Hulu’s Harlots, which is currently streaming, tackles the thorny, complicated issues of sex work, sexism, and consent during an era in which it was difficult for women to have any agency, and it manages to do so without making any of its characters into ciphers or stereotypes. Instead, these are fully realized women trying to carve out a future within a male-dominated world that doesn’t see them as valuable. The women of Harlots comprise every kind of ability, background, and body type, and they’re all struggling to survive a dismal lot in life using the best—and generally only—avenue open to them. Sometimes they are successful. Sometimes they are not. And sometimes they end up in a worse place than they were when they started. The show is refreshingly honest about that. Happy endings are probably for a different kind of story.
So if you’re looking for another Downton Abbey, then Harlots is perhaps not for you. Much closer to Peaky Blinders in style, the series is risky, brave, bawdy, and occasionally ridiculous, but it tells a story that is painfully, heartbreakingly grounded in reality, in a way that dramas set in the Highclere Castles of the world do not.
Harlots aims to tell the story of the oldest profession, only told through the perspective of the actual women who lived and worked it. On the surface, it’s a show about sex. All the women engage in it, and talk about it, and surround their lives with it. But in truth, this is a show about power, about female ambition, and the ways in which women risk themselves in order to survive. The sex itself is treated as something mundane—it’s a fact of life for these women. It’s what’s going on in the background. For us, as viewers, it’s merely a frame for the rest of their messy and all-too-human lives.
The series follows the story of two rival brothels in 18th century London. The two houses—one bawdy, one posh—cater to vastly different clienteles and are run by two very different. One is Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), a down-to-earth social climber seeking to move herself and her house up in the world. Her eldest daughter is already a successful courtesan, having been raised to the profession from childhood. And in the series’ first episode, we witness Margaret auction off her youngest daughter’s virginity to the highest bidder. While Lucy (Eloise Smyth) doesn’t exactly seem thrilled about the prospect, it’s still something she’s been taught her whole life to expect, because that personal event, like almost everything else, is at first a transaction.
Across town is snooty madam Lydia Quigly (Lesley Manville), Margaret’s detested rival and the proprietor of a much more high-end establishment. Lydia, who lacks the maternal warmth of Margaret, attempts to give her girls an edge by providing them with an education and lessons in deportment. Quigley’s house caters to a much richer and more influential clientele, and she would doubtless argue that her girls are more accomplished. But her establishment has rigid rules and the girls are little more than sexual indentured servants, paying off never-ending debts of expensive dresses and schooling. This may be an industry full of and run by women, but that isn’t the same thing as a sisterhood.
In fact, it is a truth universally acknowledged in Harlots that life for women during this time period was difficult. They were incredibly vulnerable, with little to no economic power of their own. Women were generally viewed as a man’s property—whether a daughter or a wife, you belonged almost completely to someone else. The only power most of these women had was sexual power, and so many of them used it, in the only way they could. After all, it was the only path to any sort of independence available to them.
As the opening crawl in Harlots’ first episode points out, one in five women in London worked in the sex trade. But, as much as it seems like a life of harlotry meant freedom, it didn’t—not entirely. These women had their own power, of a sort, but it was incredibly limited and still largely dependent on men. Margaret’s eldest daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is an extremely successful courtesan, has her future entirely tied to the whims of the foppish aristocrat who literally wants her to sign her life away to him. So, yes, she enjoys a lot of the trappings of an elevated life –nice clothes, a posh residence, money and a certain degree of notoriety—but she still doesn’t have much in the way of real freedom. Is that enough? Is the ability to get your gambling debts paid worth the role you have to play for the men who pays them? And in Charlotte’s case, specifically, is being “The Queen of Pretend” worth losing yourself in the process?
These are the kinds of issues that Harlots explores. It digs into the hows and whys and dollar signs behind a life in the sex trade, rather than the act of sex itself. It is true that would have been no escaping sex in a place like London during this time, thanks to soldiers and tourists and a booming business trade. But the sex shown here is never used to titillate, nor is it meant to invoke a value judgment on any of the women involved. Instead, they’re all depicted as complicated and complex, a layered portrayal due almost entirely to the fact that Harlots is completely helmed by women.
It’s so easy to imagine what this show might have looked like If it had been directed by a man. Just look at Game of Thrones, which featured throwaway scenes full of gratuitous nudity set in Littlefinger’s Kings Landing brothel, for no reason other than it was a sex house. What Harlots does that feels so revolutionary is to make sure that its focus on sex never feels exploitative. Rather, it’s illuminating, and serves to tell us something new about these women, the lives they lead, and the choices they make.
Yes, these women often face difficulty and bad choices—but they still have some choices. (A choice among bad options is still a choice, after all.) They do have some degree of power, even if it’s not necessarily available to them in the type or degree that they might wish, and their lives are not hopeless. No matter their situation, they still embrace their own ambitions and their dreams for a better world, and that’s the kind of story that works in any era.
Lacy Baugher is a digital strategist and writer living in Washington, D.C., who’s still hoping that the TARDIS will show up at her door eventually. A fan of complicated comic book villains, British period dramas and whatever Jessica Lange happens to be doing today, her work has been featured on The Baltimore Sun, Bitch Flicks, Culturess, The Tracking Board and more. She livetweets way too many things on Twitter, and is always looking for new friends to yell about Game of Thrones with.
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