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Lifestyle comment

The White Lotus pool scene is making everyone uncomfortable – and for good reason

Olivia and Paula’s brutal undressing of Rachel on The White Lotus has become the pop-cultural talking point of the moment because it speaks to how impossible beauty standards can impact even the most plugged-in, says Hollie Richardson

Thursday 26 August 2021 17:48
<p>Olivia and Paula in The White Lotus</p>

Olivia and Paula in The White Lotus

As a Millennial, I increasingly find myself in awe of Gen Z. Crusaders of the climate crisis, commanders in the fight for representation, TikTokers with zero time for skinny jeans or side partings. But their self-assuredness and suffer-no-fools personas also make them, well, quite terrifying.

That’s why I had to hide behind my hands and try to calm my nerves while watching HBO’s latest hit, The White Lotus – in particular, the show’s two Gen Z stars, Sydney Sweeny (who plays Olivia) and Brittany O’Grady (who plays Paula).

For anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, the series follows the unfolding of a disastrous holiday at a luxury Hawaiian resort, the eponymous White Lotus hotel, unpicking the dynamics between staff and guests. It’s a whip smart and very funny examination of privilege and race, that comments on class divides while simultaneously sending up the double standards surrounding these discussions, all told through a raft of deliciously written characters you’d hate to meet but, naturally, love to watch.

Olivia is one such guest who is on holiday with her incredibly wealthy family and has brought along her college frenemy, Paula. They are Gen Z poster girls: appearing to read Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud by the pool, correcting Olivia’s parents’ unwoke comments, wearing Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark T-shirts and smuggling secret stashes of ketamine and prescription pills. They roll their eyes at everybody, remain blasé in heated situations and always speak their minds. These are Mean Girls who believe they have morals, depth and a rounded view of the world, while displaying they have none.

There are a lot of online discussions about Olivia and Paula right now (the New York Times has even called them the “scariest girls on TV”), with one killer scene in particular having left people feeling pretty uncomfortable.

While the friends sit by the pool reading their philosophy books and turning the pages in unison, fellow resort guest Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) sits down next to them and strikes up conversation. Probing Rachel about her financial status and career, they’re clearly not impressed by her education, job and marriage. They see her as an uncultured ‘trophy wife’ with none of her own personal wealth. When Rachel continues to be friendly and tries to ask more questions about them, Olivia and Paula stop answering and end up completely ignoring her before bursting into visible laughter.

Despite being a grown woman with a career and a relationship, in talking with the two teenagers, Rachel is left feeling humiliated and intimidated – who wouldn’t after that brutal interaction? But when she takes off her ‘cheugy’ outfit and stands up in her bikini, revealing her slim, generically ‘hot’ body, she finally gets the girls’ attention. “Oh shit,” Olivia gasps, finally impressed as she and Paula watch Rachel saunter to the pool.

It exposes how, even those so aware and passionate about equality, can boil matters down to aesthetics. The male gaze is still overcoming the progressions they so confidently champion, working through them as they judge this woman with the eyes that they too would call out for judging them.

It’s surprising to see these two characters – ones we imagine have read every feminist book by Roxanne Gay, Margaret Atwood and Gloria Steinem out there (they’ve certainly read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, as it appears among their library in the hotel room) – place such clear kudos on impossible beauty standards.

Is this generation, that is so hungry to save the world and finally achieve equality, also chained to outdated Western body ideals? Did having a ‘hot bod’ suddenly make Rachel a person of interest for them? Does it validate the perennial fear that, ultimately, we still place the most value on a woman’s looks in 2021?

Earlier in the same episode, Olivia skulks away from her mum after she complimented Paula’s body, just one in a series of hints that there is a lot more to Olivia and Paula’s story than it may at first appear. As Paula starts to address how she feels about being a woman of colour on a largely white and wealthy resort, she starts to question the fact that Olivia is part of the privilege problem she is also so vocally against – and this causes their friendship to dramatically unravel.

But this key scene sent shivers down the spine of many a viewer because we’ve all been there – judged for superficial standards that speak to shallow patriarchal ideals rather than any worthier values. And, as terrifying as these two characters are, it’s a reminder that we still have a responsibility to help change the narrative around judging a woman on her body, whichever generation we are part of.

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