In The Handmaid’s Tale, we are presented with a bleak, futuristic society that is terrifying.
A society where the only ability women have to wield a tiny bit of power is through the use of their bodies as handmaids – power that is always being controlled by men.
In Harlots – at first glance – the show appears to be a camp, frolicking romp through sex-obsessed 18th century London. But look a little closer and you see a society where the only ability women have to wield a tiny bit of power is through the use of their bodies as sex workers – power that is once again, always being controlled by men.
The past and the future don’t look too different in either of these series: both telling the same story of gender disparity – women are oppressed; women are property, all caused and perpetuated by the patriarchy. Yes, both stories are full of despair but there is also an underlying theme of defiance – as viewers, we cheer on these women and want to see them triumph.
A bawdy, busty affair
But if you think you’ll be in for a sombre tale of woe from Harlots, you may be surprised. The show takes a deliberately different stance on the way this dire situation is presented. Harlots does not shy away from injecting comedic elements where possible. The soundtrack is filled with fun, modern music that reflects the rebelliousness of the women and has become a hallmark of the series. And there is plenty of strong feminist themes hidden under those fabulously extravagant costumes.
“It is dark subject matter, but we didn’t want it to be a miserable show. The women that it’s about use humour as a weapon and as a sort of shield. They’re full of laughter, that they’re very ebullient, larger-than-life characters,” says Harlots writer and executive producer Moira Buffini.
Set in 1763 London, during this era one in five women made a living selling sex, and often the only real power women can exert is over other women. Harlots tells the story of the colourful, underworld turf wars between two brothels – one high class, one working class, and the women who run them and work in them. It’s also the story of the war between the women who work in the brothels versus the hypocrisy of religion and the judiciary as they relentlessly try to bring the women down – while using their services…
Diversity and strength in storytelling
Harlots takes the opportunity to include stories of diversity that were also part of life in London brothels of this era. It is inclusive of the voices of women of colour and features multiple queer storylines. The stories of strong black women like Violet Cross (Rosalind Eleazar), Harriet Lennox (Pippa Bennett-Warner) and Limehouse Nell (Sheila Atim) are told without simply exotifying or marginalising them – a rarity for TV shows set in the 18th century.
Tradition is further flipped as Violet and Amelia Scanwell (Jordon Stevens), the daughter of a preacher, continue to pursue their sexual relationship which began in the first series of the show.
Series two also heralds the welcome introduction of Liv Tyler as Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam. Although Fitzwilliam is neither a sex worker nor a wife, she is still controlled by a man – her brother – who scrutinises her life, controls her riches and exploits her. Maybe the rebellious, wonderfully quick-witted Charlotte Wells (Jessica Brown Findlay), who Fitzwilliam is enamoured of, can help turn this situation around for her.
While Harlots reveals unmistakable objectification of the women whose stories it tells, it also gives permission for the women to own that objectification. There are no judgements, no moralising. We see there is not a whole lot of choice for these women within the oppressive class structure and systemic misogyny that was firmly entrenched in Georgian London which rendered all women as second class citizens. After one of the women is murdered, Mr Armitage (Gerard Monaco) explains to harlot Fanny Lambert (Bronwyn James): “Women will always be at the mercy of men’s power”. To which she retorts: “It’s not power we’re at the mercy of. It’s your weakness.”
Rather than focusing on the obvious patriarchal causes of the women’s oppression, or presenting them as victims, the Harlots all-female executive production team is far more interested in creating complex narratives for the women – their struggles, their friendships, their strength and their stories – from their own point of view. “We have honoured their tenacity and courage and ability to survive, rather than dwelling on the ‘poor them’ aspect”, says Buffini.
Why it matters that Harlots is driven by an all-female production team
It’s not hard to tell that all of Harlot’s producers, writers and directors are all women. The show’s portrayal of sex, while omnipresent, is never gratuitous, glamorous or titillating. It’s often portrayed as quite ridiculous, a bit icky and simply, a job that has to be done. A job where the women doing it are more interested in trying to hear an argument going on in the next room than keeping themselves absorbed in the moment.
The stories featured in Harlots could well be stories from today’s society, and Buffini assures us that the learnings and impacts from current movements such as #MeToo have influenced the writing and thinking behind Harlots.
“Gender politics seems to be in the centre of everyone’s discussions [today]. The show doesn’t shy away from really tricky stories and situations,” she says.
Season two of Harlots is streaming at SBS On Demand: