Whereas guilt refers to punishment for wrongdoing, for violation of some sort of rule or internal law, shame is about some quality of the self. Guilt implies action, while shame implies that some quality of the self has been brought into question.
DL Nathanson, ‘A timetable for shame’
The mid-season finale of HBO’s recent revival of Gossip Girl (2021) ends with a love triangle unironically staged in the middle of a protest for a housing crisis. Obie (Eli Brown) is a wealthy teenager with a penthouse apartment and some mother issues. Rebuked by his girlfriend and ex-girlfriend for not standing up for himself in front of his family – the usual suspects: an aloof CEO-mother and Rupert Murdoch-stand in grandfather – he makes the choice to attend a protest against them. Obie’s character-defining decision to stand up against a toxic family-run business conglomerate is a reaction to feeling ashamed of his past behaviour.
Shame is the experience of being ‘witnessed in one’s failure’, Sara Ahmed writes in her 2004 essay ‘Shame Before Others’. As a result, it offers the shamed individual the chance to ‘reintegrate … in their moment of failure to live up to a social ideal.’ Obie is given just such an opportunity; to absolve himself of personal shame and so re-join the social group he values. Yet his actions – which are, in effect, an attempt to shame his family – elide his own, potentially shameful, complicity in benefiting from their injustices. When he kisses his ex-girlfriend in a back alley hidden from the police who are attacking protesters (I promise I’m not making this up), one wonders if he’ll return to the penthouse apartment they bought for him.
It is telling that a revival of Gossip Girl stages an individual experience of shame-induced self-development against the backdrop of a public shaming (‘You People Are Evil’, one protest sign reads). Shame has a powerful capacity to promote self-development, the show seems to say.
But, as Sara Ahmed asks, ‘What does it mean to claim identity through shame?’ This question is at the heart of HBO’s continuing investment in shows like Gossip Girl – what Marina Fang describes as ‘Shows About Rich White People Problems’. Mike White’s recent series, The White Lotus is the latest addition to this sub-genre that treats shame as one such problem.
Similar to Big Little Lies (2017), Succession (2018 -), The Undoing (2020), and Gossip Girl, The White Lotus (2021) follows a group of wealthy, mostly white, people, this time as they holiday at the luxurious five-star hotel, The White Lotus. Its characters, writer Mike White tells us in a recent interview with The New York Times, ‘live in a bubble of money’. The show emphasises the fragility implied by this image – a threat that the ‘bubble’ might burst at any moment that the show’s characters feel as shame. ‘They’re so defensive’, White continues in his interview, ‘the culture has them on their heels.’
‘People have been coming for me my whole life’, newlywed Shane (Jake Lacy) complains in Episode 3 after a long day by the hotel pool. ‘I’m just playing the hand I was delt’, he continues. ‘Like yeh, it’s a great hand, but that’s not my fault’. Shane, a white man from a wealthy family, feels that he is being shamed for his privilege, and seeks to absolve himself of it. His defensiveness is shared by many of the guests, all of whom attempt to absolve themselves from a perception that their wealth is shameful. These attempts are central to the way Mike White gets his characters to perform their entitlement.
When Olivia Mossbacher (Sydney Sweeney), a college student on holiday with her family, declares that the entertainment at the previous night’s three-course dinner—a tokenistic performance presented as traditionally Hawaiian—was ‘disturbing’, her father (Steve Zahn), responds with exaggerated defensiveness. ‘How are we going to make it right?’ he asks between mouthfuls of a seasonal fruit bowl. ‘Should we give away all our money? … Maybe we should just feel shitty about ourselves all the time, for the crimes of the past.’
It is striking, and perhaps all-too familiar, to note the way Zahn’s character perceives a personal attack in a critique which is only obliquely about him. How can he be held personally responsible for the inequality faced by Hawaii’s entire indigenous population? The question is too vast, and the answer is too easy—he can’t. It is the straw man argument of the privileged, wheeled out in response to the perception that one is being shamed in order to disguise the very real ways in which one is actually guilty.
In a recent interview for La Repubblica, Hilary Mantel revisited the now infamous publication of ‘A Letter on Justice and Public Debate’ in Harpers last year. Signed by hundreds of authors and public figures, the letter criticised ‘an intolerance of opposing views’ and ‘vogue for public shaming’ in contemporary online discourse. For Mantel, it offered a response to the ‘the self-righteous, stifling, fear-ridden climate of cancel culture.’ The irony of the letter, quickly pointed out on social media, was that those who had signed it were unlikely to find their influence compromised by instances of public shaming and online ostracism. In fact, the letter was testament to the narrative of ‘being shamed’ that those with power often draw upon, and monetise, when they need to. to. It overstates shame to embolden, and even give a moral dimension to, its critique.
Brooke Obie’s review of The White Lotus for Refinery29 sees a similarity between this misguided emphasis on shame and the backlash against Critical Race Theory being ‘taught in schools’. The possibility of being shamed—‘of making white children feel bad about the legacy of white supremacy’—is used to galvanise opposition against it. Ultimately, this diverts the conversation away from the issue of white supremacy to an overstated sense of individual shame that enables the desire, on the part of the shamed, to do nothing.
The dedication to alleviating these feelings instead of reflecting on the reasons for them is key to the satire of The White Lotus. The problem, for Mark Mossbacher, is not the fetishisation of Hawaii’s indigenous culture for the benefit of tourists, but rather the shame he feels in being asked to acknowledge it. By overstating his personal culpability through comedic hyperbole, he avoids considering the role he plays in perpetuating inequality, and so removes the question of taking action in response to it. These are the ‘lotus-eaters’—privileged people who feast on shame with the kind of spectacle that justifies their apathy and inaction.
Viewers are asked to participate in this process. These characters should be ashamed, we are encouraged to think. Or rather, they should be shamed. The show’s satire offers a complementary catharsis to this impulse, and its mysterious death—of which we are made aware at the beginning of the first episode—toys with this catharsis, offering the promise of a gruesome form of restorative justice. The possibility that shame might translate into real consequences for at least one of the guests becomes increasingly attractive as the series progresses.
In the final twist, however, this promised resolution is denied. Speaking to Vulture’s Kathryn Van Arendonk, Mike White responded to the criticism of the ending, as well as the fact that the show was written by a single white man, by saying: ‘I think the gatekeepers need to be shamed into allowing more people to have access to the resources to tell the stories they want to tell.’ Shame is a practice available to us, he implies, to make the kinds of changes that the characters in his show reveal we need.
But shame is not guilt, no matter how intertwined they become in White’s treatment. Shame does not, as DL Nathanson writes, necessitate action, or actionable consequence. We can absolve ourselves of shame. In The White Lotus, this pursuit of absolution becomes a form of self-actualisation. Shame affirms these characters—both in how they respond to it, and how they attempt to elicit it in others. But this is an ability reserved to them precisely because of their circumstances. Privilege, we learn by the show’s end, offers a limitless supply of tools through which to both invoke shame and resolve it.