it can be used to protect themselves and others.” That’s why Brownfield, an LCPC specializing in advising individuals and children, believes the investment brother Cameron (Theo James) has garnered such a negative reaction from viewers.
“I feel like a lot of women have met someone like him who is very slippery,” she says. “He always does little things to push the envelope which could also be explained as having no bad intentions.” It’s clear that her actions have serious consequences for Harper (Plaza) and her husband, Ethan (Will Sharpe), who ignored her earlier concerns about Cam’s boundary-pushing behavior.
Ultimately, the benefit of tweeting about fictional people rather than real people is that “there’s no real risk,” says Brownfield. “It’s a safer way to make a statement. You don’t call directly somebody outside, but you always call Something his “Popcorn Psychology” co-host Ben Stover, an LCPC specializing in trauma work, says viewers who find themselves tweeting hate through “The White Lotus” should take the time to unpack what’s on their minds. disturbs and why.
“We never know what’s going to open what I like to call ‘a box of monsters in your head,'” he says. “All behavior has a purpose, so if you’re stuck on it in a certain way, there’s a meaning to it. Don’t ignore it.”
Image source: HBO and illustration by Aly Lim