Prostitution has been a script element used in a variety of TV shows and movies. That’s why the team behind “Harlots,” the new series streaming on Hulu that takes a look at the world’s oldest profession, was determined their series would be more than about sex and heaving bosoms.
Executive producer Alison Owen stresses the importance was to make the series very much about the female gaze. Their rule from the start for the series set in 18th century London was “everything from the whore’s eye view.”
“Everything is looking out rather than looking in at these women. That’s not to say that can’t have lots of fun. And you’ll see that there’s as much male nudity as there is female nudity in the program,” Owen says. “It was very important for us for it to be empowering, to look at these women in a different way to see how they looked at the world rather than to see how men looked at them.
“There’s no male gaze. It’s all looking outwards.”
Most of that gave will be by Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) a madam dealing with running her brothel and being the mother to daughters Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Lucy (Eloise Smyth). When her business is threatened by rival madam Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), Wells must fight back even if it means losing her family and possibly her life.
Owen, along with fellow executive producers Debra Hayward and Alison Carpenter, did a massive amount of research to make sure their series was as authentic as possible. One big source was the book “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies” published from 1757-1795. Each edition contained entries describing the appearance and sexual specialties of about 120–190 prostitutes.
The series comes from a team of women and many of the episodes were directed by women. This not only created more jobs for female directors but helped reinforce the mantra of keeping the series coming from a woman’s point of view.
“When women watch a program, when women view art or anything, you’re always silently, almost unconsciously, refracting the information that’s been given you by the guy who’s been doing it and reinterpreting it from a female point of view,” Owen says. “So by having just women do it, it becomes entirely female.
“When I saw the first cut, what struck me most about it was that although it was so bold and challenging and brilliant, for me as a woman, it was incredibly relaxing to not be doing this continual extra work women have to do the whole time. It was just female, and it just was like settling into a warm bath and watching this thing that was made entirely for me.”
The discussion of making a TV show about sex work and promoting women’s rights comes across as being from polar opposites. Hayward stresses that the research and series show that being a prostitute was actually a way for women to be socially mobile at the time.
In 18th century London, the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat who married would lose her fortune to her husband. Some prostitutes kept their earnings and many owned their own homes. while others were not as fortunate. That’s what “Harlots” will show.
“I think what it does really well is show prostitution from every social angle. You see the high class prostitution, the girls that are having sex in back alleys. You see the cost of it emotionally, and you see the cost of it practically,” Manville says. “One in five women in London in 1763 were prostitutes.
“That’s an enormous amount of women who were, probably not always out of choice, using that to make a living.”
- 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, March 29, Hulu