Hulu’s Harlots, showing in the UK on ITV, has been widely touted as a feminist take on 18th Century prostitution, but how much does that theory hold up to scrutiny?
Harlots follows the rivalry of two brothel owners, Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley, and the antics of their girls. Wells and Quigley are positioned as entrepreneurs, seeing their opportunity for money and power, and stopping at nothing in their battle for dominance. The two madams have rival philosophies with their houses: Wells’ girls are fiery and (oh god, I hate this word) feisty, whereas Quigley schools her girls in appearing and behaving like well-bred ladies. I’m two episodes in, and at the moment we are led to believe that Wells is the ‘good’ madam to Quigley’s villain, but it is early days and I would be surprised if it were that simple.
This is at its core a story about women, and an exploration of the dynamics (and economy) of power and sex. Our madams understand that one can be exchanged for the other, and that profits can be made along the way. Cynical, yes, but times being what they were, there were few lucrative alternatives available. This was a business where a woman could be in control of her own fate - to an extent.
The writers do not shy away from the darker side of this way of life. In the first episode, we see Wells collecting bids for her daughter’s virginity. But this is juxtaposed with Wells’ story of how her own virginity was sold by her mother for a pair of shoes when she was only ten years old. This is, we are meant to suppose, progress.
When Quigley procures a virgin for a judge in episode two, this is much more brutal. At least Lucy Wells is aware of what is happening, and either approves of or consents to her deflowering. And while Margaret is clearly not delighted at selling her daughter’s virginity to the highest bidder, she is savvy enough to sell it twice. Enterprising, yes. And able to exploit male desire for her own profit.
This question of who is exploiting whom is key to unpicking the feminist potential of the show. Is this just a matter of supply and demand? Who is in control here? None of these questions yield easy answers, and I have to say, I am impressed that the show hasn’t tried to provide an easy verdict.
What other options were there for young women? Poverty, service or marriage are the obvious responses. Wells sees marriage as a cage, a way of being controlled by a man forever. But she doesn’t see prostitution as freedom - she makes it clear that money brings freedom. Prostitution is a means to gain that money.
Her argument is slightly undermined when she pressures her older daughter, Charlotte (Lady Sybil from Downton Abbey!) to enter into a contractual agreement with an entertainingly ridiculous baronet. This would make her financially secure, but Charlotte sees this as comparable to the cage of marriage. With Charlotte’s baronet, the question of who is exploiting whom plays out in microcosm. He is clearly a numpty, who can be easily manipulated by his desire for Charlotte. And yet, he has instrumental power on his side. He can turf her out of his grand townhouse with a word. He can humiliate her if he chooses. The way that this relationship plays out will go some way to answering our questions.
The risks involved in this line of work are not glossed over either. In the first episode, Wells is fined and threatened with transportation. In the second episode, we meet the legendary Mary Cooper, who is dying from ‘the French Pox’ (syphilis - sorry about that name, France. It’s a delightful combination of xenophobia and euphemism). We also see 18th century contraception in use - such as it was then. The ‘rinse and repeat’ condoms might make you feel a bit queasy, but when the alternative is unwanted pregnancy or syphilis, the developing awareness of safe sex is an important one.
There are more straightforward feminist credentials in the show’s production. Harlots was written and directed by women, and the show deals with nudity in a fairly equal way. This partly due to concerns of historical accuracy, as it was more practical at the time to merely lift one’s skirts than strip off completely, but this is almost a refreshing change. However, Samantha Morton’s corset really does deserve special recognition for its amazing services:
When trying to reach a verdict here, I found myself stuck repeating lines from Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Ruined Maid’ - and that didn’t help, because there are different schools of thought with this poem as well. Is it a criticism of female sexual behaviour and ‘loose’ morals? Or is it a criticism of the social inequality that leads to prostitution being one’s best or only option in life? Much of the show is also reminiscent of John Cleland’s novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, whose narrator, Fanny Hill, recounts her bawdy life of vice in letters. This also didn’t help- Fanny is a character who makes choices and celebrates those choices, but we still have that worrying question: who’s exploiting whom?
Like Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, Harlots seeks to entertain, but I am assuming that like Hardy, the creators of Harlots also want to offer social critique. Where Harlots is winning against Hardy and Cleland’s texts, is in the contexts of production. It matters that Harlots has been created by women. The characters in the show aren’t just ‘fallen women’, wide-eyed innocents, or wanton nymphets. They are complex, imperfect, and morally questionable. They are not objects of horror or fantasy. They are human beings, not just ideas - perhaps that’s the most feminist aspect of the show yet.
At the moment, the jury is out on whether it’s a feminist story or not, but even if it isn’t answering all the questions yet, the show is asking them in a new and entertaining way…