Race in Harlots

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With the setting of 18th-century brothels, the Hulu series Harlots (2017-) could easily have been just a frothy sex romp in corsets and wigs. While it definitely has light moments, the female writers and directors delve deeper into historical issues of women’s status, class divisions, and even race in the period.

Of about 25 characters that appear in the 8 episodes of the first season, 4 named characters (2 male, including one child, and 2 female) are black, so that’s about 16% of the show’s people. Which is a not entirely inaccurate representation, all things considered. According to Gretchen Gerzina in her book, Black London, by the mid-18th century, blacks made up 1%-3% of London’s population. Many of these people were working as servants — they had little choice because the Lord Mayor of London ruled in 1731 that “no Negroes shall be bound apprentices to any Tradesman or Artificer of this City.” The main characters in Harlots are all at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, so it makes sense there would be more blacks in their world, as the story is begins in 1763.

 

Harlots (2017)

William North (played by Danny Sapani)

He’s one of the few male characters in the series who aren’t shown in a mostly negative light (the others being some variation on pimp, procurer, john, toff, abuser, spy, liar, cheat). William is the partner in business and in bed of Margaret Wells, who runs the main brothel that the story revolves around. The pair have a young son together, Jacob, and their relationship is clearly that of equals.

Harlots (2017) Harlots (2017)

Backstory on the show describes William as ‘born a free man in England rather than as a slave,’ and he works at the brothel as something of a protector and bouncer. He’s often a voice of reason and a calming influence on Margaret. However, the way he helps Harriet get her children back goes against Margaret’s initial idea and causes friction between the couple, setting up potential conflict for the next season of the show.

Harlots (2017)

William wears dark jewel-tone colors, in contrast to the bright colors of the rich customers or the dull black / brown suits of the justice and clark fellows.

Harlots (2017)

I’ll note that the dark shirt is not all that historically accurate — it was far more common for shirts to be plain white, especially for a lower or middling-class man. But I don’t deny that it looks sharp!

William seems like a realistic black character of the period to me because he is incredibly pragmatic. He sees the world for what it is with no illusions, and he has few aspirations for himself, his son, or anyone else. His actions are measured, thoughtful, yet forceful. This is not a cliche, stock character, but a man who has experienced hardships and learned how to function in a society that sees him as other.

Harlots (2017) Harlots (2017)

 

 

Harlots (2017)

Jacob Wells North (played by Jordan A. Nash)

William and Margaret’s son doesn’t have much of a speaking role in Harlots, but he is often visible and his presence is felt. As a free black boy, his status is considered and discussed by others, and in one scene, Margaret rails against the idea of Jacob becoming a servant in some rich people’s home. I feel like is an allusion to the many, many 18th-century portraits of upper-class men and women with little black boy servants in the background, where the boys are sometimes dressed in “exotic” clothing and treated as accessories.

Harlots (2017) Harlots (2017)

 

 

Harlots (2017)

Violet Cross (played by Rosalind Eleazar)

She’s a street-walking prostitute, working under the wing of Nancy Birch (a friend of Margaret Wells). Violet also picks an occasional pocket when she can. Her life on the streets brings her in contact with Amelia, daughter of religious crusader Florence Scanwell. Instead of being at odds, the two strike up a flirtation that becomes passionate over the course of the series.

Harlots (2017)

Violet has a bigger wardrobe than the rest of Nancy’s girls (who seem to wear the same outfits throughout the season). She wears this gold gown and at least two different purple dresses.

Harlots (2017) Harlots (2017)

Violet is very open and approachable to other characters, which doesn’t feel wholly accurate for someone who’s been living on the streets, presumably hand-to-mouth, doing whatever it takes to survive. She’s the most carefree of Nancy’s girls; the others express a bit more concern about their edgy existence. Her storyline is enjoyable to watch, but it doesn’t feel realistic to me. Part of that is how random it is for her and the supposedly ultra-religious Amelia to hook up — as if the showrunners just wanted to add a queer romance in, and these characters were available. I’m unclear on either Violet’s orAmelia’s motivations. Violet is one of those very useful characters that honestly could be anyone of any race or gender, whose just there to move the plot along. Hopefully she’ll get more development.

Harlots (2017)

 

 

Harlots (2017)

Harriet Lennox (played by Pippa Bennett-Warner)

Harriet comes to London as the wife of Nathaniel Lennox, a former lover of Margaret Wells. Harriet had been enslaved on Nathaniel’s plantation in America, and they have two young children together. Shortly after Margaret borrows money from Nathaniel for her new establishment, he dies, and Harriet realizes her “husband” never completed the paperwork to free her. Thus, she and her children are property of Nathaniel’s older son by his first / legal / white wife. The son lets Harriet go, but keeps her children, saying he’ll sell them back in America. Harriet works for Margaret to earn money and buy her children back, first cleaning house, and then becoming a prostitute.

Harlots (2017)

Harriet with Nathaniel. Note that she mostly just wears tignons (head wraps) at the beginning when she’s with him.

Harlots (2017)

Harriet comes to Margaret after Nathaniel’s death — unsure of what to do, but still not knowing the extent of her problems.

Harlots (2017)

Searching through Nathaniel’s desk for her legal papers. Nice view of the fabrics used here — appropriate for the period and showing her as the demure presumed wife.

Harlots (2017)

Shit gets real with Nathaniel’s elder son.

Harlots (2017)

From slave to wife to cleaning woman to …

I find Harriet’s storyline and character the most fascinating of all of these in Harlots. She thought she had gotten out of slavery by marrying her master, but he lied to her — that just feels emblematic of the white supremacist patriarchy right there! It’s further compounded by the older son taking away her children, so she’s forced to get them back however she can. And what’s available to her? What will earn enough money? Sex work. That’s literally her only option.

Harlots (2017)

The party’s theme is “Hell” so red dress works at first, but then it becomes her main dress for the rest of the series, which is a bit, IDK, obvious. None of the other whores are so visually branded like that.

However, she does try to take this back to empower herself. Instead of having rape forced on her as an enslaved person, she now chooses when, where, and how to have sex and gets paid for it and uses the money for her benefit. Plus, in the scene where she turns her first trick, she does so in a very domineering fashion.

Harlots (2017)

She takes care of Lord Repton, who has a nasty reputation and had scared off Margaret Well’s youngest daughter.

Finally, she and Willam outsmart Lennox’s son to get her children back. It’s a bit of a nice, happy ending for her, which is probably more of what we’d like to see happen than what really would have happened in the time period. But there’s still the open question of what she will do to support her family in season two and if her relationship with William with change/develop, leaving lots of opportunities for historical storytelling.

Harlots (2017)

Harriet’s kids are free with her.

Harlots (2017)

Thanks to William’s help.

 

 

What do you think about Harlots‘ treatment of race in 18th-century London?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

16 Responses

  1. laBelleNoire

    I can’t even tell you how much I LOVE THIS SHOW. Frock Flicks’s thoughtful studies of costume, race, gender, and class add so much to my enjoyment.

    Reply
  2. Sarah Lorraine

    I love Harriet more than pretty much any other character in this show, so far. She’s one of the most well-rounded of all the characters, and like you said, her story arc feels realistic for the time period for a woman of color. What’s great about her is that she is virtually the only character in the series who actually achieves anything through personal empowerment but without making drastic anachronistic changes to history in order to do so. I relate the most to her out of all the women in the show, mostly because I could see myself making similar choices if I were in her 18th-century shoes.

    Not going to lie, I cheered when she said “I am Dido, queen of Carthage.” She’s smart, educated, and elegant. I hope the next season does her as much justice as this season did.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yep, you cheer for her, but Harriet’s character & story aren’t written in totally a modern, wish-fulfillment way. Getting her kids back was the only thing that felt a smidge easy in the end, & that was just a minor quibble I had (the build-up made it seem like that should have been a lot harder, plus what I’ve read about black families being ripped apart being more common).

      Reply
  3. Peacoclaur

    I really liked the way that Harlots was willing to address the subject of race in this time period BUT… since this is Georgian London, where are the asians/Indians? In this time period there would have also been more than a few , mostly sailors and labourers but also some women and children from relations between EIC workers and local women, from Mughal India due to the East India Company and they are nowhere to be seen. It feels like a really strange oversight is all I’m sayin…

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Asian#History_in_Britain

    I don’t think it’s a cynical ploy to appeal to Americans as some others have said on the internet but it does feel like an oversight for a pedantic nerd like me…

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Sure, the show could have included more POCs, but I’m willing to put that down to time / budget constraints — esp. considering how rushed some of the final episodes plot twists felt. They didn’t know until the series ended if it would be renewed. It will be very interesting to see if the second season expands the world a bit!

      Reply
  4. Saraquill

    Woot, the characters all have natural hair!

    I’ve never investigated, but any idea how many frock flicks pay attention to details like that as opposed to anachronistic treated hair?

    Reply
  5. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I adore this show! I adore that they are not all thin, conventionally pretty, and well scrubbed. I think that the romance/relationship between Violet and Florence is a direct reference to Anne Lister and her first fiancée Eliza Raine. Eliza was the wealthy daughter of an EIC surgeon and part Indian on her mother’s side. In fact, Anne Lester or Gentleman Jack as she was known would be an awesome frock flick.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      There was one Anne Lister frock flick (search the archives — we have a short review & have referred to it a couple times), plus the story is being made into another TV movie called ‘Gentleman Jack’ by the same woman who did the recent Bronte Sisters TV adaption.

      Reply
  6. Susan Pola Staples

    I am also a fan of Harlots (Harloteers a la Mouseketeers).

    The show is a joy to watch and Snark (Lucy’s metamorphosis from idjit to Dominatrix is an example). My favourite POC in the show is William. He’s the moral compass of the show.

    I also like Harriet. She has guts. Her whole world went topsy-turvy and not in a G&S way. She hung in, did what she had to to earn money and got her kids with help from William. Wonder if they’re going to pair them in 2?

    The Violet/Amelia pairing doesn’t come off due to why would anyone Evangelical Christian woman express what she’s been taught as damning behaviour?

    Reply
    • Peacoclaur

      sodomy in England (sorry for not being PC but I’m using the c18 term here) was seen as a male thing and what we’d now call “lesbian” sexual behaviour was more of a grey area because as far as Violet and Amelia’s contemporaries would have been concerned if it did not involve sticking a penis somewhere it wasn’t sex, hence whether it was damning or not was open to interpretation. I just felt like it was more box tickey than anything because the writers were like “queer and interracial – sweet!” than actually thinking it out.

      Reply
      • Susan Pola Staples

        Thanks for the correction. I agree with you on their relationship. It felt like the producers were ticking off boxes for characters to me too.

        Reply
  7. Kaite

    I seem to be in the minority, but I am actually a fan of Violet. I don’t entirely disagree with some of the complaints, but I think that while Violet might not be ‘typical’ for the era, I don’t think that anything about the character is implausible. The fact that she was atypical for the era would have bothered me if she had been the only black person in the show, but since she was one of several, was less of a problem, especially since the other characters are fairly typical of the era.

    Reply
  8. Hawke

    I enjoy them all, but I feel like I’d enjoy Violet a bit more if she put her hair up! I know it’s a little thing but it was bothering me the whole time she was on screen.

    Reply
  9. Lindsey

    I was happily surprised by the intersectional perspective on the show. Considering it takes place in 18th Century England, I was expecting it to be heavily white-washed. Not only that but I love the fact that- at least in Margaret and Nancy’s places- white and black men and women treat each other as equals. Like other racially diverse regions of the period, they identify more closely on their shared socio-economic status than racial identities (though the show still very realistically portrays racism against Black men and women). Another thing I noticed in episode 3-when they were struggling to get into the new house: in the conversation between Will and Margaret after Will and the girls were attacked on Greek Street, when Margaret brags about how she would have handled the situation, Will tells her that he can’t do that. Although it’s not plainly stated, I saw it as alluding to the fact that as a white woman, Margaret-even though she is a sex worker- still has more social capital, white privilege, than Will as a white man; Margaret could have gone toe-to-toe with those creeps on Greek Street, would have gotten out of the situation alive, and would have gotten into the house; had Will actually fought back, he would have ended up killed and the girls, and especially Jacob, would have gotten hurt.

    Reply

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