Well, this was quite the ride, if you’ll pardon the double entendre, and you probably should if you plan to watch Harlots because it is chockablock with campy asides and indecent rejoinders. The show, which was created, written, and directed by women (and you can feel that in every fiber of its being), weaves together historical facts, soapy intrigue, and intricate plot-lines to tell the stories of 18th-Century London prostitutes from a feminist perspective.
The series begins with the stark fact that in the mid-1700s one in five women in London made a living selling sex. (I will spare you the conversation my husband and I had about the accuracy of this statistic or how it was determined, but know that he’s preparing to teach a course called Bullshitology and absolutely no statistic in our house goes unchallenged. But, for the purposes of this post, and the show in general, what matters is that A LOT of women made a living selling sex in the 18th century in London. A LOT. And he’d definitely want you to know that he didn’t disagree with that at all; he just wanted to understand the why of it all, which, fair enough.) Anyway, more interesting to me is the choice of words. Not selling their bodies, not prostituting themselves. Just selling sex. Sex is the commodity that the women are selling. So you already know the perspective is going to be different from that of other shows. And I like it.
Harlots definitely isn’t saying that sex work in the 1700s was all teacups and roses, and maybe that’s another way it’s different from other depictions. You won’t find a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold story here, just women, shown with humanity, trying to scrape out a living and scrabbling for an independent foothold in a society determined to strip them—through laws and violence and religion—of any kind of power. The female characters are nuanced and complex. Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) is a brothel keeper (or “bawd” in the lingo of the time) in lower class Covent Garden, but she has aspirations of moving her shop to a tonier neighborhood where she can attract a higher class (and higher paying) clientele. As a bawd, Margaret no longer has sex with the “culls,” but manages the house, collects the payments, and keeps the women she employs fed, sheltered, and clothed. Her rival bawd, who runs a very upscale brothel, is Lydia Quigley (Leslie Manville), who plucked Margaret and her good friend Nancy Birch (Kate Fleetwood) from the gutter when they were only about ten and put them to work servicing men. Lydia is ruthless in her determination to have power. She keeps women who work for her locked inside, buries them under debt, and allows them to be abused by culls. In order to keep favor with a group of powerful men who call themselves the Spartans, she kidnaps young girls and offers them up for rape—or worse. She is villainous, devious, and hateful, but she’s also conflicted, pathetic, and complicated. And, I should add that Margaret is not without her own complications. She has plans to auction off her fifteen-year-old daughter Lucy’s (Eloise Smyth) virginity to the highest bidder. It’s not just a ploy to earn her money but it is, she believes, a way to protect her daughter and hopefully make her into someone’s courtesan. (This is also true to history. Virgins were considered worth more, in no small part because of the lower risk of venereal diseases, and women often sold their “virginity” multiple times.) This is what she did for her older daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is now considered among the most sought after prostitutes and is mistress to a rotten buffoon of a wealthy man who (of course) also controls his wife’s fortune, which he uses to maintain Charlotte’s lifestyle. (I don’t think I’ve mentioned it explicitly yet in this post, but the patriarchy really sucks.) Early on, Margaret urges Charlotte, who desperately wants to maintain her freedom, to sign a contract that will officially make her the man’s mistress. “Men don’t respect whores,” she says, “they respect property.” But she also shows great disdain for marriage, saying “And see a man own everything she owns? I wouldn’t wish marriage on a dog.”
From the women lowest in the pecking order, those who find customers in taverns and have sex in alleys, to Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam (Liv Tyler), a woman trapped by her controlling and vile brother, to Harriet Lennox (Pippa Bennett-Warner), a slave from America who turns to sex work after her white partner dies without signing her and their childrens’ freedom papers to the puritanical mother and daughter who prosthelytize outside brothels, the characters are diverse, complex, and interesting. (My personal favorite is Nancy, Margaret’s friend, who dresses in masculine clothing, whose cheekbones could cut glass, who carries a wooden whip at all times, and who works as an independent dominatrix.)
While Lydia is sometimes grotesque in her abuse, the true villians, of course, are the white men who make the laws around prostitution (and then openly flout them), who control the money, and who routinely see women as disposable commodities. If you’re thinking, Well, not all men, then first, please do go away, and second, of course not, but still: Go the fuck away! There are obviously men who are allies of the brothels. Margaret’s partner, William North (Danny Sapani), for example, is the only man she’s never charged for sex, and he serves as a father-figure to Lucy and Charlotte, and provides friendship and loyalty to many others. I may have a crush on him.
Over three seasons, the story moves at a breakneck speed and, with plotlines criss-crossing and everyone almost constantly on the brink of ruin (or death), there is almost never time to catch your breath. I found it sometimes dizzying (but, while watching parts of it, I was being infused with a variety of drugs to try to break a particularly nasty cycle of migraine attacks, so that may have contributed to my dizziness). The whole series is equal parts difficult to watch when women are beaten down (figuratively and literally) and deeply satisfying when they manage to succeed, despite the odds and on their own terms.
The costumes—bright colors, intricate patterns, swishing skirts, and powdered wigs—are amazing (especially when contrasted against the fetid London streets) and add depth to the characters and stories. I could have spent hours just taking screen-shots of them. The clothes are used to depict status, class, profession, and personality. (I watched an interview with one of the costume designers where he explained that, because they could afford to have more clothing, upper class people often wore lighter colors. And how they made Charlotte’s skirts slightly shorter to show her independence. I want more of this information.) Through corsets (and possibly witchcraft), almost all the women’s breasts are yoinked up into perfect mounds that impressed me and made me fear greatly for the well-being of their nipples, which must have been nearly garrotted by the decolletages of the dresses. Honestly, you could (and I don’t mean this at all in a lusty, ogling way) watch for the hoisted breasts and the clothes alone.
As you’d expect from a show about prostitution, there is a lot of sex depicted (and a lot talked about as well). In the first few minutes alone, you see several people having sex, but how it’s shown is different from what I’m used to seeing (and from what I’ve read, if you’ve watched something like Game of Thrones, you’re going to be even more gobsmacked). First, more often than not it’s the hoist-up-the-skirt variety of schtupping, so there isn’t even always nudity. According to the show’s creators, this is also historically accurate because it was often too cold in 18th century London to strip naked, which—as a woman who nearly cried the other day when I was momentarily naked (in my fully heated house) to change from pajamas to clothes—is a decision I fully respect. (Also, just imagine having to strip out of all that 18th-century clothing, with the corsets and the buttons and floof, for just a few minutes of action. It would take forever. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.) But, when people are naked, the woman is almost invariably on top, the man passive and flaccid (well, theoretically not all of him, one presumes) underneath her. And speaking of flaccid, never in my life have I watched a series that showed so many pale, flaccid male buttocks flapping so grotesquely in the throws of ecstasy. Trust me, these are no glamour shots, my friends.
But more often during sex scenes the camera focuses on the women’s faces—feigning rapture, slack with boredom, pinched with distraction, or, heartbreakingly, contorted in pain and disgust. Afterwards women are often shown with one foot on a chair, skirt pulled up, scrubbing away the man. It’s practical and completely un-erotic and a small moment that says a lot about the series as a whole. This show is about sex for hire from a thoroughly female perspective, and as uncomfortable and disturbing as it sometimes is to watch, I am here for it.