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More than a year later, I find myself thinking about handmaids and Harlots again. Last spring, Hulu debuted Bruce Miller’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale just weeks after introducing subscribers to the world of pre-Victorian sex workers on Harlots. I watched the first few episodes of both, eventually offering up my thoughts on Moira Buffini and Alison Newman’s period piece, which was keeping a great mob drama tucked under its towering powdered wig.
At the time, I observed that Hulu was rolling out two series that tackled the fight over women’s bodies. On The Handmaid’s Tale, women have virtually no rights and no worth—that is, unless they’re fertile. True to the source material, if, like June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a woman is able to bear children, she becomes a brood mare. Or, given how frequently Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) tries to shove food down June’s mouth, a calf being fattened up for the obstetrician’s office. Meanwhile, women unable to conceive (and LGBTQ folks—they’re Unpeople, after all) are treated like beasts of burden, toiling away in radioactive fields. The dystopian drama is laden with despair—and dread, as it no longer just feels prescient to viewers—but also defiance. The second season is somehow even darker than the first, but June isn’t giving up, and neither is Emily/Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) or Moira (Samira Wiley).
Still, I’ve had to acknowledge just how difficult watching The Handmaid’s Tale can be, especially if you’re taking in half of the season in just over two days (I know people who managed to watch the first six episodes in a day, and I don’t even know what to say to that). By comparison, Harlots is practically a breeze. It’s a campy yet gritty period drama, but it also concerns women’s agency and a growing evangelical movement. Florence Scanwell (Dorothy Atkinson) may only have one congregant (her daughter, Amelia, played by Jordon Stevens), but still, this zealot kicks up quite a fuss.
But this street preacher protests too much. Florence is also a hypocrite who strikes a deal with one madam, Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville, dripping with jewels and disdain), who keeps her exploited workforce tucked away in a mansion, to get at bawdy house owner Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton, at her raunchiest and most affecting), who shows her “girls” greater consideration—on the surface, anyway. As the first season unfolds, Margaret is revealed to be as ruthless and manipulative as Lydia. The lure of economic freedom and class transition is enough to make Margaret pimp out her own daughters—though Buffini and Newman take pains to demonstrate what few choices any women, let alone those from the “lower classes,” have.
Still, Margaret is more antihero than budding villain. She’s obviously conflicted about pushing her daughters to follow in her footsteps, and she does offer a more reasonable split to the sex workers she employs (I use the term loosely). But Harlots never lets her or the viewer forget that this is still exploitation. Like Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia, and Lydia Quigley, Margaret is complicit in the degradation of other women. The show apportions a fair share of the blame to oppressive patriarchal forces, but it’s rightly much more interested in women: young and old, rich and poor, single and married, grasping and struggling, mistreated and complicit.
The evangelical reform that followed these ribald Georgian times and gave way to the Victorian era is still in its nascent phase here, but often, scenes from Harlots play like the pre-Gilead flashbacks we see on The Handmaid’s Tale. Remember, June/Offred is considered an adulterer for having married a divorced man; it’s not too much of a stretch to think that the Sons Of Jacob would lump her in with women wrongly (and almost exclusively) blamed for society’s moral decline. And though the plight of women on Harlots isn’t presented nearly as bleakly as on The Handmaid’s Tale, their level of agency is roughly the same. Being born a poor woman in Georgian London offers little more than the fictional Gilead. Margaret’s only clawed her way to the middle; she might have her own brothel, but now she’s after respectability. And as far as upper-class women go, they really only exert power over other women.
Obviously, the respective showrunners have different approaches and objectives, which is why Harlots is, for the most part, more psychologically bearable than The Handmaid’s Tale. But the series have also proven to be even more complementary than they first seemed. Slowly but surely, Hulu’s made room for multiple battlefields in the war on women.
Harlots returns July 11. The complete first season is available now on Hulu.