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Give Erotic Costume Dramas A Chance

Shows like "Versailles" and "Harlots" are mostly enjoyed by female audiences, making them both instantly binge-worthy and easily derided. But they're far from mindless guilty-pleasures, envisioning worlds dominated by female puppet masters.

by Robyn Bahr
Jul 13 2017, 8:09pm

Photo by Liam Daniel courtesy of Hulu

The age-old rule of porn: It's not a worthwhile fuck without a good backstory.

In the most recent season of Versailles, the opulent Canal+ drama about Louis XIV's early reign, a beautiful, pouty man with glossy tresses sits in his chambers suffering his umpteenth bout of self-pity. Philippe (Alexander Vlahos) often laments his position as the overburdened younger sibling of the Sun King: He is gay, but has twice now grudgingly married at the behest of his brother, who intends to build out their genetic empire over Europe like tendrils of the Kudzu. Philippe's newest wife, Elizabeth Charlotte (Jessica Clark), cautiously approaches. She is dowdy and plain-spoken, an outcast among the perfumed vipers at court. She yearns to consummate their union for both pleasure and progeny—fully aware and unquestioning of her husband's sexual orientation—but he has not been able to perform. She tells him to stop sulking, to form his own dynasty. "You're my king," the princess purrs. She's finally pushed the right button: Seconds later, he's shoving her to the edge of their bed, tearing away at her skirts. He enters her for the first time and they heave together in the shock of the moment.

'Harlots' photo by Liam Daniel courtesy of Hulu

Erotic costume dramas like Versailles, Harlots, The White Princess, and Outlander embrace "a more is more" artistic philosophy—stately set pieces, technicolor costuming, heightened emotions, fragile temperaments, powerful violence, fabulous intrigue, raucous sex. They are mostly enjoyed by female audiences. Which is what makes them instantly devourable and easily derided.

Bodice rippers, however, are far from mindless guilty-pleasure television; these delightfully frothy, heaving-bosom period melodramas offer viewers as much sexy escapism as more "prestigious" fare like Game of Thrones or House of Cards. Even more importantly, they allow us to imagine a past—fictionalized or not—in which women across class systems explored sex on their own terms, providing viewers our own opportunities for carnal voyeurism. (This is in contrast to more celebrated-but-chaste frock fantasies like Downton Abbey or The Crown.) TV bodice rippers envision worlds dominated by female puppet masters—their stories don't victimize characters for the pleasure of the male gaze, but showcase how women's power and sexuality have been intertwined across centuries.


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Versailles, a lavish and grandiose period soap, at times takes itself very seriously. The show has fully embraced the "prestige" formula, constructing seismic drama from the rippling epicenter of a gifted, selfish, and wholly destructive enfant terrible. I don't watch the series for blustery Louis, but for its bevy of tormented supporting players. There is the aforementioned Elizabeth Charlotte, too intelligent for the dumdums of Versailles, and Philippe, an ambitious hedonist in an on-again, off-again relationship with a petulant nobleman called Chevalier. Perhaps I am most invested in the sordid tale of desperate Cool Girl Marquise de Montespan (Anna Brewster), the king's mistress who dabbles in the black arts to retain his waning affections. (Based on a true story!) She may use her body to ensnare her lover, but behind his back she conspires against his pious queen, gullible maidens, and chaste rivals with the help of a literal sorceress to maintain her status as France's No. 1 Slampiece. Titillating!

This spring, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale clattered into public consciousness like thunder, asking us to imagine a horrifying future where women's bodies are commodified by the state. Harlots, which premiered on the same platform just weeks before, dropped like a thud and immediately disappeared into the cultural ether. The only thing it does differently is present sexual commodification as it already existed (and currently exists). Harlots—bright, wanton, and every bit of a business-building roller coaster as Silicon Valley—may, in fact, be the greatest television series to explore human trafficking. Powerhouse Samantha Morton stars as Margaret Wells, an up-and-coming madam preparing to elevate her brothel into a high-end establishment that will attract London's elite. She is mafia don-like—powerful and profit-driven—but has never forgotten her origins as a child whose mother sold her to her a madam for a pair of shoes. In turn, she has auctioned off her own daughters to the wealthiest men of London, believing she has empowered them instead of enslaved them. ("I wouldn't wish marriage on a dog," she spits.)

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The women in bodice rippers lust wildly—for power, freedom, economic independence, and love. Although they may be locked into the trappings of their class and gender, their political machinations become their best weapons. On BBC's The White Princess, a sequel to the equally delicious The White Queen, Jodie Comer's Elizabeth of York must navigate her loyalties in a marriage to her sworn enemy, Henry Tudor. Does she allow herself to fall for him or fulfill the wishes of her family to destroy his reign from within? Last season on Outlander, time traveling Claire (Caitriona Balfe), desperate to free her husband from prison, has a quick, unglamorous screw with the King of France. These women use their brains and their bodies as leverage for power and favor. What's the worst thing Downton Abbey's Lady Mary Crawley ever did, bully her frumpy sister?

Bodice rippers are suspended in a gendered cultural framework somewhere between sword-and-sandals historical epics (think Vikings orThe Last Kingdom) and the current pantheon of body-as-comedic-currency feminist narratives. Although some may consider their sumptuous styles retrograde, these sensual dramas can feel like a welcome break from the gonzo exhibitionism of groundbreaking auteurs like Jill Soloway, Issa Rae, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Ilana Glazer, and Abbi Jacobson, each of whom revel in degradation. I love their work, but it's also reasonable to want to escape disgust, to watch art to feel silk and velvet against our skins, to taste oysters and wine, to smell fragrant powders and perfumes. Bodice rippers are lush and sensory, as vital to feminist voyeurism as the cults-of-personality that dominate the conversation. Don't give into the idea of a "guilty pleasure"—you have nothing to feel guilty about.