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Who had it worse: Harlots or Handmaids?

July 20, 2017


History has not always been kind to women, from refusing us the right to vote, to arranged marriage, to ridiculous societal expectations. Though I grew up often wistfully wishing I had been born in another era, the truth is (with a few fashion exceptions), most other time periods would’ve been horrible to live during.In case you ever need to be reminded how good we have it, this year Hulu released two shows about the lives of women that will have you shouting “Hallelujah!” for 2017. (I guess after three more years of Trump, this may no longer prove true).

Harlots follows two warring brothels in the mid 1700’s, a time when women had few opportunities for economic advancement other than marrying rich or becoming a prostitute. The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the acclaimed Margaret Atwood novel from 1985, is set in a dystopian future where disease and toxic waste have caused mass sterility. After a fundamentalist movement overthrows the government, women are divided based on their fertility into “Marthas” (women who cook and clean) and “Handmaids” (women assigned to high-ranking male officials for the sake of breeding.) Both shows have incited loud swearing and fist-shaking, as well as a lot of “What would I do if this were me?” speculation.

But who really had it worse? I investigate.



Yes, clothes are important, because we have to wear them everyday. This round is a surprisingly tough call, because we have to consider both fashion and function. The harlots definitely have the edge when it comes to fashion—not only do they actually get to pick out their own clothes, but their job description requires color, detail, and flamboyance. Orange shoes? Go for it. Light pink hair? Why not. Fake beauty marks, chokers, gloves, and hair ribbons? All of the above. Not to mention their corsets (while probably horribly uncomfortable) give even the most flat-chested of women enviable cleavage. They also seem to have an endless supply of glamorous dressing gowns, as if their lounge-time is sponsored by Anthropologie. The style of the harlots is high maintenance to the extreme, but they always look vivacious and exciting, sort of like if Marie Antoinette had been a circus groupie instead of a queen.

The handmaids are forced to wear the same simple red dress every day. While in our world, removing one mundane daily decision might actually seem like a relief, in the world of the handmaids (where all freedoms have been stripped away), this is yet another form of oppression. But pragmatically speaking, the dresses are universally-flattering (sort of like when a benevolent bride picks out a bridesmaid dress that will look good on her friends of all shapes and sizes). And symbolism aside, the color could be a lot worse than red (pea green? brown? beige?).

Unfortunately, they must also wear Puritan-esque white caps with their hair tucked up, and an additional visor-like brim whenever they go into town. The hats are meant to limit their vision (another means of ensuring submission), so it’s a wonder that the handmaids aren’t the clumsiest gals in town. Another part of their “going-out” attire is a red cape, which might be a bit unwieldy, but looks a heck of a lot more dashing than an anorak. The most surprising part of the whole getup is that they get to wear these kick-ass boots that look like the love child of Red Wings and Doc Martens. (If any of them make a run for it, I hope they have the presence of mind to keep the boots.)

Winner: Harlots

Living Quarters

In Harlots, the living quarters depend greatly on whether they’re high-class or low-class prostitutes. Both sets live sorority-style in one big house, but the poor ones survive in relative squalor, whereas the rich ones enjoy silk divans and canopy beds. The poor brothel is a row house flanked by dank alleyways, whereas the rich brothel is a free standing mansion in the nice part of town, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence and well kept lawn.

The handmaids have a room to themselves in the house of whichever commander they’re assigned to. Though it’s extremely sparsely furnished (a single bed, night stand, wash basin, and closet), it does have a window, and they do get it all to themselves. The rest of the house is a simple, colonial style cottage, sans artwork and embellishments (too worldly), though there is a beautiful flower garden. Overall, I’d say the Handmaids win this round, simply because they have a clean, quiet, PRIVATE space.

Winner: Handmaids


The harlots’ time is occupied by four things: alcohol, gossip, sleep, and sex. Every now and then they get to partake in a “tableau,” which is a fancy way of saying that they pose, costumed, in an elaborate scene, which they hold without speaking or moving for a very long time. This is for the entertainment of the men, who get to…look at them. It appears extremely boring and tiring for everyone involved, and might explain everyone’s penchant for opiate use.

The handmaids, however, have it worse—their only source of entertainment is when they get to walk into town for groceries, glance at the most recent bodies on the hanging wall, or watch a live birth (if someone mercifully gets pregnant.) And each of these grim activities take place with little to no conversation, because you never know when a spy might be listening. Best, best case scenario for a handmaid? You strike your commander’s fancy and he invites you to a secret, forbidden rendezvous in his office where you…dun dun dun…play Scrabble. Personally, I’d choose the tableau over board games, but that’s just me.

Winner: Harlots


In both the world of Harlots and The Handmaid’s Tale, sex is the central occupation of the heroines. While the life of an 18th century prostitute looks far from ideal, at least some of these women chose their own lifestyle. Depending on the kindness of the madams, the harlots often get to choose their clients and receive some compensation for their work, and on certain occasions they actually seem to be enjoying themselves.

The Handmaids have zero say in anything—they neither chose to be Handmaids, nor are they allowed to choose the commander that they “serve.” They’re forced to have sex once a month with a total stranger, and their only reward is the assurance that they’re doing “God’s work.” If that isn’t bad enough, they have to do this in front of the commanders’ wives, which doesn’t exactly help form strong female bonds.

Winner: Harlots


As for the men in question, those in Harlots are either effeminate and possessive, paunchy and lecherous, or handsome and rakish. Some of them look jaunty in their breeches and waistcoats, while others look like they escaped from a performance of The Nutcracker ballet. They’re 90% a total bother, but at least the women hold some power over them. Luckily, the harlots have each other for camaraderie, and generally regard the men as a necessary evil.

Almost all of the men portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale are commanders, who are dispassionate, condescending, and bland. They wear black, Soviet-looking uniforms that are more priestly than soldierly. Sarcasm is entirely lost on them, and as previously mentioned, their idea of a “naughty” evening is a game of Scrabble and some tepid banter. The one bright spot in an otherwise bleak pack of blokes is Nick the chauffeur, who dares to roll his sleeves up to his elbows, emit smoldering glances, and even brush his fingers on a handmaid’s arm. He’d be a real dishy distraction if it weren’t for the fact that he might very well be an “Eye,” aka narc.

Winner: Neither


With all that sex comes the inevitability of babies. For the harlots, a baby is a most unfortunate occurrence. Not only does pregnancy mean time off work, but it also means another mouth to feed and potential health complications. Not to mention, the father usually wants nothing to do with the child and is most likely man of shady character.

For the Handmaids, a baby means not only better treatment, insurance against being sent away, and praise from society, but it means that the swiftly dying human race has a better chance at surviving. Unfortunately, babies are immediately taken from their birth mothers and turned over to the Commanders’ wives, who treat them as their own but refuse the handmaids all motherly rights. Talk about devastating.

Winner: Handmaids, by a hair

So if I had to choose, gun to my head, I guess I’d say I would rather live in the world of Harlots than The Handmaid’s Tale. Overall, the life of the harlots allows for more humor and freedom, and a better shot at changing your circumstances. I’m afraid the life of a handmaid would have me flashing the officials and screaming obscenities—consequences be damned—in under a week. So in spite of bad Tinder dates, the impracticality of the ubiquitous romper, and meager paychecks, these shows have me feeling pretty thankful for my life in 2017.



Rachel Woldum is a former television snob who has embraced the medium as it has entered its Golden Age.

Contact her at


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