Badass Bawds: Bisexuality and Female Empowerment in Hulu’s Harlots

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*Spoilers ahead, clearly. 

All hail the golden era of television, when there are more roles than ever -- and these roles being meaty, full of depth, and varying -- for women. Not only do we love to see women, especially queer women, coming full-force to the forefront in this era of Time’s Up, but we also have to applaud and propel forward the female showrunners, creators, and directors who are finally coming out from behind the massive shadow of the white cis men who’ve been running the show for decades. 

One show that recently had me screaming “women’s rights!” in a way that I wouldn’t typically on a Tuesday evening, but am internally every goddamn day, is Harlots. Its third and final season premiered at the end of August, and I have to say that I’m still reeling. And it’s not just because Jessica Brown Findlay and Liv Tyler’s characters have a tender affair borne out of the trauma they experienced at the hands of the men in their lives, in addition to some repressed sexuality, but that does factor in. 

The show is set in the midst of the outrageous bawd culture of 18th century London, when women were at the helm of their own businesses and, as much as they could be, of their own bodies. Rather than what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on shows like The Deuce -- that is, women being regularly preyed on, assaulted, abused, or killed by their pimps, their tricks, or both -- Harlots explores the underworld of necessary sex work for the lower classes, and especially for lower class women, from a perspective that makes them the calculated protagonists of their stories. 

Harlots isn’t simply a period piece about prostitution, it’s more so a show about empowerment and cunning at the hands of women with all the societal and judicial odds against them. Not to mention, the show was written, directed, and produced mainly by a female team, which is a rarity even in contemporary Hollywood. This is likely the reason for these characters being as dynamic as possible, as flawed and at times nasty as authentic human beings can be, and as truly badass as they possibly could be. 

The powerhouses at the center of the narrative is the Wells family. Margaret Wells, played by powerhouse herself, Samantha Morton, Charlotte Wells, played by the new Sean Bean of death reels, Jessica Brown Findlay, and relative newcomer, Eloise Smyth as the increasingly astute youngest daughter, Lucy Wells, are a force in this show. Their evolutions are at times careful, at times messy, and astounding to watch. 

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It’s made clear that these women didn’t choose a life of sex work from the start. In fact, most of the conflict in the show derives from Margaret Wells longstanding feud with her former bawd, Lydia Quigley, played by British icon, Lesley Manville. There’s no sugarcoating it -- Lydia Quigley is as a bonafide bitch. The story of Margaret’s introduction to a life of prostitution is told over and over again in the show, so much so that both Lucy and Charlotte give eyerolls before the conclusion of Margaret telling it, but it makes it no less shocking -- Quigley handpicked Margaret when she was just 10 years old and sold her to her first cull (or trick) for a pair of shoes. 

But that’s just Margaret’s story. The show goes on to document many of Quigley’s horrific kidnappings of young women, both in the past and present. Quigley’s motivations are at times unclear, and throughout the show, they even shift. It’s difficult to decipher whether she believed that she was saving these women from a life of servitude and poverty, was fully aware of her wrong doings and addicted to the wealth and influence she had gained in noble society, or had been brainwashed from a life of repression, abuse, and sexual violence. 

As you can expect, most all of the characters in Harlots have experienced some type of violence, often at the hands of those closest to them. For example, Quigley’s early rape by her father hardened her -- she admits this as she watches her “mentor,” who in large part helped to faciliate this hardening -- choke to death on a fish bone. Oh, y’all thought this was a show about prostitutes setting aside their wigs for a quick lay? Nope. 

The sweetest relationship that come from shared trauma, from the want to be accepted as is, is between Charlotte Wells and Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam. Raped as a young woman by her psychopathic brother, Lady Isabella is rightfully distrusting of those around her, and reveals that she never had a sexual encounter besides that gruesome episode. Charlotte, who gets the most down on her own time of any character on the show, tries her hand at showing Lady Isabella the kind of love she deserves. But this short-lived tryst makes way for the foreshadowing of another major queer relationship after Charlotte’s untimely death -- Nancy Birch and Lady Isabella. 

Lucy Wells trajectory to being a big, bad, bawd, a position she pines for as the actual sexual aspect of being a harlot is repulsive to her -- which is probably something to do with her virginity being sold to the highest bidder, as well as her first and only love interest being a murderous sociopath -- sees her as the part-owner of a molly house. In the 18th century, a molly house was the name given to a bawdy house specifically for gay men. And it’s not lost on any of the characters that the legal charge for running a molly house is death. 

While a few of these harlots’ queer lives are kept underneath the surface for safety, their intimate feelings are no less enormous. Many of these characters long for not only a better life, but an authentic love, which to them seems impossible. The show goes about this search with the depth these characters deserve. There’s no rom-com will they or won’t they bullshit and for that, we are thankful. When Margaret Wells is supposedly hanged (though really in hiding in America), Charlotte and Nancy, a retired dominatrix, discuss the elusivity of romantic love in one standout scene. A bit condescendingly, Charlotte remarks that Nancy shouldn’t be giving advice on love she’s never been in. In true Nancy and exceedingly British fashion, Nancy says, “I loved your Ma, you c-nt.” 

For a dose of the femme power we deserve to see on TV, and some queer relationships that transcend the forbidden, hell, simply for fucking women doing it for themselves, watch Harlots. 


Dakota Smith is a poet, journalist, and right in the damn center of the Kinsey scale.
Follow her on Twitter: @Likethestates.