White Lotus fans keep making fun of Portia, but they’re missing the point
Portia is just a young woman trying to figure out what she wants, and yet many are fans of The white lotus can’t seem to give her a break.
Played by Haley Lu Richardson, Portia is among the new faces gracing HBO’s comedy-drama The white lotus for its second season. This time the story takes place in a luxury all-inclusive resort on the picturesque coast of Sicily. Portia, who arrives at the resort fresh out of community college, finds her way to the exclusive room because she is the assistant of multimillionaire Tanya McQuoid, played by a smoky voice and unpredictable Jennifer Coolidge. As a normal, non-rich person, Portia’s character contrasts with the lavish guests around her, and yet many fans online have criticized the character for her fashion taste, personality, and even romantic decisions. It’s all part of a long and tired tradition of fans tearing apart female characters, especially when they don’t have it all figured out. And it’s a symptom of the fan’s tendency to judge whether a character is “good” or “annoying” — rather than considering how she fits into the story.
The criticism started with Portia’s outfits. Fans looked at her fashion taste; her outfits ranged from tomboyish looks that combined looser cargo pants with a bucket hat to more classic Y2K fashion. One of the most talked about offenses was a zebra print bikini and a rainbow knit bolero top. Fans online wore exaggerated versions of her outfits, calling them “Portia core,” and pulled her for her lack of taste. One comedy report even joked that costume designer Alex Bovaird – a tenured costume designer who has worked on award-winning films such as Nix and The benefits of being a wallflower — must be degraded for Portia’s outfits.
And the criticism didn’t stop at her fashion sense. A popular one TikTok uses an audio clip that says, “And now I’m going to sit back and relax and enjoy my evening when all of a sudden I hear this arousing, rubbing voice.” As the voice says “agitating”, the video clip focuses on Portia. Additionally, fans scrutinized Portia’s romantic choices, such as her decision to break up with one guy who has a neck tattooinstead choosing the regular nice guy who went to Stanford, Albie Di Grasso.
Fans ultimately criticize Portia’s lack of wealth and ability to socialize with the elite class. Her clothes? Not luxury enough. Her taste in men? Trashy. Her behavior? Not cool and collected.
But this misses the point. Portia is a college student who is young and thrust into a level of luxury that most normal people will never experience in their lives. It makes sense that she’s not as good looking as the other characters – like the super-rich stay-at-home wife or the wealthy and shrewd lawyer played by Aubrey Plaza. In a interview with Variety, Bovaird said that Portia’s costume was meant to convey a character still figuring herself out, who did not have as much money as the other characters. “She’s young, she doesn’t really know who she is, and she’s trying different ideas. Sometimes she dresses fancier and sometimes she dresses like a boy,” Bovaird said.
But online fan discussion isn’t centered on basic questions about her motivations as a character or how her character fits into the story. Instead, fans work more interested in theorizingdraw signs or shipping Portia with Albie than engaging with the story or character craft.
This confuses personal dislike of a character with the idea that her character is poorly written, and focuses on issues such as Do I personally like Portia’s sense of style? and Would I personally be friends with Portia? instead of asking why Portia is the way she is and why her character might dress the way she does or act the way she does. Or how her general presence as the only non-rich person in this elite room can make this particular story exciting.
Of course, Portia simply doesn’t resonate with young viewers in a way that feels true to their experiences. Haley Lu Richardson imbues Portia with a kind of flightiness that lends an uneasy feel to her scenes. This is especially true when she talks about what she wants out of a relationship when she’s on a date with Albie. Holding a pristine glass of white wine, she says she wants to have “fun.” She continues: “I’m tired of cursing TikTok and – and Bumble and just… screens and apps and sitting there bingeing on Netflix. And I… I just want to live.”
In scenes like this, she comes across as confused and uncomfortable. Portia, like the rest of the guests at the White Lotus resort, just feels a bit off, and to be honest, extremely creepy. The conversations between the guests act as social satire, presenting their own kind of horror outside of a death that happens in the hotel. And Portia is no exception to that. She is a fool like all other hotel guests. When talking to Tanya about why she likes Albie, she says, “He’s nice and smart. He went to Stanford, and he’s not nonbinary.” What is unique to her is the bar people hold her character to.
The white lotus is a show about horrible, horrible people. Everyone “agitates” and “shakes” in their own way. Are we really going to ignore the two giga-chads acting like college frat boys on screen, the shrewd grandpa, or God forbid, the cheating dad trying to win his wife back? Season 2 gives us a veritable smorgasbord of horrible men, and yet TikTok seems to dwell on Portia’s fashion sense and taste in men as she travels to Italy.
For those who fixate on Portia’s shortcomings, I fear this show is less a way to stare at the absolute self-centered nature of the super-rich, and more like something aspirational. Despite how effectively the show satirizes the ultra-elite, there are many of us who would love to live lavishly and go to Sicily. It’s a mystery with a possible accidental death or murder where we get to look at the beautiful lives of rich people, and that interrupts Portia.