Discovering Masculinity in a Woke World

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Nobody has any sympathy for them right now and I just feel we should.” Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton) is referring to straight white men as she pleads with her daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and Olivia’s friend, Paula (Brittany O’Grady) to be kind to Olivia’s sixteen-year-old brother, Quinn (Fred Hechinger). Nicole is the CFO of a tech company and is spending a week with her family at the White Lotus, a posh Hawaiian resort and the title of Mike White’s six-part HBO series. Season one of The White Lotus was hot this past summer and anticipation for season two is heating up as details about it are announced. And for good reason. White throws bright sunlight on the dark mores of America’s elite.

In between Zoom calls and email, Nicole brings her deftness, resourcefulness, and overall hyper-competency to managing her family. When she notices that Quinn is withdrawn and stuck in his virtual world, Nicole asks Olivia and Paula to include Quinn in their fun. Olivia isn’t hearing it: “Mom. Cringe.” As sophomores at a presumably elite college, Olivia and Paula have learned that white men have long enjoyed a central position in society’s power structure at the expense of other marginalized groups. It is time to decenter masculinity. Adhering to this explanation of social and political life results in seeing individual human beings as abstractions and often in binary terms of oppressor and oppressed. White males hardly need or deserve sympathy and Olivia’s brother is no exception. Nicole is undeterred by the young women’s eye-rolling and tells them that she understands why Quinn would feel “alienated from the culture.” Paula sarcastically assures her friend’s mother, “I think he’s going to be okay, Nicole.”

Woke Culture

Cultural critics cringe along with Olivia. Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic says the show is “about rich people rotting in their own toxic privilege.” By the series’s end, it seems that Gilbert is right to claim that “the curse of the privileged is that they would rather be miserable than lose even a tiny fraction of the things they’ve been given.” Vox’s Emily Van Der Werff laments “Nothing changes . . . That’s the point.” Well, almost nothing. Cultural critics have overlooked the series’ stinging critique of the gender politics exercised by the two young women and The White Lotus’s subtle reflection on masculinity. As the Mossbachers’ plot unfolds, we watch Quinn’s masculinity move from the periphery to the center. It is transformed from a virtual, debased, largely solitary, fake masculinity to a traditional notion of manliness rooted in the friendship forged by undertaking a shared endeavor.

The Mossbachers’ vacation begins with Nicole compulsively cleaning up the “common space” of their suite. Olivia and Paula have taken it over. This scene introduces viewers to the power and the arrogance that young women exercise over an older generation of feminists and men of their own. When asked about the inspiration for Olivia and Paula, White said,

. . . young girls are kind of a good vehicle to explore that [“wokeness”], because it has this sense of trendiness and lingo and hip speak mixed with this idea of who’s cool and who’s not cool and has very little to with—they have very little skin in the game. That’s the essence of what I find disturbing about some of the stuff on the left. Does this have anything to with making life better for anyone, or is this just a game? Is this just about making you feel superior?

The young women’s theories contrast to Nicole’s “lean-in” style feminism. Nicole takes nothing for granted in her efforts to “have it all”—the elusive promise that second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 70s made to their daughters, who, like Nicole, are taking their place in prominent corporate positions while trying to adhere to their convictions and to raise a family. Nicole’s seemingly manic compulsion to keep order in the “common space” is a manifestation of her generation’s belief that men and women could live together comfortably once equality had been achieved. Nicole’s efforts are met with exasperation from the younger women. Olivia and Paula refuse to take up their part in caring for the “common space.”

On the contrary, the young women have no interest in sharing a space with men. They exile Quinn to the small galley kitchen. Their explicit reason is their fear that Quinn will watch Paula while he masturbates. Nicole must simultaneously dismiss the idea, and assure Paula that she has a beautiful body. The young women don’t see Quinn as sexually aggressive, just distasteful. And they aren’t wrong. Quinn hardly seems to notice that he has been “marginalized” because he is so consumed by what’s streaming on his devices: violent physical destruction in video games and meaningless sex in pornography—masculinity that lacks purpose and connection. When it becomes impossible to sleep in the airless kitchen, Quinn decamps to the beach. The sight of a whale swimming off the shore awakens Quinn to the wonder of the sea. As he falls asleep, the devices, which provide pleasure and an escape from an alienating culture, fall from his hands and are destroyed. The masculinity that technology was offering to Quinn will eventually be washed away by the sea.

Failed Fatherhood

Quinn has had little help negotiating manhood from his father, Mark (Steve Zahn). His wife’s professional success and salary are emasculating to Mark. When the Mossbachers arrive in Hawaii, Mark is distracted by fear of testicular cancer. While awaiting the test results, Mark learns that his father, who passed away years ago, died of AIDS. Mark is stunned by the revelation and begins to question what is “real.” Quinn wonders why his grandfather would have had sex with men. Olivia, who is much more sophisticated, blurts out, “Because he liked it. Why else?” She and Paula then rattle off a variety of sexual possibilities. For the younger, cooler, and presumptuously savvier generation, sexual desire need not be directed toward any other end but one’s own particular pleasure. Nonetheless, Mark cannot help feeling bewildered because his father “chose his sex life over his family.”

Not wanting to lose an opportunity to develop deeper bonds with his own son, Mark suggests that he and Quinn try scuba diving while in Hawaii. First, father and son must get certified, which entails three days of lessons in the hotel pool. It also entails Mark’s bungling attempts to be “really real” with his son. The conversations between father and son in the pool are as awkward as the scuba equipment they wear.

Mark inappropriately reveals to Quinn that he had an extramarital affair. Mark ruminates out loud, explaining to Quinn that men hope to be “superheroes and respectable fathers,” but they are really only “fucking monkeys.” In a misguided effort to be a superhero and to make up for his infidelity, Mark bought —“with my own money”—$75,000 bracelets for Nicole. Despite his clumsy attempts to help his son become a good man, Mark does impart an important lesson to Quinn: “There’s the monkey and the man. Somehow you have to be man enough to face down the monkey.” Manhood requires that men’s base instincts, such as the assertion of physical strength and sex, be sublimated to something greater than oneself.

The Postcolonial Natives

Meanwhile, viewers, along with Mark and Nicole, learn that the young women have been studying colonialism. Colonialism, as postcolonial theory instructs us, is the political and economic system that allowed white Europeans to exploit the people of color and the earth’s natural resources during the 18th and 19th centuries. Colonialism established the disparity of power and wealth that persists into the 21st century and is on full display at the White Lotus. Mark politely comments that colonialism is a “big topic.” He reminds us of Edmund Burke’s insight regarding the French: “metaphysical abstractions” are dangerous. Indeed, Paula proves this insight to be true during her stay at the White Lotus. She is one of the few guests who is a person of color and the “critical thinking” skills that she has honed at college quickly lead her to generalize the relationship between the vacationers and the staff as oppressors and oppressed.

It is not long before she becomes intimate with a young Hawaiian man, Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano) and learns that Kai’s family had once owned the land where the resort is located. It was confiscated by the government in order to be developed. When Kai asks Paula about her friendship with Olivia, Paula describes her personal relationship in the same terms as a postcolonial theorist would describe the political dynamics of colonialism. “She’s my friend as long as she has more of everything than I do. If I have something of my own, she wants it.” Paula may as well be describing the relationship between Kai’s family and the real estate developers who built the White Lotus. Friendship would seem impossible with such exploitative undercurrents between people.

Quinn also forms relationships with Hawaiian men. Not only does Quinn’s relationships with the native islanders provide a happy alternative to Paula’s relationship to Kai, but it also introduces Quinn to a different type of masculinity which fosters affection, purpose, and pride in the young man “alienated from the culture”—that is the culture of the mostly white elite. The morning after the waves carry Quinn’s devices into the ocean, the tide brings an outrigger canoe of several muscular Hawaiian men onto the shore. Unlike Quinn’s virtual masculinity, the manliness of the Hawaiian men does not put them at odds with nature or each other. By using their strength and by working together, they are able to direct their boat in the powerful sea. They jump out of the canoe, fist bump, and share a meal—no doubt recounting the morning’s adventure. Quinn is curious and begins talking with the men. He is hesitant to join the men because he lacks their physical strength. But, after some good-natured ribbing—they tell Quinn, “We could use the dead weight; it will make us stronger”—Quinn takes a place in the canoe and learns to paddle in unison with the men. By the end of the week, the men encourage Quinn to join them, saying “we need you.”

Quinn and Paula are the only guests at the White Lotus who have any significant engagement with the native Hawaiians, but their relationships are strikingly different. Paula takes little interest in Kai’s cultural traditions or his future aspirations. She sees him only as an example of the oppressed that she has studied. Although Kai asks Paula to stay with him, she tells him that she has her own life to lead. She matter-of-factly tells Kai, “I have college and a life to get back to. I doubt we’ll ever see each other again.” Paula, like the white guests, is unwilling to give up her “own toxic privilege.”

The vacationers soon learn that the “metaphysical abstractions” of gender and postcolonial theories can be denigrating and destructive. Nicole is understandably upset that Mark has told Quinn about their marital troubles. Mark tries to articulate why he told Quinn something so personal. Mark regretfully concludes that he “can’t give him [Quinn] reasons to respect me as a man,” but, he figures, “If I am just honest about my failures, he’ll respect me for that.” This is the version of masculinity that gender theorists insist that white men practice. Men must acknowledge their privilege and the toxic ways in which men have exercised it historically. This type of apology is meant to redeem a person from the sins of his race and gender and is a plea to be spared any further condemnation. Mike White knows the importance of speaking in just the right manner to avoid social or even professional censure. “If you voice things in a certain way it can really have negative repercussions for you, and people can presume that you could be a racist, or you could be seen as misogynist.” However, the acknowledgments of one’s faults or voicing things in a certain way doesn’t involve men doing anything. After spending time with his son, Mark realizes that this cant is no substitute for doing something worthy of respect.

Recentering Masculinity

Mark soon gets the opportunity to give his family “reasons to respect [him]as a man.” Knowing that Kai needs money to seek legal redress for the loss of his family’s land, Paula encourages Kai to steal Nicole’s $75,000 bracelets and provides him access to the Mossbachers’ safe. Kai is reluctant, telling Paula, “I don’t steal.” Paula relies on logic informed by postcolonial theory to justify the crime. “They stole all this from you.” Kai hesitates. “It’s different. It’s different people.” Paula insists, “They are all the same people.” Paula can only see human beings in a “binary.” Later, when Nicole returns to their suite alone, she finds Kai stealing her jewelry. Mark arrives just a few minutes later and tackles the burglar, protecting his wife. Mark’s act of manliness restores the Mossbachers’ affection for one another. Nicole calls Mark a “superman in a scuba suit, my hero.” Quinn says Mark is a “bad ass” and even Olivia cannot help but admire her father. But Kai is caught by the police and will presumably spend time in jail for the crime that Paula orchestrated. White seems to offer an answer to his questions about whether “some of the stuff on the left” has “anything to do with making life better.” The abstract, academic theory turns out to be just another luxury of the elite that destroys the lives of those less privileged.

If Paula is unwilling to sacrifice the privileges she enjoys, Quinn is. He would happily give up his wealth and his family’s social stature in order to do something worthy of respect. As the Mossbachers’ vacation comes to an end, Quinn announces he intends to stay in Hawaii. “The guys need a sixth for their crossing [they plan to paddle from the big island to Kauai]. In the spring we’re all gonna do a Hokolai through Polynesia.” Although Quinn is on the verge of manhood, Mark and Nicole dismiss the idea arguing that Quinn is too young. They are sure that he will feel differently when he gets home and gets his new phone. But the elite culture, which has left Quinn feeling alienated and lost in a virtual reality, is as stifling as the galley kitchen to which Quinn had been exiled by the college women. Quinn pleads with Mark and Nicole, “Everything sucks at home. It’s all dead. I want to live.” Quinn has found something “real” among the native Hawaiian men.

Making the crossing provides “reasons to respect [Quinn] as a man.” More importantly, it provides the occasion for friendship among equals—something that Paula could not imagine with either Olivia or Kai. The men are mutually dependent on one another to accomplish their deed. Race and wealth do not matter in the outrigger canoe. The strength that each man contributes to their shared endeavor is the basis of their friendship. Quinn is man enough to face down the monkey and use his strength for something greater than himself. As the Mossbachers board the airplane home, Quinn slips Nicole’s controlling gaze and returns to his new friends. The last scene of season one is the Hawaiian men and Quinn paddling in harmony with one another into the vast, beautiful sea. “Recentering” masculinity not only ennobled the life of a young man, but it also fostered the friendship of people who had been understood in simple, binary terms. Paula was right about one thing: Quinn is “going to be okay.”

Reprinted from Law & Liberty