“The city is made of our flesh. We’ll have our piece of it”. –Margaret, Harlots
By Lynnette Nicholas @truelylynnette
Harlots is a British period drama series created by two women, Alison Newman and Moira Buffini. Harlots is a necessary retelling of time as it truly showcases multidimensional female characters. It’s the history that is rarely seen in societies where patriarchal norms reign supreme. Harlots gives permission for women not only to be objectified but for women to take ownership of that very objectification.
In Harlots, the woman is allowed to be the shrewd business-minded pimp, calculated and loving mistress, embattled mother and the liberated whore. Many of the narratives in Harlots defy convention, while unintentionally making a mockery of the very use of institutionalized thinking as a means of control. Many of the episodes throughout both series pointedly expose–that marriage can be a façade, that men can ferociously lust for women in an attempt to hide their true sexuality and brings to mind the questions: “Is marrying for money or station in life, any different than being a harlot?” “Should women not take ownership of their vaginas?” “Is marriage a form of protection, or is it oppression?”
Not only does the station in life of Margaret (Samantha Morton), as a warm, yet calculated madam overseeing a middle-class brothel, give a raw glimpse into the lives of marginalized women in the 18thcentury. Margaret, whose own mother sold her for a pair of shoes has come to learn that “The only safety is in money”. It is this ideology that she struggles with as she passes down this emotional trauma to her two, beautiful daughters.
Uniquely, it is also the lives of the three black female characters that give viewers the opportunity to view social norms and institutions like marriage, racial caste systems, and classicism from a unique perspective during a very interesting time in Europe and America’s history simultaneously. While the narrative takes place in the 18thcentury, we get a refreshing view of the lives of black women outside of the context of slavery. The racial stratification is evident. at one point Lydia Quigley, Margaret’s long-time rival says to a new harlot in reference to her workload, “You’ll work like a black.”
While racial stratification is evident in Harlots, it is not the highlight of the storylines. We get to see black women and their humanity and stories in an up-close and personal manner that is rare for television audiences. Not only are the women in Harlots used as property, but many of these very women choose to re-appropriate that very oppression into a form of empowerment for themselves.
Each woman represents different of life. The very essence and station in life of Harriet Lenox, (Pippa Bennett-Warner), flips tradition on its head, as she is not her white master’s mistress. She is his rightful wife who bears him two free children of color in an 18thcentury climate. Her very being personifies a part of history that is often left unspoken. The reality is that black women were not just the breeder, concubine or the slave. Black women throughout history were also highly desired by men around the world.
The author, Anne Rice gives a beautiful depiction of this strong desire that white men had for beautiful, women of color in her historical novel “Feast of All Saints”. Additionally, Mrs. Lennox gives a glimpse into the lives of free black women and women of color, their privilege, and their burdens. She is an 18thcentury woman who can read and write, who does not cower in the face of those who see themselves as superior.
Violet Cross (Rosalind Eleazer), appears on the surface to be the beautiful, liberated harlot. It is her first interaction with Amelia Scanwell (Jordon Stevens), the pious daughter of a preacher, who she befriends and enters into a sexual and emotional relationship with; that we come to learn that she too is seeking an unconditional love that most humans seek. When Violet and Amelia initially meet, Amelia genuinely says to her, “God loves you”. Violet for a brief moment pauses as if she’s truly absorbing these words, and hurries along.
Later in the series, it is Violet who comes to Amelia aide. It is through the characters of Violet and Amelia, that viewers are gifted with a glimpse of how two people who appear to be opposites come together in a mutual quest for love and acceptance coupled with liberation.
It’s the liberation of Violet, that gives Amelia the invitation to understand the ways of the flesh. While simultaneously, it is the innocence and purity of Amelia, the preacher’s daughter, that allows Violet to accept love. The narrative clearly denotes that it is the restrictive nature of Amelia’s religion that allows the sins of the flesh to so easily seduce her. It would be all too easy to say that Violet is the seductress when Amelia so easily obliges. It is through Violet and her interactions with Amelia, that viewers come to see that legalism can be binding and that freedom of expression is a form of release too.
Limehouse Nell (Sheila Atim), is a Black harlot who is advertised as ‘exotic’ due to her dark skin. This is expected as in many cultures and communities globally, the beauty of darker-skinned women is exoticized and placed in juxtaposition to what is seen as fair beauty. Nell is depicted as strong, heady and blunt. This image of a strong, black woman in the 18thcentury, is an image that viewers rarely see depicted. Viewers are often inundated with images of oppression and grief as it pertains to black women during this era. Nell’s forthrightness seems quite fitting, considering the raw honesty and unconventionally provocative manner in which this series is written.
The black women of Harlots are presented as fully-formed, multi-dimensional humans whose stories are quite intriguing.
Stream Harlots Seasons 1 & 2 on Hulu today.