Hulu original series ‘Harlots’ brings sex positivity to streaming
As an avid Hulu fan (well, currently a sad Hulu fan after finding out the next season of “The Mindy Project” is its last, but that’s beside the point) when I saw a promo for their brand new original show, “Harlots,” I was interested immediately. The trailer teased a sexy period drama focusing on brothels in 18th century England. And while it’s the off-season of “Game of Thrones,” I needed my fix of steamy period dramas. But as soon as I clicked play, I was thrown from my expectations. Rock music played loudly as it cued us into the cultural climate immediately: “London is booming. One in five women make a living selling sex.” Then we follow one of the primary characters, Lucy Wells (Eloise Smyth), into one of these brothels, which happens to be owned by her mother, Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton). Lucy reads aloud Harris’s “List of Covent Garden Ladies,” a book that reviews all of the local sex workers in London (a vintage Burn Book, if you will). She introduces us to some of the many girls working under her mother, all giggling and joking around about the list and one another.
Right away we’re introduced to this very new image of what a brothel may have looked like in historical England. Gone are the representations of misery with tragic figures. We see no Fantine lamenting about a dream she dreamt, but instead see girls who see sex work exactly as that. To be honest, I was not expecting this sort of representation but was pleasantly surprised. Throughout the entire episode, we see these girls as individuals, each with a unique perspective on the work they’re doing. And some of them, surprise or not, enjoy sex! In no ways does Hulu try to paint it as a profession that lacks any difficulties, but instead depicts sex work with much more agency and fulfillment than media does normally.
But of course things aren’t that simple. The main characters we follow are the Wells family, Margaret and her two daughters Lucy and Charlotte, but we are also following a rival brothel, one that is for the wealthy and discrete, run by Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville). The Wells women are complex figures within the brothel society. Margaret was abandoned as a child and was picked up by Lydia Quigley who brought her into sex work, but as we watch their rivalry get more and more bitter, there is a big story between the two of them that we have yet to dive into. Lucy is a very sweet girl who wants to be like the other girls but is much more sensitive at her core. When her mother takes biddings for Lucy’s virginity, we see a vulnerable side, showing her as the young girl she truly is and how, for Lucy, it wasn’t really ever a choice for her, but instead something she was born into. The most fascinating character to me was her older sister, Charlotte, played by “Downton Abbey”’s Jessica Brown Findlay. She is a member of high society but is in conversation with Sir George Howard, who would like to purchase her as his own. Charlotte is a very head-strong character who is unafraid to speak her mind and do as she pleases, no matter the consequences.
I want to applaud Hulu and the creators (who, along with the writers and directors, are all women!) for creating a show that is sex positive (we even saw vintage condoms!) with complex and nuanced female characters, all of which are often missing from television today. Sex work is a profession that is incredibly stigmatized and “Harlots” is making strides to depict it in a more positive light, centering itself on the female experience. Though it’s based on stories of the past, it’s still incredibly relevant today.Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter