I thought Harlots, Hulu’s costume drama about the sex industry in 18th century London, was going to be another pissing match between high-powered men with sex workers as eye candy, victims, and pawns, as they are typically portrayed on TV. Boy, was I wrong. In addition to being a super fun, raunchy costume drama, Harlots is one of the first shows I’ve ever seen that portrays sex workers as having actual agency and humanity. This, among many other surprises, should put it atop any feminist pop culture fan’s watch list.
Normalizing Sex Work
Harlots, for the uninitiated, follows a community of mostly female sex workers in a time and place where, according to the show’s opening, 1 in 5 women worked in the industry. This prevalence frames one of the most deceptively simple ways the show changes the narrative around sex work: simply by normalizing it. In this world, it’s normal to be a sex worker. It’s normal to pay for sex. Neither is shameful or shocking in and of itself. This lack of judgment dispels stigma and sets the tone for a show that takes an overall frank and empowering look at sex work.
The fact that all of the show’s writers and directors are women is intentional, as is the complete absence of the male gaze. It’s unfortunate that a show helmed by women should be such a rarity, but it’s a revelation to see the difference that it makes and to realize anew that the perspectives the vast majority of media give us are not neutral but specifically male.
The main difference between this and any other show that portrays sex workers is that the characters have personalities and, crucially, agency — a possibility that apparently hasn’t occurred to most other (male) TV writers. Instead of being mere props while male characters direct the action, here the sex workers are the ones driving the plot forward, and they have a lot more control over their destinies than they usually get in movies and TV.
Power and Compassion
The main power players here are Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), bawds (that is, owners and HR managers) of a low-rent and fancy brothel, respectively. They unleash all kinds of hell on each other for political reasons, while trying to protect and/or control their employees, with varying degrees of success.
The bawds play an interesting role in their communities. In addition to being business owners, they’re also caretakers. In a world where most women are dependent on somebody else economically — whether their husband, father, keeper, or bawd — and where there’s no such thing as social services, this is a big responsibility, and one with which we see them both struggle. The bawd houses, clothes, and feeds her employees, as well as attempts to protect them from harm and police their behavior.
A certain degree of compassion fatigue is not only inevitable but necessary to do their job. That’s messed up, but it’s also a matter of survival. Even with the best intentions (which Wells presumably has, but definitely not Quigley), there are so many desperate people in this city that you couldn’t possibly help them all, and you’d be taken advantage of if you were seen as weak. Quigley, who keeps her employees locked up and rules without pity, is a master at this game, which is why she’s so successful, but it eventually comes to work against her.
Wells shows more complexity as she tries to simultaneously protect her daughters, treat her employees justly, become successful, and stick it to Quigley. She tries to be a hardass, but her caring and loyalty to her family ultimately make her more fiercely powerful. Mercy is a strength as well as a weakness. It’s complicated. You need to be hardboiled to survive, but you also need to be sort of a people person.
The women who work for Wells and Quigley have less power, but they still find ways to write their own stories. Sex workers in this show don’t just get helplessly abused and discarded. When Emily Lacey is treated poorly at the hands of Lydia Quigley, she figures out how to escape, and ultimately blackmails Quigley for everything she’s earned and never received.
And when Harriet Lennox needs to come up with money to buy her children’s freedom, she makes the decision to enter the sex industry, steps proudly into the role, and totally owns it. She takes her exoticized image as a person of color and makes it work for her, extracting a premium price from her clients and taking control of her interactions with them by assuming a dominant persona. She won’t be anybody’s victim.
Sex Work and the Law
The active role of sex workers in the plot and their own lives is the strongest factor that sets Harlots apart, but the show inverts stereotypical media representations of sex workers in other ways as well.
For instance, the relationship between the houses and the police is not the usual fare. In media, as in life, many communities’ relationships with the law are fraught at best, completely exploitative and violent at worst, especially if it’s a community that operates outside the mainstream, outside the law, or both. In Harlots, the relationship between the houses and law enforcement is complicated, but oddly functional.
While the police, judges, and legislators here are as corrupt as anywhere else (and hearty contributors to the sex industry), for the most part, they only get involved when the bawds decide to use them to accomplish their own goals: Instead of sex workers being pawns for the institutions to use as bait, currency, or entertainment, the lawmen are tools of the sex industry. Their loyalty is more capricious than any other on the show.
The best inversion of media stereotypes in Harlots is that ultimately, these women aren’t punished for their job. Although the show is violent at times, most of the women don’t end up dead, destitute, or on drugs (drug and alcohol abuse are notably almost absent from the series). A lot of them get to succeed, and the people who do exploit them don’t (usually) get away with it. I won’t spoil all the ways they get their just desserts in the end, except to say that, in both a nod to and a subversion of every physical comedy that employs the disposable sex worker trope, we get a dead client who must be disposed of, which is both poetic justice and campy as hell, another interesting facet of the show.
In addition to the reframing of sex work from the shockingly revolutionary perspective of the sex workers themselves, Harlots has this really campy, vaguely queer sensibility that I love and that seems appropriate: over-the-top costumes with people of all genders in huge powdered wigs and theatrical makeup, wild melodrama (Poisonings! Kidnappings! Venturing into a spooky house with a lantern!), and unapologetic sexuality of many kinds, including BDSM and queer relationships portrayed in non-stigmatizing ways.
This is an aesthetic we don’t see much these days and could always use more of — but, more than that, it sneakily encourages viewers to think about challenging issues by packaging them in a compellingly dramatic context with great clothes. Academic discussions of feminist theory and power structures aren’t everyone’s idea of a good time (weird, I know), but good TV is.
Sure, the show isn’t perfect and leaves some questions dangling (namely, can we please get more backstory on Nancy Birch, the dominatrix of few words? And when will the Spartans be taken down?), which will hopefully be addressed in a second season. But even with its short first season, Harlots goes a long way in reversing stereotypes and presenting overdue perspectives on sex work in a satisfying, non-patronizing, and surprisingly fun way.
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Shauna Gold is a writer based in Boise, Idaho. Her interests include frittata, ‘60s soul, and finding new ways to injure herself outdoors. She also enjoys expensive cocktails. Follow her on Twitter @shauna_gold.