Game of Thrones made headlines last year for unleashing its first full-frontal penis. Sure, the scene was half-a-split-second long, and featured a male member belonging to a very minor character inspecting it for warts , but still — a major show had embraced male nudity!
Well, if you thought that was an achievement, just wait until you see Harlots, Hulu's latest binge-worthy TV drama, which premieres on March 29. The show stars Samantha Morton as brothel-owner Margaret Wells, who struggles to teach her daughters Charlotte (Jessica Brown-Findlay, a.k.a. Lady Sybil from Downton Abbey!) and Lucy (Eloise Smythe) to navigate the 18th-century Georgian London sex trade scene while keeping her own business thriving. There is sex — lots and lots of sex. And there is nudity, female AND male. But there's also strength, dignity, and compassion.
Sex on TV isn't new. What is noteworthy however, is that everyone involved in developing the show — from co-creators Moira Buffini and Alison Newman, to the directors and writers — is a woman. And it shows. This isn't to say that women are naturally more compassionate, strong or dignified than men, but in a show that deals almost exclusively with female sexuality, having women working behind the scenes makes a huge difference.
"When you’ve got female directors, it is sort of less of a conversation," Buffini explained. "It was actually a sort of shorthand... you just knew people got how those scenes should feel and be because they were women. The conversations didn’t have to be had in the same way that I, very awkwardly, on occasion, tried to explain to a male director how you sort of think it should be and it’s not. He just doesn’t get it.”
It shows. Scenes that could have come off as exploitative instead feel nuanced. I didn't feel the weird split between mind and body that comes over me during most sex scenes — that feeling of having to both grapple with the intellectual and gendered implications of what is happening onscreen ("that is weird and wrong"), while at the same time wanting to sit back and enjoy the action ("but he's so hot and shhh brain!").
That's not to say that the sex in this show is rosy, or mindless. The action takes place in 1763 London, a place where, as the opening scene informs us, "one in five women makes a living selling sex." Some of them, like Margaret Wells, and her rival Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), have managed to set themselves up as madams, and have a certain degree of agency and control over their own fates. Charlotte Wells, Margaret's oldest daughter, is mistress to a rich and influential nobleman who is contractually obligated to pay her a pension if he ever tires of her. But on the other end of the spectrum, you have girls barely over the cusp of puberty selling themselves in the street for pennies, or dying of venereal diseases they can't prevent.
This show is about the ownership of women: if you were single, your father determined your fate. If you were married, you legally became your husband's property. If you lived in a brothel, you had a debt to repay to your madam. Harlots, at least, had the opportunity to own their bodies, if only because they got paid for them. How can you portray all of that accurately without women behind the camera?
"Until very recently, women were property," Buffini pointed out. "Of their fathers, their husbands, their owners, their lovers, their husbands. I think that’s what the show is really about. It’s about an economy in which women have no power and how some women try to turn that to their advantage. So heaven forfend there should ever be another economy where women have no power, and we know that in lots of places in the world, those economies still exist in exactly the same way as they did in 18th-century London."
Old friends Buffini and Newman had been talking about collaborating on a project for years when the idea came to them— a sort of Orange Is The New Black, but in 18th-century London. "We were looking for a show that would have a huge female cast with parts for women of all ages, shapes, and sizes, and it seems that this world was perfect for that," Newman said. "The more we looked into it, the more we researched, the more we explored the world, we discovered that some fantastic stories and women who survived in a patriarchal society, who lived outside of polite society, who really wrote their own rules, and the ones who thrived — really thrived — they became huge celebrities. And of course then you go to the other end of the spectrum, where you get street girls where life is a lot tougher, and we just thought it was a really, really interesting world. We wanted to do a show which was very much from their point of view."
That's why the sex is so exciting. The stories are told from female points of view — and if that happens to involve nudity, then let's get naked! But what's refreshing is that neither the female nor male nudity (what Newman and Buffini call "equal opportunity nudity") feels gratuitous.
"The Georgians actually didn’t like getting their clothes off that much, and when you think about it, those corsets — wow — it’s quite a production getting in and out of them, I’d imagine," Newman joked. "We never wanted any of our nudity to be gratuitous, and whenever you do see sex — and of course there’s sex in the show — it’s always to help drive story, or it’s funny, or it’s something to do with a character. We don’t just cut away to a rather gratuitous, icky sex scene."
The sex isn't exactly guilt-free — some scenes are truly difficult to watch. But it's honest. And like dicks, that's something we haven't seen much of on TV.