TOTAL SPOILER ALERT. If you watch Mad Men but haven’t seen Sunday’s episode yet, you’ve been warned. But the whole wide internet has been talking about this episode all week, so we don’t really know how you don’t know. Despite this being Friday, Charlotte and I couldn’t possible expect you all to get along without hearing what Tits and Sass had to say about “The Other Woman.”
Bubbles: Along with the smoking, racism, Beatles references, and plastic raincoats, the subordinate place of women in the workplace and the home is one of the ways Mad Men reminds viewers it’s set in the Sixties. Last Sunday’s episode, “The Other Woman,” gave each female lead gender-related obstacles: Peggy Olson was thwarted in her efforts to be recognized professionally, Megan Draper had to assert her independence within marriage, and Joan Harris confronted her treatment as an asset to be used to win an account.
Joan turned/was turned out for one very expensive trick in this episode when she agreed to sleep with a sleazy Jaguar dealer—thought to have a crucial say in whether the agency would land the account, and willing to booty call- blackmail the firm —in exchange for a partnership stake in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (Harris? Holloway?). The act was revealed in an effective, emotionally manipulative bit of story structure. First we think she didn’t go, as Don Draper stops by her apartment to tell her that 1) he wasn’t in on the partners’ decision to extend the offer to her and 2) it wasn’t worth it (I hoped she’d just look at him and say “I’m not your damn mother, Don,” instead of giving him that maternal “good boy!” pat on the cheek). But then in cutaways, we see he came by after the deal was done. My first reaction was mild panic as I thought “Oh, no, I hope this doesn’t mean she misses out on the payday!” It would be like getting ripped off by a customer/client. And then I thought “Boy, when Sal wouldn’t bang the closet case from Lucky Strike, they didn’t offer him shit, and then they just canned his ass.”
But Joan went through with it and grabbed the brass ring of partnership, which in my opinion is as much of a happy ending as we’re likely to see on this show. Opinions in the weird world of television recapping varied widely, though, and give us a great opportunity to look at some of the tropes that get trotted out whenever people talk about prostitution. Woman’s bodies don’t just belong to their inhabitants, after all. They’re for everyone to have an opinion about! Starting with their value.
Harlots is a new drama on Hulu following the misadventures and rivalries of two competing brothels in mid-18th century London. Created by Moira Buffini and Allison Newman, and loosely based on research by Hallie Rubenhold, Harlots isn’t only notable for being about harlots—all the writers and directors are women also, which allows for a truly unprecedented lack of the male gaze and titillation shots, and instead creates room for the characters to be fully-fleshed people. History geek Tits and Sass contributors Kitty Stryker and Red discuss the first episodes and what sex worker life was like in the Georgian England setting of the show.
On historical context:
Kitty: The one in five women are sex workers at the time statistic, cited in the beginning of the show, is a high estimate, but it is quoted a lot, and may not be incorrect. The number appears to come from historian Dan Cruickshank in his book, The Secret History Of Georgian London: How The Wages Of Sin Shaped The Capital. He is also where the number of of £1.5 billion in today’s money as the gross turnover of sex work funds at the time comes from.
Red: Capitalism and a market economy were just starting to take over and the situation of women was changing, as the public sphere became the exclusive province of men in England. At the same time, capitalism was pushing the growth of a relatively new genre: porn! Much of the earliest porn consists of dialogues between whores or a whore recounting her exploits (a la Fanny Hill).
While the one in five stat is high, women dipped in and out of sex work as necessary, and the word whore didn’t exclusively mean a professional until later on in the century.
Kitty: It’s also worth noting that while sex work was prominent, “bawds,” or madams, were deeply loathed by London society—one famous bawd was stoned to death for her part in “corrupting the innocent.” Now, to be fair, many bawds did go around looking for naive farm girls to offer free housing to, only to then trap them with false debt for the lodgings and food they used. But this is also definitely where the hatred of pimps strongly developed.
Covent Garden was the place for sex workers at the time! Golden Square, also referenced in the show, incidentally, went from being a place for wealthy up-and-coming sex workers to a place for dire poverty—it becomes the epicenter of the cholera epidemic that wiped out a lot of London in 1854.
On Harris’ List, an anonymous book of commentary on Covent Garden prostitutes, a kind of antecedent to today’s board escort reviews—the show opens with Lucy (Eloise Smyth) reading each brothel worker’s entry aloud to her:
Kitty: The history of Harris’s List is actually super interesting and this was a good book on it—Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold, the book this show is actually loosely based on. You can read the list here for free, by the way!
Red: Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) is based on a real woman Rubenhold wrote about, and so is her mother—Elizabeth Ward, Samantha Morton’s character. They changed the last name to Wells in the show, and her first name to Margaret. The real Charlotte changed her last name to Hayes after she got her first rich protector and left her mother’s brothel.
Interesting note: Some of the women who paid Harris to write good reviews of them in his list formed a “Whores’ Club” where they met and drank together and paid dues, and any of the club members who needed help got some of the dues.
On the contract Charlotte’s thinking about signing with her benefactor and how it compared to marriage at the time:
These contracts were common among famous, sought-after sex workers. Some had two or more going at a time sometimes! Many times these contracts were oral contracts, and would stipulate how much the kept woman would get per month in cash and gifts, if she would be given an apartment or not, if her bills would be paid, new clothing, etc.
Because what she gave in exchange was often just “understood,” it left a lot of wiggle room for her. Often, when such a contract was broken and the arrangement was declared over, she could also negotiate for annuities, perhaps in exchange for keeping his secrets.
One attractive thing about having such a contract is that the person paying often paid to the bawd who “owned” the sex worker in question. In order for the sex worker to be “released” to the status of kept woman, the buyer would have to pay off all debts the sex worker had accrued according to the bawd. Becoming a kept woman could mean less risk of syphilis, which was a disfiguring death sentence at the time, and also could mean when the arrangement ended, you were free to do what you wanted as you weren’t indebted to a house anymore.
I think it’s interesting that while Margaret obviously feels a lot of resentment for being sold to Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) when she was 10 (a sadly pretty common occurrence at the time—the youngest on record was eight, and people believed having sex with a child would cure you of STIs), and Charlotte’s virginity was auctioned off at the age of consent (which was 12 for girls, 14 for boys at the time), Lucy appears to be at least 18 and is still “not ready.” I wonder if Charlotte is upset that her mother got her into sex work, or that she’s upset that despite her mother’s distaste for marriage, here she is being roped into a different but similar contract with Sir George Howard (Hugh Skinner).
Red: My main thoughts on watching were how laughably anachronistic both Charlotte and Lucy ‘s (a fictional character made up for the show) unwillingness to participate in such a huge money generating activity is. The contract that Charlotte turns her nose up at wouldn’t have given him anything close to coverture over her. Instead, it would have offered her either carte blanche over his money or a specific amount of credit to use when shopping. It couldn’t have prevented her from having other lovers; he would have to rely on her discretion. The idea that someone raised in the poverty of Covent Garden would turn up her nose at that and just want to fuck for money without it is so hilarious to me. This was the ultimate goal of whores in the 18th century, because it was a step up to a security just below that of marriage (which also could and did happen between contemporary sex workers and their clients).
My guess is that Charlotte’s reluctance comes from the producers thinking they need some sort of 21st century young woman angst in order to make these characters relatable.
My generation has seen its share of dysfunctional cartoon characters. Many of us were raised on The Simpsons, which arguably paved the way for South Park. I recall South Park making a huge impression on television and popular culture, even though I wasn’t allowed to watch it when it premiered in 1997. Adults older than I are more likely to associate their adolescence with Beavis and Butthead. All of these shows have incited controversy at some point and all were popular. So it should come as no surprise that another occasionally controversial animated comedy would succeed with the same audience. But oh, it irritates me when people assume that I like Family Guy.
I have never felt comfortable with Seth MacFarlane’s brand of humor. And I’m not alone, judging by the reactions to the multiple grosssexist offenses during his turn hosting the Oscars. There is always something about his jokes that gets under my skin and causes me to consider the implications of certain statements.
[Content warning: this piece includes general discussion of rape and domestic violence.]
Maybe every rich little white girl should auction off her virginity in support of Amnesty International, the way Abigail Carlson (Kathryn Newton), teenage daughter of HBO’s Big Little Lies protagonist Madeline Mackenzie, proposes to do.
Abigail’s plot line gained little more than an eye-roll in popular analysis lauding the mini-series as a vision of female solidaritytelling a vital story about abuse. Initially, I would tend to agree that Abigail’s pursuit of justice for child sex slaves is nothing more than a pulpy side-line trotted out for shock value. After all, Big Little Lies is famed prime time soap opera producer David E. Kelley’s project. And, as the perennially popular Law & Order: SVU franchise demonstrates, narratives exploiting child sex trafficking victims are reliable fodder for ratings.
But Big Little Lies deserves a more subtle read. Everything about it is meticulously intentional, from the melancholy pop soundtrack to the pristine landscape of the surf, suggesting sinister undercurrents to all that is pretty on the surface of the idyllic Monterrey community setting. The show was adapted from a book of the same name by Liane Moriarty published in 2014. Kelley was necessarily selective about which elements from the 460-page novel made it to television. Notably, Bonnie Carlson’s backstory1was not included in the series, nor was there a broader exploration of her character development as there was in the book. Her identity was also changed from a white woman in the novel to a Black woman in the series—the only significant Black character in the series—and the setting was relocated from Australia in the book to the upper-class U.S. coastal community of Monterey on-screen. Rather than treating these as auteurial afterthoughts, these changes are better understood as instrumental choices in adapting the central point of the work for television.
When I heard about the Showtime Australia drama Satisfaction, set in a swanky Melbourne brothel, I think I elbowed an old lady out of the way to check it out of the library. Yep, library: they take sex work much less negatively in Australia than they do in the United States. It’s legal, although to varying degrees of decriminalization, normalization, and support depending on what state you’re in. West Australia, where I worked, had a variety of irritating laws designed to prevent women from working outside of brothels: they weren’t allowed to hire support staff, like drivers or security, and often had to file taxes in a totally ridiculous way. In Melbourne, across the country in Victoria, sex work is legally licensed and regulated by the state: workers have licenses, regular mandated medical check-ups, and can work independently or through brothels.
Satisfaction is a super swanky TV show about a super swanky brothel, and I absolutely loved it. I’ve never been to a Melbourne brothel, but I have to assume that the glittery hanging curtains, ornate gilt decor, and licensed bar of 232, the Satisfaction home base, are probably not par for the course. They smell more of “movie set designed to make you impressed” rather than “actual working brothel.” The script, though…the script treats sex workers as real human beings, with dignity and respect, facing a variety of issues unrelated to their jobs. Sometimes they hang out together after work; sometimes they have problems unique to sex work; but for large chunks of every episode, the show discusses human dynamics among a group of women who are working for themselves and doing it by choice. There is no coercion here, and the all-too-frequent stereotype we see on US TV (“Debbie couldn’t pay her rent, and now she’s giving blow jobs for crack in some dude’s Pinto!”) is notably, refreshingly absent.