Hulu’s “Harlots” arrives at a key time for women’s sexual and reproductive health. Not only are those issues being addressed in today’s political climate, with Texas in particular considering various anti-abortion legislation, but Hulu’s other big spring release, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” also addresses a woman’s ability to decide what to do with her body.
But while “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a dystopian story of women forced to breed for high-ranking men, “Harlots” takes a more practical approach to how women used their bodies to deal with oppression. Becoming a whore or madam wasn’t ideal, but in 1760s Georgian London, it was both lucrative and offered the best chances at some sort of upward mobility and independence – unlike the conditions of the completely patriarchal marriages of the day.
“It is dark subject matter, but we didn’t want it to be a miserable show,” co-creator and writer Moira Buffini told IndieWire in January. “The women that it’s about use humor as a weapon and as a sort of shield. They’re full of laughter, that they’re very ebullient, larger-than-life characters. And we sort of thought, we should write about how they survived, rather than how they were oppressed. Through writing about their survival, you sort of see all the darkness and see the way that society is set up to give them no rights.”
At the center of “Harlots” is Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), a brothel owner for the people who grew up in the business herself. Her chief rival is Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), a madam who tries to set her prostitutes apart by giving them education and then charging a pretty penny to her higher-ranking clientele.
“Every house was different as well, and it would kind of depend on whose house you ended up in, what your experience was like,” observed Buffini. “Margaret Wells encourages the individuality of her girls. She sees them having a bit of character as being a good selling point, and being able to talk back to the men and to basically give the men a good time in terms of their personality as well as their body. Margaret sees all these things as a plus.
“Lydia Quigley sees her girls as kind of much more homogenous,” she added. “They’re beauties, they all have to behave in a certain ladylike way, they have to have certain accomplishments that were the accomplishments that all young, educated, upper-class women would have had at the time. Even though their incomes were probably higher, their freedoms were much more limited than the women who worked for Margaret Wells.”
Wells has a particularly vested interest in two of her girls: her daughters Charlotte (“Downton Abbey’s” Jessica Brown Findlay) and Lucy (Eloise Smyth). While Charlotte is an accomplished harlot with many admirers and one patron in particular, Lucy still has her virginity, a commodity that Margaret does not want to squander for too low a price or on the wrong man.
Having a mother and her daughters in the same flesh peddling business was not uncommon during that time. “If you’re a whore, all your daughters are automatically considered to be whores. It’s going to be very difficult for you to move them from your outlaw society into decent society,” explained Buffini. “So what you have to do is do the very best for them that you can within that profession, and that’s what Margaret tried to do, she’s passionately ambitious for her daughters, and she’s really doing this from the motives that all mothers have, you want the best thing for your children.”
Protecting her daughters from sex wasn’t a consideration at all merely because sex was everywhere and not a hidden activity. Executive producer Debra Hayward said, “Sex is very everyday… You see in that opening scene when the girls come in and the two children are listening at the door. Sex is just sort of part of everyday happenings, and Samantha [Morton] was brilliant at that. The way she talked about it, the way she reacted to people having sex, the way she discussed it with her children, with the girls, that was kind of one of the other really interesting singular things about it.”
There was just no escaping from sex in London, which is why it was such big business. “London was the sex capital of the world at the time,” said Buffini. “Americans would come in droves as tourists and for reasons of trade, and many of them didn’t bring their wives, they would go whoring. Young men came to London to train in all manner of professions, and didn’t have the money to marry until they were maybe 30 or so, and spent their 20s whoring. It had just been the Seven Years War, so there was a vast army, and all the soldiers needed attending to as well. So there was a huge market for female flesh, basically, and it was an incredibly lucrative and profitable market, and some of those profits did stay in the hands of the women.”
To keep track of the hundreds of prostitutes, an annual underground publication known as “Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies” was basically a visitor’s guide that summed up each of the whores in the city. It was this list that had inspired Buffini to write “Harlots” in the first place.
“It’s crazy. It’s so matter-of-fact as well,” Alison Owen, an executive producer on the series, said. “It’s like, ‘Fanny Adams, 7 Drury Lane, a pretty girl, bit overweight, smells a bit in summer, six pence, gives a guy a good time.’”
With so much sex going on, an effective means of contraception was essential. Enter the condom or “cundum” as it was known back then. “It would be a bit of sheep’s guts sewn around the end, and then sewn around the top with a ribbon so you could sort of tie it on,” Buffini said. “Then all you did was rinse and reuse it. So it was kind of disgusting, but ecological. And it saved you from the worst ravages of disease, and it saved the girls from unwanted pregnancies, to an extent, because an unwanted pregnancy was an absolute disaster for them.”
Although the show is explicit about sex, prostitution and the washing of condoms, one thing you won’t see much of is full-blown nudity. “One of the things that I thought was so interesting about the sex in Georgian times …is they didn’t really take their clothes off because it’s cold. It’s England, it’s cold,” said Hayward. “They didn’t wear underwear. They just hoisted their dresses up.
“We trod a very fine line between, ‘No one’s gonna believe us every time you see a girl screwing on screen, or a man screwing on screen, they’ve all got their bloody clothes on.’ So that was the one we talked about on every single shag. We could have actually shot a whole show about sex with very little flesh, except men’s buttocks. We have plenty of those. It was like, we better take the clothes off a bit, otherwise people aren’t gonna believe us. They’ll think we’re being prudish.”
It’s been more than 250 years since the time period in which “Harlots” is set, and yet, not that much has changed. Seeing as how the sexually rampant Georgian period was followed by the far more sexually repressive Victorian era, maybe it’s not so surprising that prudishness, oppression and gender inequality still exists today. Sex workers, sex education in schools, and contraception are all still controversial topics. Also, sex trafficking continues to be a major humanitarian issue everywhere. When comparing our world with what once was and seeing so little advancement in these areas, is it really so far-fetched to believe that a world like “The Handmaid’s Tale” could be our future?
The women in “Harlots’” Georgian London may be fighting against the society that has forced them to pick among some dismal lots in life, but at least there is still choice. There is still optimism. There is still power. These are lessons to keep in mind no matter what possible challenges loom in our future, real or coming to Hulu.
“Harlots” premieres on Wednesday, March 29 on Hulu.