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Hulu’s streaming series Harlots is not your average period drama. Yes, it’s set in 18th century Georgian England and features lovely costumes, gorgeous actors and the occasional ill-advised romance. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
This is a gritty, risky, raunchy and often dark take on what it means to be a woman of little means in a society that grants even the most successful few almost no agency of their own. To put it mildly: There are no Elizabeth Bennets or Emma Woodhouses here. And no one in this part of London is likely going to get a happy ending.
Harlots is much more Peaky Blinders than it is Downton Abbey, and the show is all the better for it, frequently tackling the sort of complex issues around sexuality, diversity, classism and gender relations that make the period genre richer and more realistic as a whole.
It’s also just really darn good.
Ostensibly, the show centers around two rival bawd houses, and the strong-willed women who run and work in them. But the story is about so much more than that, as the ladies of Harlots struggle to make their way in a world that too often views them as disposable. On its surface, this is a show about women who sell their bodies for money, but it’s just as concerned with power, ambition and the ways women risk themselves and work together to survive.
In its first season, Harlots focused primarily on the antagonistic relationship between ambitious bawd Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and more established madam Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), who also happened to be Margaret’s former employer. Elder Wells’ daughter Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a celebrated courtesan in her own right, while her sister Lucy (Eloise Smyth) navigates the complicated process of her debut (a.k.a. the sale of her virginity to the highest bidder).
But as the series continued, its story expanded into something much more complex. Yes, the Wells family still sits at the center of Harlots, but the show’s world now encompasses a rambling, diverse cast of characters who represent all sorts of 18th century lives. There are multiple lesbian storylines, characters of color in significant roles, women with disabilities, and pretty much every body type imaginable. Season 3 introduces a “molly house,” or a brothel aimed primarily at homosexual men. This is a London that feels both rich and realistic, as Harlots successfully captures the uncomfortable extremes of poverty and aristocratic excess at the same time.
More modern shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and Westworld have grappled with ideas of sex work, desire, and what sort of women are allowed agency and self-determination in their own lives. Harlots addresses the topic more directly—it is a show about prostitutes, after all—by using the oldest profession to ask probing questions about power, violence, solidarity and safety in ways that are explicitly connected to the experience of being female.
In doing so, Harlots manages to give voice to a very specific kind of female anger and frustration, one which both accurately reflects the rapidly changing social structure of the Georgian period and provides an interesting lens through which to view our modern day time period. This is a historical story, to be sure, but its themes are universal, and its female characters face problems and concerns that are still deeply familiar to women today.
Part of this is likely due to the voices and creatives at work behind-the-scenes. Harlots is a series created, written and directed by women, and it shows in virtually every shot and plot twist. This is a series about women who have sex for money, yet the act itself is the least interesting part of the story. It’s the background noise that the women must endure to survive, a transactional rather than a romantic affair. The sex in Harlots isn’t lurid, exploitative or meant to titillate a male gaze. This isn’t Petyr Baelish’s brothel on Game of Thrones, where women lounge about topless for no reason at all. No, this is all work: Usually quick, often dirty and few of the women remove any part of their clothing during the act. It’s business, after all, not HBO.
In fact, the focus on the transactional aspect of the sex trade is part of the reason this show is so fascinating. Harlots doesn’t pass any sort of narrative moral judgment on its characters for the work they do. It’s simply acknowledged for what it is—one of the few avenues open to women that allowed them to claim some form of economic independence for themselves, albeit one with a certain amount of legal jeopardy and societal stigma attached.
Charlotte, Lucy and their fellow harlots are all presented as complex and complicated characters for which the act of selling sex is but one small part of who they are. There are no “hooker with a heart of gold” clichés on this show; rather, these are women who are shrewd entrepreneurs, loyal friends, caring parents and loving partners. But these are also women who make mistakes, behave selfishly and betray one another to get ahead. They’re ambitious and petty as often as they are kind and brave. In short, they’re fully realized characters, with their own arcs, agendas and goals. It’s really hard to overstate how refreshing and exciting that is.
However, for all its thoughtful social commentary, Harlots isn’t exactly what you’d call a stuffy Prestige Drama. From start to finish every episode is an exciting romp, replete with scandals, rivalries, secrets and even an accidental murder or two. There’s sex trafficking, a secret society of aristocrat rapists, an insane asylum, and glamorous parties full of people that judge the lower classes even as they seek to exploit them. There are plot twists in virtually every episode and nothing is ever, ever boring.
But the best part of the series is, unsurprisingly, the care with which it writes its female characters. This isn’t necessarily what you’d consider an uplifting story—these women fail and suffer far more often than they triumph, and none of them are what you’d call heroes. But Harlots nevertheless feels like a necessary one, particularly given the fact that today, hundreds of years later, we’re still publicly wrestling with many of these same issues of female agency, power and consent. A tale as old as time, indeed.
Watch on Hulu
This article originally published July 18, 2019
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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