Hulu’s “Harlots” are every woman, and it’s wonderful

The topic of sex workers is certainly a taboo one. They’re women and men who sell their bodies – a job that’s criminal in most of our country. As a society, we mock them, we demonize them, we fetishize them. Some think of them as outsiders, desperate souls who live on the streets. They clearly are only doing this because they don’t have a choice. Others see them as sex experts, expensive call girls or boy toys.

But who are they really?

Just people. Obviously. Why is that so hard to see?

This past March, Hulu debuted an amazing new show called Harlots about sex workers from 18th Century England. While the time period may be historical, the stories and characters are relatable to any woman, or person for that matter, who has ever fought for their place in the world. The show tells the story of regular women, just trying to make a living.

Now, I’ve always been fascinated by old timey sex workers. The subject of history suggests ideas of proper manners, courtly etiquette, and rules of society, all things that drastically from a bawdy brothel. How scandalous!

So when I heard about Harlots, I was absolutely intrigued. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but at worst I thought it’d be cheesy and fun, full of period authentic gowns and insane wigs with birds in them. Harlots, however, turned out to be a feminine masterpiece. There were nine episodes in the first season. We stayed up until 4am watching them all in one night. We couldn’t stop. The show was that good.

I want to point out that two women created Harlots – Moira Buffini and Alison Newman. Women also make up the entire writing staff and account for all the show’s directors. I love it. Women everywhere. Women in front of the camera and women behind the camera.

And let me tell you, it shows. In the best way possible.

I loved that the main characters are all women. You rarely get to see that on TV. The protagonist is Margaret, played by Samantha Morton. She just opened up her own brothel, upsetting a rival madam, Lydia Quigley, played by Lesley Manville, who once employed her. A battle between the two begins, with each madam trying to destroy the other’s business. This isn’t one of those shows where the women are perfect and the men are monsters. Harlots offers complex characters of all genders.

When I try to praise the progressiveness and inclusiveness of this show, I feel like that Saturday Night Live sketch where the weird guy lists all the crazy things you’ll find at a hip new nightclub. It’s got LGBT characters, biracial couples, and every type of woman you could imagine – driven, career women; romantic, lovesick women; sexually repressed women; conniving, revengeful women. You seriously can’t hit a rock without hitting a strong, complex female character.


But what I really love about Harlots is that the women control their own sexuality.

The show represents sex workers as everyday ladies who are surviving in a difficult world, fighting a society set up against them. Sadly, not all that different from women’s lives today. Again, regular women, because that’s what sex workers are.

The show actually brings up numerous issues that women face in the modern era, in any era really. For example, (SPOILERS AHEAD) one woman working at the brothel has a baby, and when her most regular customer finds out, he doesn’t want to sleep with her anymore. She has become a mother, and therefore she is no longer appealing to him. Sad to say, I know women this has happened to. There’s this weird problem some men have where they can’t think a woman as both a mother and someone sexy and desirable.

Then there’s the main storyline. When Margaret sets off on her own, Lydia is furious that one of her girls dared to compete with her. While I’ve never worked at a brothel, I know what it’s like to have unsupportive female bosses or coworkers, who seem threatened by any other powerful women in their midst. They’d rather be the only woman on top.

Overall, in watching Harlots, I enjoyed seeing a show that portrayed female characters as actual women, who enjoyed sex or didn’t depending on their mood, who looked attractive some days but a mess others, who succeeded but also made mistakes.

This show resonated with me because like the characters in Harlots, we all just want the freedom to make choices about our lives without anyone else telling us what to do or who to be. Women, not just women who are sex workers, but all of us, merely want the chance to exist without scorn or judgment. Neither a womb, nor a plaything. Just a living, breathing, complex human being.

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