Striding through the lobby of a fancy hotel always makes me feel like a whore.
There’s a very good reason for this. Most of the time I’ve been afforded access to such places, it was because I was meeting a client there for a professional domination session. And when I say “like a whore,” what I mean is confident, adaptable, self-sufficient, and more than a little reckless, just like Lucia and Mia in Season 2 of The White Lotus.
The thrill of class interloping is one thing creator/writer/director Mike White gets beautifully right in his depiction of upscale escorts. Furtively applying lip gloss in the lounge bathroom. Cruising the bar for marks (i.e. someone susceptible to parting with their money or otherwise being used). Navigating suspicious staff. Charging meals to a client’s room. These are the kind of closely observed details we rarely get when storytellers ignore the subjective experience of sex working characters.
The series’ dramatic engine runs on secrets, lies, suspicion, reveals, and mystery. Now that the final episode of the season has aired, the sex workers have emerged as the story’s triumphant heroes. I was reserving judgment on their characterization as we followed some dubious twists and turns regarding threatening pimps, envelopes of cash, and the blurred lines of emotional labor; but more than anybody else Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò) knew what they wanted from the White Lotus resort and they both got it. Their happy ending is one where they’re not only surviving, but thriving.
The White Lotus‘s binding agents
We meet Sicilian locals Lucia and Mia as they spy on the boatload of impossibly wealthy tourists arriving at the unattainably expensive titular hotel. Industrious Lucia has been corresponding with Dominic (Michael Imperioli), an American film producer on a family vacation, through her online “profile.” It’s never specified which website she uses, although she alludes to getting started in the biz selling foot pics on Instagram. “That’s when I realized I can make a lot of money whenever I want,” she brags.
Lucia and Mia knew what they wanted from the White Lotus resort and they both got it.
At first, Mia is along for the ride with her friend, even taking offence when the hotel bar’s piano player Giuseppe (Federico Scribani) assumes she’s also available for rent. But after a few nights of seeing Lucia in action, Mia comes to understand the value of sexual attention, and the savvy involved in trading it.
These two women become the binding agents for the show’s intersecting storylines, flitting between characters’ beds, popping up in the background in form fitting miniskirts and inconspicuous heels. The sincerity of their friendship is vividly realized: they’re consistently loyal, compassionate, and encouraging of one another’s dreams. Early on, they persuade their client Dom to give them guest status at the hotel, thus gaining immunity from being kicked out of the pool club where they need to sleep off an overnight session of sex and MDMA. (Their relative privilege as young, slender, white, cisgender women certainly helps their flagrant indiscretion; the lack of law enforcement may be the least realistic thing about this show.)
Slouched on a lounge chair staring at the Ionian Sea, Lucia expresses second thoughts about dragging her friend into her “shame.” It’s as if she’s having a premonition about the television audience’s assumption that “all whores are punished in the end.” As in Season 1, we know someone will die, and we know their identity won’t be revealed for another few episodes. But Mia instantly laughs this off, reminding Lucia that her serotonin is just depleted from partying. “Having sex knowing exactly what you are going to get out of it is not so bad,” she grins.
Mia decides to use her newly emboldened sexuality to go after her dream of being a professional musician. Access is more important to her than cash. She knows her talent will get her what she wants as long as her beautiful singing meets the right ears. To this end, she seduces Giuseppe, who has made (probably empty) promises of introducing her to his colleagues. This farcical scenario actually does end with Mia entertaining the guests at the lounge, singing a gorgeously ironic rendition of “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” To secure the gig, she next sets her sights on Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), the repressed and uptight hotel manager. Mia realizes that Valentina is gay, a fact the manager seems to barely admit to herself, and offers to give her a birthday present of hot sex in exchange for a steady job.
Meanwhile, Lucia makes a connection with (performatively) sweet and innocent Albie, who just happens to be Dom’s son. Thus begins a long con to transact even more money out of this wealthy family, as Lucia clocks Albie’s desire to rescue a “wounded bird” from her circumstances.
Credit: Fabio Lovino/HBO
Subverting the sex worker fantasy — and tropes
White Lotus is all about fantasy, and no one understands fantasy better than sex workers. Dom’s father Bert’s (F. Murray Abraham) assumption that there will always be a “homecoming…the embrace of a woman who tells you you’ve done alright.” Dom has his own expectation that he can continue getting away with keeping a smart, respectable wife along with as much pussy as he wants on the side. Cameron’s (Theo James) surrender to Daphne’s (Meghann Fahy) cuckolding power play. Jack (Leo Woodall), another sex worker who was apparently hired to distract Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), also expertly sniffs out his mark’s desires: a hot vacation fling with an assertive European himbo, i.e. the opposite of Albie.
Albie has no idea how to react when Lucia tries to collect her fee the morning after spending the night in his room. He doesn’t refuse to pay, he’s just incredulous that he would have to. Lucia set off my sex work subterfuge radar as she mumbled, “There is a man who will ask me for the money and, uh, he’s crazy.” This is the exact thing you say to a client any time there’s confusion about settling up: “I would totally fuck you for free, but you don’t want to get me in trouble with my violent pimp, do you?!”
Of course, Lucia doesn’t need a pimp. She brokers her own deals — even if she does repeatedly make the novice mistake of not getting the money upfront! Crucially for how the story plays out, the pimp scam props up a fantasy shared by many straight men, whoremongers and otherwise: that a fallen woman’s sins can be redeemed by the love of a good man. If there’s one thing straight men love more than the chance to get dirty, it’s the dream of purifying a woman by possessing her.
For a few episodes, I too fell for Lucia’s con, and was disappointed that the show was veering into such rote territory. Traffickers are absolutely a reality in the lives of many sex workers, including working class prostitutes in a poor region of Italy. But the triangulation of the white knight good guy client, the tainted female victim, and the abusive pimp is extremely played out in fiction, whereas the worker seizing the means of production through online communication is a refreshingly modern characterization. The ability of sex workers to use internet platforms to connect directly with clients can cut out the pressure of needing a controlling man to find clients, take a cut, and dictate her behavior. This is the reason sex worker rights movements have been fighting against American laws like FOSTA-SESTA which compromise workers’ ability to connect not only with clients but each other for safety and power.
Albie’s wounded bird fantasy makes him a classic “Captain Save a Ho.” Sex workers know that — more than a no strings attached blowjob, more than the possibility of meeting an attractive sexually available person on vacation when you’re free from the obligations of everyday life — clients need to believe that they’re special. They want to believe you would like them even if they weren’t paying. They want to believe that they’re as memorable to you as you are to them. And many of them want to believe they can redeem us (which is why one of the mottos of the sex worker labor movement is “Rights Not Rescue!”)
The problem with Albie’s perspective, of course, is the assumption that a whore, or an exotic beautiful girl from a foreign island, would have no agency of her own.
Lucia knows that it’s not only believable but exciting for Albie to imagine she has no agency, that she’s a helpless desperate victim, that she needs him. He’s still smarting from Portia’s unceremonious dumping: you get the sense this “nice guys finish last” humiliation may have befallen him once or twice at Stanford. Like Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan (Will Sharpe), Albie is ostensibly committed to the ethics of consent and honesty; and all three of them are finding that integrity utterly lacking in eros. This is why imagining Lucia as dependent on his help is such an intoxicating prospect for Albie: he believes he can keep his good guy cred while also experiencing the thrill of rescuing a girl and bringing her home with him, like a child whining to his parents, “Can I keep it?!” And that’s exactly what he does: convince his dad to give Lucia fifty thousand euros.
The problem with Albie’s perspective, of course, is the assumption that a whore, or an exotic beautiful girl from a foreign island, would have no agency of her own. And that’s the brilliance of Lucia’s con: she leverages Albie’s fantasy of her helplessness to help herself.
“She played me,” Albie sighs to Portia as the season comes to a close; another way of saying he got his daddy to pay a premium rate for several nights of high quality companionship, and that Lucia earned every cent.
Ultimately, White Lotus made me smile by dramatizing the most honest and lasting relationships in the sex industry: friendships between people at work. It was evocative of the fellow sex workers I’ve been with in hotels we could never otherwise afford, clutching manicured hands, keeping each other safe, reveling in the power of our dazzling glamour and our knowledge of what we could gain from it. The show made me long for more entertainment where sex workers are not just window dressing, or foils for more “respectable” women, or flat objects of desire. I hope the popularity of this season translates to sex workers themselves being employed to create more fully realized characters with inner lives, complex relationships to their work, and a special talent to decipher the sexual mysteries that confound us all.