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The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Harlots is a drama about sex workers in the 18th century. Women play strong central roles, and the cast has surprising (for the period) racial diversity; the sex workers portrayed are strong, independent, and unashamed of how they make their living. However, the setting does mean there's a lot of sexual content, with numerous scenes with couples having sex on beds, up against brick walls, in carriages, and in many other locations with moaning, thrusting, and bare breasts and backsides (male and female). Other scenes depict oral sex (no private parts are seen). A woman's virginity is auctioned off; sex workers talk frankly about starting their business as young as age 10; young children listen at doors when sex workers are entertaining clients. A man pulls a woman's hair to threaten her into silence after he can't maintain an erection during sex; a woman is coerced into having sex with a man to get a job at a brothel. Sex and body parts are frequently talked about, often in archaic language, with references to "cunny," "quim," "heavers" (breasts), and "prick." Other strong language includes "bitch," "hell," and "damn," as well as insults connected with sex work: "whore," "slut," "pimp." Characters are killed on-screen, and there are references to rape; women are pushed and treated roughly by law enforcement. In one scene, a customer who wants "flagellation" is seen getting his bare buttocks beaten by a sex worker.
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What's the story?
In 18th-century London, this drama tells us at the outset, one in five women sell sex for money, calling themselves HARLOTS. Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) is a madam working her way up the ladder, hoping to move her crew of women to a classier address and to get her daughters settled in positions of power. Charlotte Wells (Jessica Brown Findlay) is the oldest, on the verge of signing a contract with a nobleman that will make her his kept mistress. Meanwhile, strapped for cash, Margaret decides that Lucy (Eloise Smyth) is ready to enter the profession. To complicate matters, Margaret's sworn enemy (and former boss) Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) is determined to keep Margaret and her employees exactly where they are (or to drive them out of business altogether). The battle is on -- and it seems there's only room for one woman at the top.
Is it any good?
Dramas about sex work can go wrong in dozens of ways, but this smart, nuanced, feminist series is perhaps the best portrait of prostitution ever to hit the small screen. When we meet the Wells women and dive into their squalid, captivating world, Lucy has just gotten her hands on a copy of Harris' List, the Yelp of the day for sex workers. Except for the quick shots of customers engaged in "intimate congress" (as a disapproving judge calls the work in court), the setting could just as easily be a hair salon, a teacher's lounge, or anywhere that women have traditionally gathered to talk shop.
Before long, the focus has widened as we see the pretty house Charlotte's lord has bought her (as well as the emotional games she has to play to hold onto it, and him) and the upscale brothel run by Madame Quigley, who insists her "girls" know how to sing, talk with wit, and play an instrument as well as satisfy customers physically. But no matter where Harlots takes us, there are working women: lounging, servicing customers, gossiping, hatching schemes. Women are the center of the action, plying their trade in a time when it was one of the only ones available to them. These characters sometimes enjoy sex work, sometimes find it funny, and sometimes positively despise it, a nuanced perspective on the work that's extraordinarily rare. Even if you don't approve of their profession, you will be fascinated by the way these women live, and you'll root for their success. As Margaret sums up her aims in the first episode, "This city is made of our flesh -- every beam, every brick. We'll have our piece of it."
Talk to your kids about ...
Period dramas have to find ways to convey to the viewer where and when they're set. How does this drama tell the viewer where you are in space and time? Would you know without the opening titles? How?
This series was created and written by women, and the main characters are female. Does this surprise you? Are male or female characters more often the center of the action on TV shows? Do men or women more often write and create TV shows? Check out the production team on some of your favorite shows -- who writes, produces, and directs them? Does that affect the gender balance of the show?
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