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OPINION

Opinion: Hollywood Loves to Kill Rich People On Screen

(From left to right) Aubrey Plaza, Will Sharpe, Theo James, and Meghann Fahy in The White Lotus. Courtesy of HBO. 

Last fall, on the night before Halloween, people from all walks of life gathered around screens to watch a new band of wealthy characters arrive on the shore of a fictional, Sicilian luxurious hotel and resort in the season two premiere of Mike White’s “The White Lotus.” 

Walking off the boat, with hotel staff ready to greet them, are newlyweds Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan (Will Sharpe); married couple Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy); three generations of Italian-American men, Dominic (Michael Imperioli), Albie (Adam DiMarco), and Bert Di Grasso (F. Murray Abraham) along with billionaire heiress, Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) and her miserable, yet awkward assistant, Portia (Haley Lu Richardson). 

Upon arrival, it becomes clear that everyone on the boat–that is not surviving on an assistant’s salary–can afford the plane tickets and ferry transportation that close the distance between their privileged lives in America and a week-long excursion in Italy. For instance, Cameron works in finance, and Tanya has stayed with The White Lotus for so many nights she is now considered a member of the exclusive “Blossom Circle.” Though Ethan and Harper just recently came into a life of abundance (when Ethan sold his company for a tremendous, undisclosed amount of money), they, along with the audience, realize the insatiable desire for the glamor that comes with added zeros in the bank account.

Like the first season, season two of the HBO Max Original dramedy opened with the revelation that one of these guests has died. Throughout seven episodes, viewers watch and squirm with anticipation until the identity of the pale body floating in the water is revealed during the season finale.

Ralph Fienss (middle) in “The Menu.” Photo courtesy of Eric Zachanowich

In the past few months, similar stories have come out of Hollywood, including “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” written and directed by Rian Johnson, and “The Menu,” directed by Mark Mylod and written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy. Both films follow the tale of a group of mostly wealthy people who travel for an exclusive, posh experience; with death looming silently over their heads. Usually, there is at least one character who is clearly out of place (and, perhaps, tax bracket) with the rest. 

“Glass Onion,” “The Menu,” and “The White Lotus,” all of which have been extremely popular with American audiences, are recent and evolved iterations of the “yuppies-in-peril” trope. Popular during the 1980s and 1990s, these films were usually thrillers and typically followed a well-off, white couple or bachelor/bachelorette, whose life (tied to their class status) is in jeopardy due to a careless affair or greed. No matter the cause, you will find the protagonists in these movies are always running away from something.

The emergence of “yuppies”–young, urban professionals–sparked a trend to see this sub-group of society reflected on the big screen. Expensive labels and apartments often characterized a “yuppie”; as fiscally conservative, but socially liberal; and as someone who works too much but is very rich. Examples of these films include “Dead Calm” starring Nikole Kidman, “Fatal Attraction” starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, and “Obsessed” starring Idris Elba and Beyoncé.  

In an episode of the British news program, “Reporting London,” journalist, Lindsay Charlton, walked the streets of London to cover the activity and public perception of “yuppies.” Airing a week after Black Monday, the great 1987 global stock market crash that devastated about half of the world’s paper wealth, Charlton presumed that life for the yuppie would “seem as fragile as a glass superstructure.” Yet, he found members of this upwardly mobile group popping bottles of champagne on their lunch breaks from the stock exchange. 

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As one man in the clip describes, “it’s a derogatory sense of flaunting wealth” that allows people with money to run away from the world and be blind to its injustices. They can afford it. 

In a scene from the season two premiere of “The White Lotus,” the two married couples are sitting at a table and enjoying some wine when Harper admits she has trouble sleeping. Cameron (probably the “yuppiest” of all the characters) asks why, and his wife suggests it may be work. Harper nods, inhales sharply, and turns to her husband, saying, “Yeah, but also just…I don’t know. Everything that’s going on in the world.” Daphne, confused, replies: “What do you mean? What’s going on?”

There is no mistake that these pieces of culture are coming out as the world recovers from a deadly global pandemic that forced working-class people to go either online, or on the front lines if they wanted to keep their jobs. There is no mistake that these stories are making a resurgence after the end of an administration led by a president who instilled distrust in American news. For the “yuppie-in-peril,” ignorance is bliss. They would rather focus on the prize, the perfect ideals, and the pictures, than look at anything else. Or, perhaps, not before it’s too late.

Copy edited Alana Matthew 

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