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Learning Survival Skills from Hulu’s Harlots

A captivating drama about sex workers in 18th-century London explores how women find freedom.

Harlots / Hulu

Can capitalism ever be feminist? For a long time, in mainstream American discourse, this wasn’t even a question. Capitalism was feminism, if a woman rose through its ranks. Capitalism was a means to power and feminism was about accruing power. It all made perfect sense. And in the era of American media that followed the radical upheaval of women’s liberation, and comforted American women—and men—with stories of empowerment through compromise, corporate ladder-climbing emerged as a kind of stand-in for social change. The most visible goal of American feminism, in the ‘80s ad ‘90s, was not giving or sharing, but having, and having it all. In corporate feminism, it’s every man for herself.

It may have taken the Trump administration to finally make it impossible for women who previously believed in these modes of autonomous and competitive empowerment to continue thinking they could do it all themselves. When privileged white women realize they must help protect each other from a shared oppressor, the face of mainstream American feminism changes drastically—even if, in doing so, it simply reflects a reality of which trans women, queer women, poor women, and women of color have always been painfully aware. A movement becomes truly inclusive when its most privileged members realize they cannot beat the system on their own—or prove their value by following someone else’s rules.

American media is only just beginning to reflect this shift. Earlier this year, some TV series reflected a disconcerting lag: shows produced before the election, like the final season of Girls, depicted a world that in some senses no longer existed, one in which characters obsess over problems that no longer seem to matter in the way that they once did. Being a single woman in Brooklyn still involves meeting your friends for weekend mimosas, but the conversation has shifted toward brainstorming sessions on how to survive beyond the Thunderdome: What skills would you need to safely perform an at-home abortion? What’s the best way to sneak across the border? Would you rather be a breeder or a concubine?

Hulu’s original series The Handmaid’s Tale, which premiered in April, has earned voluminous press—and a dedicated, if anxious, audience—for what people often term its eerily prescient timing. But Harlots, a British import that made its US premiere on Hulu in March, offers viewers a different approach to today’s fears, looking not to the future but to the past. By doing so, it lets viewers think not about where women might be headed, but where we have been—and perhaps even how we got here.

Loosely based on novelist and historian Hallie Rubenhold’s The Covent Garden Ladies, and created by Alison Newman and Moira Buffini, Harlots is set in 1763 London. “London is booming,” the pilot episode’s opening titles tell us, by way of an introduction to this world, “and one in five women makes a living selling sex.” Through all the intrigue, violence, and romance that unfolds in the following eight-episode season, we are never allowed to forget that these two facts are inextricably linked. “This city is made of our flesh,” Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) says at the close of the series’ dizzying pilot. “Every beam. Every brick. We’ll have our piece of it.”

Like most soaps—and Harlots is, from the beginning, a lovingly researched, beautifully filmed, and superbly acted soap opera—Harlots has no single protagonist, but if anyone could be said to carry it, it is Samantha Morton. As Margaret Wells, a brothel madam who describes herself as having “clawed my way up in the world,” Morton’s performance is at times reminiscent of nothing more than Al Pacino’s in The Godfather trilogy. Margaret knows, as Michael Corleone does, that gaining dominance of a situation means speaking softly and remaining inscrutable. In the moments when she is freed from tense negotiation and confrontation, Margaret comes across as someone struggling to access a full range of emotions—including mercy and love—while surviving a world where everything comes down, in the end, to dominance and submission. As Margaret, Morton’s expressions shift from closed-off defiance to childlike vulnerability, and then back again, in an instant. She is recognizable, from her first scene, as someone whose life has never involved easy choices. For Margaret power and money are not glittering dreams, but grimy necessities.

We learn that Margaret became a “harlot”—her preferred period term for sex worker—when she was ten years old, after her mother sold her to Lydia Quigley (Leslie Manville) for a pair of shoes. Mistress Quigley is an upscale brothel owner who prides herself on all her girls being ladies (“So, you will teach my cunny French?” a new hire remarks), and whose business Margaret is now determined to undermine. When we first meet Margaret, she is also preparing to introduce her younger daughter, Lucy (Eloise Smyth), to the business. Margaret’s older daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), is already established enough as a harlot to have found her own keeper—a nobleman who houses her, showers her with gifts and a generous cash allowance, pays off her gambling debts, keeps her safe from poverty, and rapes her whenever he feels like it.

Every episode of Harlots depicts playful, pleasurable, and empowering sex, and every episode of Harlots depicts sexual assault. From the beginning, it refuses to take a pro or con position about sex work: that it frees women, that it abuses them; that it shows them their power, that it robs them of their power; that it is good, that it is evil. In Harlots, sex work is simply a necessity, and the real hope of class mobility that it offers is hard to brush aside, even centuries later.

“Sex work” is a term that has gained traction, in our world, as a way to legitimize the world’s oldest profession—the theory being that to call something “sex work” rather than “prostitution” shows that its practitioner is a necessary member of society, and that they are worthy of legal protection and social acceptance because they contribute to an economy by performing an essential labor. Being a sex worker, the reasoning goes, is no different from being a factory worker—and, as some have also contended, no more exploitative. It’s a persuasive argument in a society that regards an individual’s ability to contribute to an economy as crucial to the question of whether they deserve not just respect, but the basic expectation of safety. By lobbying for recognition as a capitalist endeavor, however, sex work doesn’t prove itself to be intrinsically empowering, or innocuous, or safe. It merely proves itself to be profitable.

Harlots presents a period in which sex work is essentially the only economy in which women can have even a modicum of autonomy or a chance at financial security. We are used to our period dramas showing us love or sex between two aristocrats; the working class, the people of color, the laborers and harlots, are presumably somewhere off to the side, carrying on the messy business of everyday life. It is uncomfortable to look at, say, 1760s London, and realize that if you were not born a duchess, and wanted to rise above drudgery and poverty—to read a book, or buy a ribbon, or take a walk in the fresh air on a day when the mood struck you—you would likely sell sex as well. Whether harlotry was a likely route to autonomy or not is an irrelevant question, as Harlots makes clear: It was, and is, for the women of this series, the only route. 

If period dramas concerned with the lives of kings and presidents and aristocrats show us the tapestry of historical narrative, then Harlots shows us its knotty reverse-side. It also presents—in a way period dramas rarely imagine—a world in which white characters form relationships with people of color. Margaret’s lover, William North (Danny Sapani) is a free black Englishman, and one of the first season’s most absorbing arcs centers on Margaret and William’s attempt to help Harriet Lennox (Pippa Bennett-Warner), a freed slave, buy her young children out of slavery.

Within the slippery world of harlotry—where class can be transcended and humanity bought—relationships form that defy our historical assumptions about the bounded categories of human experience. A harlot falls in love with a man who sells sex, too, and therefore seems the only one who could ever understand her; a harlot falls in love with a Puritan girl who once preached against her trade; a harlot falls in love, period. Such things should be impossible, or at least so the characters believe. “For a harlot,” Charlotte says in the first episode, love “doesn’t exist.” But it does. Harlots is grim, gory, thought-provoking, and often deeply sad, but it is also a pleasure to watch, not just for its addictive drama, but for its implicit argument about the intimacies available to us in times of shared vulnerability.

Yet the most arresting narrative in the season is Margaret’s relationship with her daughters Charlotte and Lucy: girls she has raised to be survivors, but whom she also wants to have better lives than she did. That change is incremental. Margaret became a harlot at ten years old. Charlotte got to wait until she was twelve years old. Lucy is fifteen when Margaret takes sealed bids for her virginity, and in the first episode, when Margaret sends her off to her fate, she gives her youngest daughter a pair of shoes—the same objects she was once sold for.            

“They don’t fit,” Lucy says, when she tries the shoes on.

“Then make ‘em,” Margaret replies.

Progress, in Harlots, means not that you won’t be commodified and sold, but that you will be worth more. It means looking at a way of achieving security, and perhaps even freedom, that doesn’t fit—and doing your best to make it fit, because you know you have no other option.  The world of Harlots doesn’t allow its characters, survivors all, to imagine themselves as anything but objects. Perhaps, mere centuries later, we can dare to ask for more.