Harlots is pure candy with bright colors and punk rock music, but in between the wigs, corsets, and heart-shaped beauty marks are lessons for the twenty-first century.
Here’s what this campy period piece about two rival brothels in eighteenth century London taught me about how to live now.
You can play a part, but remember who you are without it
Harlots follows the Wells ladies, led by matron Margaret Wells, the Madame of her own house after having risen up from being a working girl herself, played by the incomparable Samantha Morton.
Her eldest daughter Charlotte is the talk of the town, the beautiful and witty mistress of a rich lord who’s promised to take care of her as long as she satisfies his whims. It’s very different from Sybil Crawley of Downton Abbey, Jessica Brown Findlay’s breakout role.
Lucy, played by Eloise Smyth, is the innocent younger daughter who’s watched her mother and sister work the streets but isn’t sure if this life is for her.
As Lucy delves deeper into this world, Charlotte teaches her how to be a harlot, admitting it’s all an act. She merely plays the part the men want her to play.
In doing so, Charlotte begins to doubt her own role and place in the world. She’s been groomed as a harlot ever since her mother sold her virginity at twelve-years-old. But if she’s not famous coquette Charlotte Wells, then who is she?
Harlots reminded me that in the daily grind, I can’t forget who I really am. I need to remember to take time just for me and find joy in the activities I love to do. My job is merely what I do, but not who I am.
The same holds true for social media. What I post is merely the appearance of what I want people to see of my life, but actually living it is different. I play a role with every tweet or selfie. The real me is more than 140 characters.
There’s power in supporting the sisterhood
Props to Harlots for being a female-centered show with an all-female creative team. You don’t really get that in a male-dominated industry.
I’m a fan of women supporting women, and it becomes more important when the characters in Harlots are faced with tough decisions.
The dueling brothels are the house of Margaret Wells versus the house of Mrs. Quigley. Leslie Manville plays Lydia Quigley with such panache that even when she effectively kidnaps young girls to bring them into her employ, I’m horrified, but I’m also amazed.
Margaret Wells knows how evil Mrs. Quigley can be, so when she’s faced with protecting her own house or saving a young girl in Quigley’s clutches, she chooses to save her own skin, but then things get worse.
It isn’t until Margaret’s friend Nancy (who’s my favorite character because she walks with a whip and dresses like a pirate), reminds her that the original goal was to have a safe space for girls from Quigley, that Margaret has a change of heart and rescues the young woman from a fate worse than death.
That situation reminded me to find strength in other women, and I couldn’t help but think of the Women’s March on Washington as an example of that. Thank you Harlots for teaching me to support the sisterhood as a way to combat oppression, whether that be at home, in the government, or in the workplace.