Portia is just a young woman trying to figure out what she wants, and yet many fans of The White Lotus can’t seem to cut her a break.
Played by Haley Lu Richardson, Portia is among the new faces to grace HBO’s comedy-drama The White Lotus for its second season. This time around, the story takes place in a luxury all-inclusive resort on the picturesque coast of Sicily. Portia, who comes to the resort fresh out of community college, finds her way to the high-end locale because she’s assistant to multimillionaire Tanya McQuoid, played by a smoky-voiced 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 ripping female characters to shreds, especially when they don’t have it all figured out. And it’s a symptom of the fan tendency to evaluate whether a character is “good” or “annoying” — rather than considering how she fits into the story.
The criticisms started with Portia’s outfits. Fans gawked at her fashion taste; her outfits ranged from tomboyish looks that paired looser-fitting cargo pants with a bucket hat, to more classic Y2K fashion. One of the most referenced offenses was a zebra-print bikini and rainbow knit bolero top. Fans online wore exaggerated versions of her outfits, calling them “Portia-core,” and dragged her for her lack of taste. One comedy account even joked that the costume designer, Alex Bovaird — a tenured costume designer who has worked on award-winning films like Nope and The Perks of Being a Wallflower — should be demoted for Portia’s outfits.
And the criticism didn’t stop at her fashion sense. One popular TikTok uses an audio clip that says, “And now I want to sit back and relax and enjoy my evening, when all of a sudden I hear this agitating, grating voice.” As the voice says “agitating,” the video clip focuses on Portia. Additionally, fans scrutinized Portia’s romantic choices, like her decision to make out with a guy who has a neck tattoo, instead of picking the standard nice guy who went to Stanford, Albie Di Grasso.
Fans are ultimately criticizing Portia’s lack of wealth and ability to socialize with the elite class. Her outfits? Not luxe enough. Her taste in men? Trashy. Her demeanor? Not cool and collected.
But this misses the point. Portia is a community college grad who is young and being thrown into a level of luxury that most normal people won’t ever experience in their lifetimes. It makes sense she doesn’t look as good as the other characters — like a super-rich stay-at-home wife, or the wealthy and sharp-witted attorney played by Aubrey Plaza. In an interview with Variety, Bovaird said that Portia’s costume was intended to convey a character who is still figuring herself out, and who didn’t have as much money as the other characters. “She’s young, she doesn’t really know who she is, and she’s trying on different ideas. Sometimes she dresses more dainty, 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 seem more interested in theorizing, dragging characters, or shipping Portia with Albie than engaging with the story or character craft.
This mistakes personal distaste for a character for the idea that her character is poorly written, and focuses on questions like 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 space might make this particular story intriguing.
Of course, maybe Portia simply doesn’t land with young viewers in a way that feels true to their experiences. Haley Lu Richardson imbues Portia with a sort of flightiness that lends an unsettled feeling to her scenes. This is especially true when she talks about what she wants out of a relationship when on a date with Albie. While holding a pristine glass of white wine, she says she wants to have “fun.” She goes on, “I’m sick of fucking TikTok and — and Bumble, and just… screens and apps and sitting there bingeing Netflix. And I just… I just wanna like, live.”
In scenes like this, she comes across as confused and uncomfortable. Portia, like the rest of the guests at the White Lotus resort, feels just a bit off, and to be honest, extremely cringey. The conversations shared between the guests act as social satire, presenting their own form of horror outside a death that happens at the hotel. And Portia is no exception to that. She’s a jerk just like every other hotel guest. When she talks 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, awful people. Everyone is “agitating” and “grating” in their own way. Are we really going to ignore the two giga-chads who act like college frat boys on screen, the pervy grandpa, or God forbid, the cheating father trying to win his wife back? Season 2 gives us a veritable smorgasbord of horrible men, and yet TikTok seems to be dwelling on Portia’s fashion sense and taste in men during her fling in Italy.
For those who fixate on Portia’s shortcomings, I fear this show is less a way to gawk 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 ogle at the beautiful lives of rich people, and Portia interrupts that.