On BBC America’s period drama Copper, which premiered on Sunday, the first person encountered by Kevin Corcoran, the 19th century New York City policeman played by Tom Weston-Jones, is a child prostitute who promptly offers to “pleasure” him in exchange for coin.
No more than 10 years old, Copper’s Annie (Kiara Glasco) acts as a conduit to a story arc about child killers, child prostitutes, and righteous vengeance. Within Copper, a whorehouse serves as one of the main backdrops for the Tom Fontana and Will Rokos-created drama, a sexually laced boozer where the cops come to unwind after a hard day chasing (and often killing) criminals. Franka Potente’s Eva oversees the establishment, counting money when she’s not indulging in some hot sex with Weston-Jones’ Corcoran. Across town, a French madam, Contessa Popadou (Inga Cadranel), rules her brothel with an iron fist sans velvet glove, indulging rich gentlemen’s tastes for young flesh.
Given that prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession, it’s no surprise that a show about the seedy underbelly of 19th century Manhattan’s Five Points would contain a whore or four, but the presence of prostitutes—which perhaps owes a debt to HBO’s Deadwood—isn’t limited to Copper. From True Blood and Game of Thrones to Justified, Hell on Wheels, and next month’s British import The Crimson Petal and the White, there’s a virtual proliferation of prostitutes on television right now, one that positions the women somewhere on the spectrum between victim and empowered hero. But while some of them represent financially attainable forbidden fruit (it is surely no coincidence that several recent TV hookers are named “Eva”), the omnipresence of these prostitutes underpins a disturbing development within real-life society.
That trend isn’t limited to literal whores either. In this season’s most controversial and polarizing episode of Mad Men, Christina Hendricks’ Joan Harris sold herself to a client in order to secure a seat at the table with the male partners. It’s within stories such as these that the viewer is given a glimpse into both the struggle of women to move beyond being objects of sexual desire, beautiful things to be owned, and the viewer fantasy of transformation that these situations engender.
There’s a distinct prurience to the appearance of the prostitute within a narrative. The shows mentioned above are all created by men (though it’s worth noting that The Crimson Petal and the White, based on the novel by Michael Faber, was adapted by Lucinda Coxon), so it’s hardly surprising that the male gaze would be turned on women whose job it is to service men sexually.
Nor is it surprising that shows teeming with testosterone would introduce female characters employed in that most ancient of professions. But while prostitutes can represent no-strings sex (and commoditized physicality) or disposable victims on crime dramas, they’re often emblems of damsels in distress, whores with hearts of gold in need of rescuing and reformation. Inasmuch as the noble savage represents a white paternalistic view of the “other,” so too does this fairy tale, presenting the female as something less than male, something requiring salvation from the “stronger” sex.
But not all of these characters are in need of a Prince Charming. In Crimson Petal, Romola Garai’s Sugar may be the talk of the town, but she’s also a canny player who has taught herself to read and who is writing a novel about enacting her bloody vengeance upon her male clients, dreaming of plunging a knife into their bellies even as they plunge deeper into her.
Sugar’s story is that of transformation, and it’s here that these characters become instruments of self-change, gaining an upper hand. Just as Hendricks’ Joan changes from single mother to female partner by selling her body, her journey is echoed in the decisions made by widowed Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) who becomes a kept woman in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and by Hell on Wheels’ “tattooed harlot,” Eva (Robin McLeavy), who settles for marriage even as she dreams of a passionate affair with a former slave.
And in Crimson Petal, Garai’s Sugar tries on a series of identities along the path toward reinvention. In the BBC miniseries (which has its U.S. premiere on September 10 on Encore), Sugar discovers an escape hatch even as her tormentors try and force her to fulfill the endless cycle embodied by the pathetic brothel madam Mrs. Castaway (Gillian Anderson). In finding her own empowerment, outside of the influence of the men who have ill-used her, Sugar becomes both feminist victor and hero of her own story, shattering her destiny and society’s expectations. She refuses, full stop, to be a victim.
Elsewhere, True Blood’s snarky Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten) evolves from an abused prostitute to a vampire when she encounters her “maker,” Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard), the victimized whore becoming a bloodthirsty predator. On Game of Thrones, Esmé Bianco’s Ros attempts to improve her life by moving to King’s Landing only to be forced to beat another whore almost to death and to be savagely used and abused herself; she’s given a lifeline by eunuch schemer Varys (Conleth Hill), who sees the making of a spy in the redheaded courtesan. These acts of self-reclamation, even if achieved with assistance from men, turn these women into something entirely new instead.
This isn’t always the case, however. One prostitute this season on Southland (played by the great Karina Logue) repeatedly sold her teenage daughter to johns for quick cash. The meth-addicted prostitutes of Justified don’t have many aspirations beyond getting paid and getting high and surviving, something that’s as difficult in Harlan County, Kentucky as it is in Game of Thrones’ Kings Landing. Here, the whores are presented as more or less vapid-eyed cows headed for slaughter, pack animals with no real means of escaping their fates.
Back in Manhattan’s historical Five Points, the adult prostitutes on Copper may have their eyes on various men, but their struggles are relatively shallow overall. It’s the young Annie Reilly who remains firmly embedded in the dark fairy tale with which these characters often surround themselves. By the end of the series’ second episode, Annie’s situation is miraculously—and rather bloodily—transformed altogether. As in many fairy tales, the charwoman becomes a princess, the whore becomes a paragon of virtue. Real life, however, is rarely as kind.
Perhaps it’s our desire to see prostitution as a liminal state, a layover on the road to something greater for these female characters, that makes us root for the prostitutes in these stories. Our collective hope is that they’ll better themselves and get out of circumstances that force them to earn money on their backs.
Of course, the reason that there are so many prostitute characters on television today may have to do with culture providing a mirror to contemporary mores: these women are the literal embodiment of a mercenary behavior pattern that we’re seeing emerge within our society, the need to sell both ourselves (and even our bodies) and each other out to the highest bidder.
It could be that, in peering into the boudoirs of Sugar and her working sisters, we’re seeing ourselves reflected back.