This is a subscriber-only edition of Humans Being, a newsletter that unearths deeper meanings in pop culture.
When I was in grad school, I worked part-time for a wealthy family. I tutored in their Manhattan home, a beautiful place on the Upper East Side. They also owned a weekend home at the tip of Long Island. They often invited me to fancy events. They gave me free passes to practically every museum in the city. I was welcome to their refrigerator during the 15 hours a week that I worked there. And I was grateful, not only for their kindness, but because I was completely poor. My monthly food budget was something like $100 at the time, and I survived by eating pasta every day at home and discreetly eating a ton of free food at theirs. When their housekeeper visited each week, I wondered if she did the same.
The housekeeper would bring her elementary-school-aged daughter to her shifts, and I would play with the daughter while having conversations with her mom. I can’t remember what we talked about, only that it was never about the family that we worked for. I don’t know if we were afraid of hidden cameras, or worried that someone would overhear, or if we just felt more appreciative than resentful of their wealth, but our conversations ignored that we were two poor people of color working as The Help for rich white people.
But we did have a look. We shared the look whenever we noticed something that seemed especially rich and white, raising our eyebrows with a smirk and a shrug. Money strewn about on the floor? Gesture, smirk, and shrug. A $15 price sticker on a four-ounce container of pistachios? Gesture, smirk, and shrug. The look asked, “Who lives like this?” and “Do they have any idea how wild that is?” It said, “Rich people live on another planet.” Who spends $15 on four ounces of pistachios?
I spent much of my life as a poor Black kid surrounded by rich white people, and I often wonder about their sense of reality. The allure of lifestyle porn in TV and movies is that it offers insight into how rich people live and think, and allows me the fantasy of knowing what it’s like—but feeling confident that I still have my working-class grip on how the world works for most people. You may not be surprised that I love The White Lotus.
The primary theme of HBO’s hit drama, which collected 10 Emmys earlier this year, is that rich people are deeply unhappy despite their privilege, and that they will search for solutions to their misery in paradisiacal vacation resorts. My favorite motif of the show, though, is that most people who are accustomed to wealth lack even a shred of self-awareness, and those who do see through the existential misery still choose the delusion. The realization that people can still be unhappy in paradise is too much for the characters to bear, and as a result, the wealthy people escape to another reality.