I started watching Hulu’s Harlots. I have found it very addictive. We’re only two episodes in and I’m looking forward to next week’s episode already. The basic premise of the series revolves around a feud between two brothels in 18th century London. The series has some strongly crafted compelling female characters, and I like how it’s a story about women, written and produced by women.
However (yes, here it comes) I do find the portrayal of sex puzzling, if not worrying.
In a story about harlots and brothels, of course there will be sex. You’d think you’d encounter sex in all its varietals at least, from tedious and lackluster to utterly depraved and lustful to kinky to intimate and any others besides. Instead what Harlots has presented so far makes sex a joke. Sex is, by and large, presented as being something lewd and comical.
One of the first and most obvious jokes concerns a woman who is portrayed as a kind of dominatrix, who whips men for their pleasure. This is a sort of stock-character in TV these days: the woman who (ha ha ha) beats men (how funny!) because the men asked for it.* Instead of exploring the promising and complex dynamics between an actual dom and the men who are submissive to her, Harlots, like many other shows, descends into camp and making cheap jokes.
One of the first sex scenes is between Charlotte, a harlot, and Howard, who she is a mistress to. The sex between them is playful at first, but then descends into comedy when Howard presents Charlotte with a pineapple as a gift, declaring “You are the pineapple of Great Britain”.
In another scene between Charlotte and Howard, he refers to his penis as “the serpent”, while all but begging Charlotte to have sex. Again, this is played as comical.
Lastly, there is a scene between a saucy young harlot, Emily Lacey, who seduces a baffled Mr. Quigley (I don’t remember his first name). In the following sex scene we see Mr. Quigley’s ass and hear Emily Lacey loudly declaring “You’re my man!” to Mr. Quigley. The whole proceeding is loud and lewd, played (once again) for comedy.
I can and do appreciate that the creators probably intended for the sex in the series to be overwhelmingly lewd and comical, and I do appreciate the way they do toy with gender dynamics in the series. It is still baffling to me that they portray sex in such a limited manner. Even if they are taking the point of view of the harlots, who would think sex was a joke, something obscene and comical — isn’t there room for more than just that kind of sex in the series?
An example of a missed opportunity presents itself when a virginal young harlot, Lucy, seduces a virgin stable boy, convincing him she can “make [him] a man”. No scene between them is shown. No intimate, sweet moments. And while a tender first time sex scene might contrast, even clash, with the usual aesthetic of the show and the existing sex scenes, that clash is exactly the kind of thing which would elevate the show, rather than cause discord. It would provide a sweet contrast to the coarse, rough quagmire of life in the world of the show. And it would demonstrate the promise of something more, something kinder in life.
Similarly, a scene between the main character, Margaret, and her partner (again, I forget his name) would provide tenderness, softening Margaret and showing a visceral intimacy between her and her partner. But I have a very strong feeling that that will not be shown in the series, and thus, all that potential will be lost.
Still, the series has a great deal of merit. It’s a strong women’s story, and does examine some of the gender dynamics of the world of the show. It’s refreshingly fierce and unapologetic in the way it portrays sex work and sex workers. All and all, it’s a strong show and I will happily continue watching it, even if there are gaps in the ways they portray sex.
* Some of this is doubtless complicated by gender roles and expectations, both past and present. Men are never expected to submit to women, so the idea of a male being submissive and asking to be humiliated, is very much uncomfortable to many people, even those within the BDSM community. Thus, we resort to laughter to cover up that discomfort.
Edited 4/23/17: The series has begun to show sex in its many myriad forms, not just as a farce. And the series has expressed intimacy and tenderness between characters in non-sexual ways which were very effective. Equally important is that they refused to show scenes of brutalization and sexual assault, but instead imply those and show the aftermath of trauma. This is a responsible way to handle sexual assault and violence — by not fetishizing the violence and instead placing emphasis on what it does to the survivor.
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