Daphne Sullivan’s Sunnily Subversive Hedonism is Best Described by Midcentury Writer Rebecca West
Julia Cooke on the Lauded Character’s Imaginary Vengeance in The White Lotus
Meghann Fahy’s performance as the “deceptively layered” peppy housewife Daphne Sullivan in season two of The White Lotus has been widely lauded. The character’s marriage to cheating finance bro Cameron (Theo James) is oddly functional, one article noted, despite their mutual duplicity. Her worldview appears “perversely powerful” as she tunnel-visions her way to contentment, another opined. Her “stoic chipperness” fascinates. She navigates betrayal and disappointment with “slightly mercenary wisdom.” “Big Daphne Energy” has become a meme. She can’t remember if she voted or not, but her blithe smile tells us she doesn’t much care either way.
Daphne and Cameron are the characters that White Lotus fans polled most want to return for season three. So fresh, viewers seem to marvel, Daphne’s determination to “do whatever you have to do not to feel like a victim,” as she put it. In reality, not so new: the writer who best explained the dynamic behind Daphne’s sunnily subversive hedonism did so in 1941. Whatever else Daphne and Cameron are, they are the modern-day personification of British midcentury writer Rebecca West’s worldview of gender.
The female defect, West wrote, is idiocy, stemming from the Greek word idios, private person. “Intent on their private lives, women follow their fate through a darkness deep as that cast by malformed cells in the brain,” she wrote in her 1941 opus Black Lamb & Grey Falcon. For their part, men, West thought, suffer from lunacy, “so obsessed by public affairs that they see the world as by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature.”
Setting aside the gender essentialism—and understanding that West wrote as much about what society valued in women and men as what she considered to be their natures—West’s maxim, in the present-day of reality TV and nouveau-riche ostentation, materializes into Daphne and Cameron. Daphne seeks private ways of asserting her own independence as Cameron jockeys for dominance with blunt, childish determination.
Throughout The White Lotus’s second season, writer-director Mike White pits Daphne and Cameron against the couple they invited on vacation, Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan (Will Sharpe). Whose brand of nouveau-riche toxicity is worse: Harper and Ethan, who agree on how an individual should interact with the world around them but can’t seem to find any pleasure in each other, or Daphne and Cameron, for whom the world around them exists only to fuel their own indulgences?West’s maxim, in the present-day of reality TV and nouveau-riche ostentation, materializes into Daphne and Cameron.
Honestly, West probably wouldn’t have liked Harper much, either. After youthful engagement in suffragist and socialist circles, West developed an arch skepticism—born, some critics say, of getting rich herself—of people who claimed too ardent a faith in the power of unilateral political movements. By the time she wrote Black Lamb & Grey Falcon, as she approached 50, she didn’t trust promises of sweeping social change.
West was for pleasure. Imagination and rebellion, not a dry sense of duty, brought about social change, she thought. And in a certain light, Daphne Sullivan reflects a collective fever dream of shifting tides. Maybe, beneath each Instagram-perfect rich housewife exterior, a woman subtly exacts revenge on a mediocre man. Cameron and Daphne offer a silent warning: if you are the kind of man so dismissive of women that you cannot even pay your sex workers until they threaten you with exposure, you may stand on such unsteady ground that even your own children are not yours. She’s wreaking havoc on the patriarchy, articles gush. But to vaunt women’s retreat from public life as the cost of this imaginary vengeance (Daphne doesn’t vote, read the news, or cite interests beyond her children, shopping, and sleeping with her trainer) is to accept the antiquated binary of dour feminist and warm, exuberant handmaiden of the patriarchy.
In life, West shattered this binary. She perplexed people—H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf among them—with apparent contradictions. Anyone could tell she was brilliant. West spoke her mind, earned her own money, pinged among novels, criticism, journalism, whatever she wanted, really. She also loved designer gowns, took her husband’s name, and sent her era’s version of cliché family Christmas cards. “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is,” she once said. “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute.”
West wrote her opus in a milieu uncomfortably similar to the context in which White writes The White Lotus today. Populist and nationalist movements surge around the world. A very few enjoy economic ascendance amid widespread refugee crises. International order is threatened by a faraway land war. Women continue to struggle to live autonomous lives. And now it’s winter and Europe faces an energy crisis.
In The White Lotus’s Sicily, it’s summer, awash in sensuality: wine glasses reflect distorted sand behind leggy liquid, the sun warms bare shoulders and gold lamé. In an interview, Fahy described her character offering “lightness” to the people around her. She remembered White describing Daphne as “sunshine.”
Sure. But from another perspective, Daphne’s get-your-own, “Zen mommy” existence is the heaviest manipulation on a show replete with mind games and facades. She represents a deeply cynical insistence on clinging to the private insularity that money can offer.
West liked her Rolls-Royce, yes, and her big estate, but she also took in Yugoslavian refugees during WWII and wrote in clear-eyed prose about the costs of colonialism, economic disempowerment, and structural misogyny. The true subject of Black Lamb & Grey Falcon might really be human duality, our essential unknowability—which is also the subject of Fahy’s gorgeously performed final monologue in the season finale. “You don’t have to know everything to love someone,” Daphne says with sincere intelligence. And yet her commitment to “lightness” leads only to her own pleasure. The fact that we elevate Daphne to icon status says something much darker about the moment we’re in.