The following statement was issued by Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) on Sept. 2.
Critics have praised HBO’s satire “The White Lotus” for its scintillating storyline that skewers rich, white vacationers at a Hawaiian resort for their wealth, privilege and exploitation of others. But creator Mike White fails to realize his own dismissive attitude towards the majority of the people who actually live there — Asian/Pacific Islanders (APIs).
Not a single one of them is part of the main series cast.
Instead, it consists of white actors plus two black/biracial actors, all set in a location where APIs make up more than 60% of the population and blacks only 3%. White said he wanted to include a diversity of viewpoints in “White Lotus.” But the six-episode miniseries (which recently concluded), prominently set at a Maui resort, is a hollow attempt at promoting its anti-racist message when actions speak louder than words.
The location was chosen for its beauty as well as Mike White’s emotional connection to the state. Given Hawaii’s painful history of suffering at the hands of colonialism and racism, not featuring API characters more prominently in a show addressing this very subject feels like an added injury to an already hemorrhaging wound.
Only two members of the hotel staff are APIs with speaking lines. Lani (Jolene Purdy) appears only in the first episode and is then never seen again. Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), the Hawaiian love interest of Paula (Brittany O’Grady), the biracial black tourist, does not speak until the fourth and fifth episodes. He also just disappears, even when something significant happens to him in the sixth and last installment of the miniseries, (Instead, the viewer is simply told what transpired,)
White uses two black women to make points about the racism of the white tourists whereas using more APIs would have been more appropriate and instructive.
Belinda, Paula, or even Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) could have been cast as APIs, which would have allowed the creator to delve even more deeply into how race and privilege affects different ethnic groups, especially APIs.
Self-absorbed hotel guest Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) falsely builds up the hopes of Belinda, a massage therapist. Tanya praises Belinda’s skills and encourages her to quit her job at the hotel to start her own business, which Tanya will fund. But when Tanya finds a new boyfriend, she reneges on her promises, leaving Belinda behind in tears. If Belinda was played by an API, this betrayal could have been tied to empty promises early white settlers historically made to Hawaii’s people, a theme very briefly touched upon through the Kai/Paula relationship.
Rich and spoiled white man Shane (Jake Lacy) wants his newlywed Rachel to abandon her budding career as a journalist to just be his trophy wife. If Rachel had been an API, even more issues could have been explored, like Shane, his mother (Molly Shannon) and their friends holding stereotypical assumptions and racist beliefs about the bride.
If Paula was an API from the mainland, initially unaware of Hawaii’s history, she could’ve learned forgotten parts of her own heritage from Kai about how whites unlawfully took over Hawaii, leading many of the local native people to now have to serve and dance for tourists in order to survive.
Unfortunately, “White Lotus” follows a common pattern of Hollywood producers using Hawaii for its exotic backdrops but failing to adequately utilize the very people who live there to tell their own stories (e.g., CBS’ current “Love Island,” NBC’s “Hawaii,” Fox’s “North Shore,” “Baywatch Hawaii” and movies “Aloha,” “The Descendants,” “50 First Dates,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Blue Crush” and “Pearl Harbor”).
“We appreciate that Mike White tried to make viewers sensitive to the way Native Hawaiians were impacted by colonialism and unfair treatment by the government,” says MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki, who was born and raised in Hawaii. “But our insulting exclusion from this project screamed just as loudly as the Hawaiian music soundtrack that blared between scenes.”
“In interviews, Mike questioned if he, as a white man, had the right to tell the story of Native Hawaiians. Why then did he not hire Asian/Pacific Islander writers who could’ve done a better job of it than he? That also could’ve led to casting more APIs in significant roles.”
MANAA hopes that Mike White will have a more inclusive mindset as he writes and casts the second season of “The White Lotus” (which will be set in another locale) and also as he and HBO continue to create other new series, especially those involving ethnic communities.
MANAA, the only organization solely dedicated to advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans, was founded in 1992. It led nationwide protests against the film “Rising Sun” in 1993 and challenged Sarah Silverman’s use of “Chinks” in her joke on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” in 2001. Between 1999 and 2019, as part of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, MANAA met annually with the top four television networks pushing for more inclusion of APIs. In 2015, it also promoted that vision with talent agencies ICM Partners, WME, Paradigm, and CAA.