In TV and film, sex workers are almost always portrayed as victims, with no control over their lives, their work, or their future. Hulu’s new period drama Harlots finally breaks the trend. Here’s why you should watch it. By Michel Ghanem.
Harlots is a show that slaps back. “Men don’t respect whores, they respect property,” brothel owner Margaret Wells tells her daughter, after a firm slap. Charlotte, who refuses to sign a binding contract to her slightly neurotic client, doesn’t hesitate to smack her back with an added, “that’s for what you made me.”
A single episode of Hulu’s new period drama Harlots features the everyday sex, violence, and politics of sex workers in 1763 London. The show is sure to remind us in its opening scene that 1 in 5 women made a living selling sex at this time. As Margaret—played by Samantha Morton, with vigor—reminds us throughout the episode, times are tough. After a tormenting property raid and court fine, she is forced to place Lucy, her youngest daughter, on the market. Without a considerable lump sum only a virgin could provide, she risks losing her house, her clientele, and her pride to rival Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) in a turf war that will surely dominate the season.
Despite depicting both 18th century London and substantially heavy material, the show is brightly saturated. This is unusual for period dramas, who opt for a darker, muted palette—think Outlander’s neutral palette, which takes place two decades prior, or Penny Dreadful’s brooding, gothic London. Sex workers are often seen as victims, with no control over their lives, their work, or their future—Harlots shifts away from this trope with its vibrancy and comedic tendencies. Instead of focusing on dreariness, the show lends its characters a sense of vitality, humanizing them as fully formed characters. Its impressive all-female producing, showrunning, and directing team devoids the show of a reliance on the ‘male gaze,’ which lends the characters and sex work as a whole an otherwise rare nuance and complexity. In fact, most sex scenes so far have been quite comedic—a client crawling on all fours towards his vagina of choice, or another offering Charlotte an ‘exotic’ pineapple in the middle of intercourse (“you are the pineapple of Great Britain”)
Midway through the pilot episode, Margaret’s girl Emily Lacey (Holli Dempsey) escapes to Quigley’s rival brothel with hopes of greener pastures. Naturally, her house could be a set from Marie Antoinette, populated with French opera singers and strict dress etiquette, white wigs and all. As Lacey pleads for a new life, Quigley gets fitted in a sack-back gown, supplemented by panniers on either side—a get-up typically reserved for French courtly dress. “And what do you know of art? And culture? And the current topics of conversation?” she asks Lacey. Harlots raises its stakes by writing characters who dream of social mobility—Quigley, disguising her work under the veil of French upper class aesthetic; Margaret, hoping to raise enough money to move to a new home; and Lacey, in this scene.
High and low culture have often been informed by the relationship between art and sex. Scholar of feminist theory and psychology Russell Campbell notes the potency of the “prostitute” and their symbolic value for artists. Quigley tells Lacey “every one of my girls moves, eats, speaks, sings, and plays like a lady. The only way she differs is in her worship of Venus.” Well before the first moving picture, Titian painted Venus of Urbino in 1538. His portrayal of a Venetian courtesan inspired countless future depictions—including Manet’s Olympia in 1865, which shocked and disgusted the Paris Salon at the time. Venetian courtesans in the 16th century (1 in 10 Venetians) would actually charge for intellectual conversations with their clients, and many held esteemed status within society. In the following scene, Lacey is ushered into a lavish room with a single art piece hanging in the background—a reclining nude, reminiscent of those very depictions.
Later, at the local opera house, Margaret has her opportunity to place her youngest on display for the first time. Perhaps both stunned by the beauty of the performance and mourning the last moments of her virginity, Lucy tears up. Charlotte is quick to point out opera’s high-art illusion in the hopes of consoling her. Like sex work, “the subject is love, but the men have no balls and the virgins are played by whores.” Harlots locates itself within a broader dialogue around pulling sex out of its relegation as low culture—a position that fosters a false account of its real history.
It should come as no shock that sex workers have been historically misrepresented and vilified in film, especially since mid-20th century censorship regulations. This was further perpetuated by the Madonna-Whore dichotomy, among other damaging stereotypes. Unsurprisingly, these roles were typically written, directed, and cast by men, and thus advocated damaging patriarchal ideals. In his book on prostitution in film, Marked Women, Campbell describes Hollywood representations of sex workers as “creatures of the male imagination.” Thankfully, Harlots subverts these tropes in its depiction of sex work as nuanced—pleasurable, unpleasant, necessary, aspirational—sometimes all at once. Instead of being used as one-note plot devices, the show places its female characters at the forefront of the story.
Whether it’s Rachel Posner on House of Cards, or the victim of a brutal murder scene on any number of procedural dramas, sex workers on television usually die. If they manage to survive a couple of episodes, they’re the butt of comedy jokes, unsuccessfully fighting for agency on Game of Thrones, or the subject of a political scandal. As Audrey Moore wrote for Refinery29, “it’s not exactly surprising that film and television so habitually mistreat and misrepresent sex workers, as most of the people scripting it have zero understanding of what it’s like to sell sex.” Campbell compares the stigma attached to sex workers to a plague—victims that may infect respectable members of society, and need to be quarantined in red-light districts. In reality, sex workers fulfill a demand. Under capitalism, everything is commodified, even sex. And yet, they are stigmatized by the very society that creates and sustains them.
Luckily, feminist intervention has recently brought us more varied representations of sex workers in media such as film and TV. Westworld, The Girlfriend Experience, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, and certainly, Harlots, are moving conventions away from the dominant (distressing) trope in promising ways. As Margaret tells one of her clients, “I’m moving upwards in the world, Mr. Gibbon—not down.” We need more shows that aren’t afraid to slap back.
Michel Ghanem is researching fashion and television at Ryerson University’s Fashion MA program.