'Sopranos' With Prostitutes: How 'Harlots' Gives Its Sex Workers New Power
Holli Dempsey tells Playboy why it's important for the Hulu series to humanize its heroes
If you're just now coming to Harlots, the Hulu series that recently launched its second season and focuses on two rival London brothels in the 18th century, you have a lot to catch up on. The show's first season featured, in just eight episodes, an elaborate funeral, a grisly murder, a surprise pregnancy, the start of a love affair (and its abrupt end), a sexual awakening and more alliances built up and cut down than you could count. But with a Saturday binge session, you can jump into a second season that boasts a juicy part for Liv Tyler, an elaborate revenge plot and—as costar Holli Dempsey (who plays harlot-on-the-rise Emily Lacey) explains—more than a few things that will feel very familiar to women in the 21st century.
"I wish there were more things we could [leave behind] in history," Dempsey tells Playboy on a recent afternoon. "But there is definitely resonance now. Unfortunately."
Dempsey sees the show as an opportunity to tell the story of women who weren't just victims of a deeply patriarchal world, but survivors of it. "These women, they worked their whole lives as whores, and then they were dumped in mass graves," she says. "That's the bit that upsets me almost the most—to think that they didn't have dignity, even in death. And TV makers and writers do have a responsibility not to make it a victim porn, because even if you're feeling sorry for these people, that's not what you want. We don't want you to watch, going, 'Aw, it's really sad that these women were treated like that.' We want you to like them, we want you to hate them, we want you to laugh with them."
The show focuses on protagonists who are constantly trying to build not only a sense of safety and protection in a time and place that was very dangerous for women, but a sense of financial security and social capital. In that sense, Dempsey compares it to on-screen narratives told about men in the military. "Men have worked their way through the ranks through the Army, through violence and through war, and things like that," she explains. "And these women had to work their way through the ranks using their bodies and using their wiles, their smarts, and to me that's power, and that's strength as much as anything else."
Even though the show features cruel men in power, like a villainous shadow organization that works with an unscrupulous madam to find girls to brutalize and kill, Dempsey is quick to point out, "We're not having a go at men. Men aren't the problem. It's a man's world—that might be the problem. But within that, there are good men who want to help as well. They really try—I really think it's not a man-hating show. With people like North [one madam's boyfriend, played by Danny Sapan] and characters like that, they really show we couldn't have got through without allies. Every struggle has that—you need allies on the other side who will help you."
While the characters in Harlots are dealing with some incredibly slimy men, Dempsey says it's her male co-workers who give her hope about where the film and television industries are headed in light of the #MeToo movement. "I think we've definitely progressed so much," the actress says. "[Some] people are saying, 'You can't even talk to a woman anymore without her crying rape'—shut up, and walk away. Because the guys we're working with on Harlots, they're all young, younger than me, and they've got such an awareness. They're going into the industry with such an awareness, and a respect."
What they did for [Tony Soprano], you took a gangster, a serial killer, and you humanized him and made us feel for him. And we're doing the same.
As the show was being cast, it was an email comparing the project to The Sopranos that really got Dempsey excited about it: "It was always cast as The Sopranos from the whores' point of view—that's what sold it to me, originally. What they did for [Tony Soprano], you took a gangster, a serial killer, and you humanized him and made us feel for him. And we're doing the same."
It's easy to see parallels between Harlots and another Hulu show that examines how women survive in a world controlled by powerful men who see them as less-than—The Handmaid's Tale. Though Dempsey describes Harlots as "not quite as dark" as Handmaid's, it is joining what could be seen as a bleak cannon of TV dealing with the realities of being a woman. Still, Dempsey is optimistic about what a show like Harlots even existing means. "I definitely think that women, at least we're able to be talking about it now. We all know we deserve better," she says. "It's basically a man's world. And I used to not think that that was true, but I've started to realize that it is. But the fact that we're talking about these things is really powerful."