In this op-ed, writer Alex Portée unpacks Olivia and Paula’s friendship in The White Lotus, and how interracial friendships are portrayed onscreen. Some spoilers ahead.
In the fourth episode of HBO’s The White Lotus, college best friends Olivia (played by Sydney Sweeney) and Paula (Brittany O’Grady) attempt to have a discussion about the ever-growing privilege and racism Olivia’s family is displaying while on vacation in Hawaii. “I’m sorry my family is defective. But I’m not like them,” Olivia says, eyes wide. “I’m your friend.” Paula’s response is to reassure Olivia with a small, accepting smile — and to keep a careful eye on her, even when Olivia turns away.
It’s a moment that defines their dynamic. On the surface, Olivia comes across as an ally. She reads up on Nietzsche’s cultural criticism, balks at her family’s homophobia, and calls out her mother for her part in fraying the social fabric. Yet, in reality, she’s manipulating Paula at every turn. She says she’s not like her family, not like the rich, white hotel guests who waltz around the resort as if they own it, but she never reflects on how the colonial legacy of the setting she’s brought Paula to is affecting their friendship — and how her own actions threaten to tear it apart. During an episode early on, Olivia assures Paula that she won’t steal any potential love interests out from underneath her, with the implication she’s done so before. Still, as soon as she realizes she’s losing the grip she holds on Paula because of a guy, Olivia’s response is to approach her friend’s crush, Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), and attempt to seduce him.
Her actions here feel different than ignorance or even a lack of interest in her friend — Olivia is clearly smart, determined, and at least somewhat invested, like with her eagle-eyed focus on hunting down Paula’s stolen ketamine. Instead, her part of the relationship is all about power, as well Olivia’s fixation on having the stamp of approval from her friend of color. Olivia constantly searches Paula’s ever-present bored expression for assurance that her weariness isn’t about her. Olivia expresses a hunger for Paula to somehow intuit that, despite never stepping up to prove otherwise, she isn’t like the other problematic white people that surround them. She wants Paula to put her in the category of a “good” friend. This element of seeking assurance despite being part of the issue is what’s so often at the heart of problematic interracial friendships, both real ones and what we see onscreen. In these situations, POC are put in the position of being asked to alleviate their non-POC friends’ insecurities about coming across as racist. They’re not even aware that their concerns should likely lie in whether their friend actually thinks they are racist.
In White Lotus, Olivia’s behavior instantly draws a clear line that sets Paula on the side of an interracial female friendship where she is in the position of having to allay her friend’s insecurities. Authors Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman describe this experience in their book Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close as stretching. “When it comes to interracial friendships that involve a white person,” they explain, “it’s likely that the nonwhite friend is going to feel more negatively stretched, while the white friend gets to have a ‘learning experience.’”
As the one being stretched thin, Paula understands that while racial issues will always be at play in some aspect of their dynamic, Olivia (for all of her interests in reading) will only understand this when Paula brings it to her attention. Olivia’s attempts at allyship occur in the instances when inequality conveniently sits across from her at the dinner table. She is not, in her interracial female friendship with Paula, a good friend. Those who put in effort do more than just challenge their parents with eye-rolls and skim the first few pages of philosophical texts. They do their own homework. Good friends in an interracial friendship work at trying to understand how race affects their confidants and the people in their communities. They understand that to be a true friend to a person of color means not using them as a social justice cheatsheet.
If you’re a person of color who has ever been friends with a white person, you’ll likely recognize these painful moments as being plucked from real-life disappointments of your own. The White Lotus isn’t the only recent movie or show to address the inherent stakes and power dynamics in interracial friendships. In the movie Zola, the friendship between the two female leads leaves the titular character frustrated. Stefani (Riley Keough) assumes that her kiddie-pool-level knowledge of Black women makes her entitled to Zola’s affections, even as she engages in cultural appropriation and tosses around racially-loaded language without blinking. Ultimately, Stefani fails Zola in a number of vital interactions, while also showing very little concern for Zola’s safety, comfort, and wellbeing. In almost all of these situations, the unacknowledged racial imbalances in their friendship are catalysts for conflict.
In one significant scene, Zola listens to Stefani rant about a woman whose hair she describes as “nappy” and whose character she sums up as “ghetto ass.” It’s evident by the look on her face in this scene that Zola realizes that in having a friend who is comfortable using such language, something is dead wrong. Film critic Wesley Morris would call a moment like this a “trapdoor of racism,” that wariness that comes with knowing your non-POC friend will at some point fail to understand the racism you undoubtedly endure. Zola’s realization leads to an inflection point that allows her to understand that Stefani is the type of white person who exploits her friendship with people of color.
Even in movies like Cruella, where racial dynamics go completely unacknowledged, these friendship imbalances are deeply felt. “Ignore them,” Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) advises Cruella (Emma Stone) when two boys at school make fun of her appearance. It’s easy to see why Anita might be well-versed in how to handle bullies in a school where she stands out (after all, we don’t see many Black students moving past her in the halls of her private English school). But where Anita is keen to tackle the boys with an approach that won’t provoke further bullying, Cruella acts with the truly reckless abandon that her white privilege affords her. There’s no trapdoor here, but it soon becomes clear their friendship is based on Cruella overlooking Anita’s experience while also seeing her as something to use (a “prop,” as Paula puts it to Olivia in White Lotus) for her own benefit. “So you go to parties, and you take pictures, and you print gossip? That’s your job?” Cruella asks Anita about her career as a journalist with a smug grin later in the film. “Yes, well. Not as fun as it sounds,” Anita replies, indicating that this might be a sore point, that she has dreams of bigger things. “Oh. It doesn’t sound fun,” Cruella purrs, not waiting for even a beat to express concern for her friend’s disillusionment. "It sounds useful.”
While Anita never gets a chance to confront Cruella or express her frustrations, Zola and Paula do — and the way those concerns are received says it all. "No shade. No shame… But that is not what you told me I was coming up here to do,” Zola explains, never once becoming aggressive or threatening. Still, Stefani responds with tears. Even though it’s Zola who should be weeping after being tricked into a sex scheme by her new friend, she asks, “Are you going to hit me?” Her question works to immediately manipulate Zola’s response.
In the season finale of The White Lotus, Paula and Olivia’s friendship comes to a head. Paula is grappling with the guilt she feels over persuading Kai, a native Hawaiian who works at the hotel, to steal from Olivia’s family’s safe as a way to take back what his people are owed after having their land stolen and colonized. But the plan backfires, and now Kai will likely face the legal repercussions of being charged with theft. Olivia puts the pieces together and lectures Paula for her part in the burglary. “Something bad could have happened,” she says. Paula, defeated by her friend’s limited understanding of the situation, reminds her that she’s wrong: “Something bad did happen.” When Olivia tries to assure Paula once again that she’s not like her parents, Paula asserts that she’s actually exactly like her parents — she’s just as unwilling to relinquish power and luxurious oblivion. “You think you’re like this rebel but in the end, this is your tribe,” Paula tells Olivia to which Olivia responds by calling her manipulative. When Paula replies by telling Olivia to “stop pretending” to be her friend and declares, “I’m just some prop you use for some weird cred,” Olivia turns on the waterworks.
By the season finale, we’re left unsure of where Paula and Olivia will end up. In some ways, their ending can be seen as hopeful. In bed together, where a majority of their interactions have taken place, Paula cries as Olivia holds her; at the airport, they sit side by side, reading books on decolonization and otherness. A closer look at their dynamic, however, reads as less optimistic. Sure, Olivia is shaken when Paula calls her out for “pretending” to be a friend to her. But after this we never see Olivia make space for Paula to express the words and feelings that got them to such a point.
Paula deserves for Olivia to be the one to do the stretching, to be assured that she will do better by her friend by taking the effortful steps to change. Olivia should be her best ally. In rolling over to squeeze Paula while in bed, we see that she still has the urge to maintain her tight grip.
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