A few months ago I was doing the equivalent of window-shopping on Showmax, and I stumbled across a series about sex work. This caught my interest because fair and realistic portrayals of sex work and the people who do it are rare. Harlots follows the lives of women living in London in the 1700s who sell sex for a living, and it is razor-sharp and extremely refreshing. Here are five reasons why I’m obsessed with the show, and recently binge-watched the entirety of season two.
It humanises sex work
The characters are funny, human and real, and their friendships and feuds are so convincingly brought to life that you forget that the show is about sex work. This is a profound achievement: sex work is often sensationalised – glammed up or smutted down – with the result that sex workers can never just be portrayed as people. The characters of Harlots are just that: flawed human beings with jobs they sometimes hate and sometimes enjoy.
The series brilliantly explores the question of agency in relation to sex work (what does it mean to ‘choose’, and is that different depending on your socio-economic circumstances?). It also looks at the multifaced nature of sex work and how it can be extremely exploitative and dangerous in certain circumstances, and no more harmful than any other physically demanding job in others. It’s a reminder of how vital it is to defend women’s economic empowerment: at that time, selling sex was one of the only ways for women to earn and control their own money. The content is fresh territory for a TV series, and the treatment is brilliant: it’s respectful, clever and entertaining.
It’s a period TV show that actually represents people of colour
One of the first things that struck me watching Harlots is that although it’s set in 18th-century London, many of the key characters are people of colour. Black Englishman William North (Danny Sapani) is the husband of the protagonist; Violet (Rosalind Eleazar) is a ‘freelance’ harlot (and part-time thief); and Harriet (Pippa Bennett-Warner) is a black American woman who escaped slavery and managed to gain financial freedom in London through sex work. Through these characters, the show touches on themes of slavery, and actually tells the stories of poor people of colour living in London at that time, who are usually overlooked in period dramas. The characters and narratives are also full – they are part of the central cast and not silent placeholders.
This is so refreshing and timely.
It’s a realistic, multi-dimensional portrayal of women
In Harlots, there are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women. My favourite characters routinely disappoint me and do things that are selfish or stupid. Sometimes they are kind and likeable, other times they are vengeful, betraying their own friends and family. Even the worst characters have redeeming human moments that provide the viewer with no easily identified villains or victims. The unflinchingly honest creation and portrayal of women on screen is still far too rare, and feels current, although it’s set in the 18th century. Even today, women are expected to please everyone, and watching these characters resist that dynamic (even when their profession centres on pleasing others) is relatable. Sometimes we just want to be bad, or have no idea what we’re doing or why we’re doing it.
Fun feminist fact: The sense that the characters are authentic is due to the fact that Harlots is entirely created women. It’s the result of an all-female creative team of writers: Moira Buffini (Jane Eyre) and Alison Newman; Oscar-nominated executive producers Alison Owen ((Elizabeth, Anne With An E) and Debra Hayward (Les Misérables, Love Actually), with Alison Carpenter; BAFTA-nominated lead director Coky Giedroyc (The Killing, Seven Seconds); and BAFTA-winning producer Grainne Marmion (The Borrowers, Doctor Foster).
It has brilliant performances and an excellent plot
The plot revolves around the Wells family, headed by Margaret Wells, who has raised her two daughters to be professional harlots. All three of them give startling performances: from negotiating who will become Charlotte’s ‘keeper’ to the price of Lucy’s virginity, all the difficulties of maternal love and mother-daughter relationships are thrown into sharp relief in the context of a family of sex workers. Can you both love your daughter and sell her off to the highest bidder? Samantha Morton as Margaret is super convincing – she is kind yet sometimes cold, tries to do her best but often fails – she’s an anti-hero.
Jessica Brown Findlay’s gob-stopping beauty is on full display, and she creates a complex character that is so much more than a cupcake waiting to be consumed. Lucy (Eloise Smyth) is sensitive and innocent but dark, and the thread of the stories and characters’ relationships with one another carries the series throughout. At the same time, there are enough interesting subplots and strong supporting performances to keep it dynamic: Margaret’s nemesis Lydia Quigly (Lesley Manville) is super terrifying in her apoplectic fits of rage, yet sometimes sugary, and we see her vulnerability and humanity in her moments of loneliness.
Harlots is gorgeous
Both the gritty and sumptuous aspects of life in Georgian London are portrayed with clarity and an artistic touch. The series is shot beautifully, but it’s the costumes that are seriously amazing.
There’s been a strategic consideration of the language of cloth and colour, and the dresses are used to convey added layers of meaning to each class and character. The working class and poor wear earthy tones and pops of jewel colours, symbolising realness, grit, warmth and life. The upperclass are clad in frothy layers of pastels and towering wigs (see Lydia Quigley above), their powdered faces and tepid tones symbolic of their superficial goodness and well-mannered artifice. The worst people wear the best clothes – a searing commentary on what money can and cannot buy you.
Here’s the trailer for Season Two, and you can watch both seasons of Harlots in full on Showmax.
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