I’m waiting to see how Copper, BBC America’s first original drama, which follows the rudimentary police force in 1864 New York, turns out over the coming episodes. There’s a lot of promise there: an exploration of the settlement of Harlem, the challenges of standing up a law enforcement system in the aftermath of the Draft Riots, the impact of soldiers returning from the war, and rich cross-class dynamics. But across its first two episodes, Copper does something that I’ve gotten increasingly tired of in period dramas set in the late nineteenth century. It defaults to making significant female characters prostitutes, seemingly as a way to give female characters a credible amount of autonomy in a time when audiences imagine them cloistered by corsets and yellow wallpaper.
Of the five significant female characters in Copper, three are prostitutes: Eva Heissen (Franka Potente) runs a saloon and is a madam, Molly Stuart (Tanya Fischer) is an ambitious hooker in her employ, and Annie Reilly (Kiara Glasco) is a ten-year-old runaway who was forced into prostitution. Hell on Wheels, AMC’s show about the construction of the transcontinental railroad, gave Eva (Robin McLeavy) an adventurous backstory — she was first kidnapped and tattooed by Native Americans, turned to prostitution, and now is married. Deadwood, which portrayed sex workers with more nuance and humanity than any of the shows that’s followed in its footsteps, had depressed madam Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), her partner in a brotel start-up Maddie (Alice Krige), and Trixie (the spectacular Paula Malcomson) as a working prostitute with connections to almost everyone in town among its main characters, and many other working girls as minor ones.
Now, there’s no question that there are some legitimate reasons to portray prostitutes in period dramas. Sex workers had a certain amount of autonomy not always available to gently-bred ladies, and while I tend to think it’s a mistake to prioritize external action over interior, domestic drama — Deadwood, to its credit, always knew that Alma’s life was as interesting and rich as Trixie’s — if you want women present in seedy 19th century neighborhoods, prostitutes are a good way to get them there. At best, these kinds of stories can also be powerful testaments to the cheapness of female life, something that Deadwood played masterfully in its Francis Wolcott storyline about a serial killer of sex workers who believed himself to be sanctioned in his darkness, and that Copper is trying to replicate here with its opening story about a killer of child prostitutes. And if these shows want to tell stories about adult sexual relationships as we understand them today, with sex outside of marriage, prostitutes are an easy fall-back if you’re looking for the kind of woman who would be willing to have that kind of sex, or that kind of relationship that wasn’t necessarily on the road to marriage.
But prostitutes weren’t the only kind of women who moved freely about the world in the latter half of the 19th century, or who helped push the world and our thinking about gender into a more modern era. Victoria and Tennessee Claflin, who advocated for “free love” — a movement that really was about giving women rights in their marriages, the ability to divorce, and the freedom to bear children as they saw fit, though it did include legalizing prostitution — are precisely the kind of people who, if they showed up in a period drama, would be declared too advanced for the time. Victoria was a healer, the first woman candidate for president, and she and Tennie, backed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, became the first women to own a Wall Street brokerage firm, using the profits to finance their newspaper. Nellie Bly did the reporting for Ten Days in a Mad-House, her undercover expose of the treatment of the mentally insane, and Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, an attempt to beat Jules Verne’s novelistic record, between 1887 and 1890 — and when she married and retired, ran her husband’s iron company. Actress Sarah Bernhardt left a string of lovers across Europe, slept in a coffin to help prepare for dramatic roles, worked as a courtesan, set up a makeshift hospital during the Franco-Prussian War and made the jump from stage to silent film.It would be easy to draw terrific dramas from many elements of these women’s lives, whether a network set a period drama at a newspaper, in a hospital, back-stage at a theater, or on a period campaign trail. Frontier villages (or nascent big cities) and murder mysteries are familiar to us, and the turmoil of both turns up rich dramatic soil. But they are not our only options for telling televised stories about nineteenth-century life. And prostitutes are not the only way to tell stories about women freed, or freeing themselves, from the constraints that restricted so many women. Prostitution is a way to get at values and attitudes about gender and sexuality, but it is hardly the only way. Women were advocating for their sexual freedoms, not only selling sexual experience, and living sexually free lives without doing so under the imprimatur of and for the profit of a patron. The ability to work at any profession, and the determination of women like Bly in pursuing that dream, are as important issues to explore as the commercialization of sexuality. Sex, in other words, is not the only way to tell stories about gender. And defaulting to it ends up obscuring the ways that sexism pervades all spheres of life. The patriarchy doesn’t confine itself to the space between a woman’s legs.
Period depictions of prostitutes can be revelatory, but the default period prostitute is evidence of a lack of imagination about the diversity of roles claimed by actual women in the late 1800s, and about the kinds of stories that could be told about them.
“The first thing I thought was there were no black doctors back in 1864,” Ato Essandoh, who plays Dr. Matthew Freeman on Copper, said at the Television Critics Association press tour of his first reaction to his role, a scientifically innovative black doctor. “That was impossible. So for an actor, you need to feel grounded in the reality of what you’re doing. I looked up, and there were actually, I think, six or seven that existed in New York…that’s where I found my anchor, and I found like sort of the reality of what I could do. Because, unfortunately, the first thing I thought was this doesn’t sound right.”
We can and should demand that period shows think this creatively about both women and people of color. Understanding the new roles that our predecessors were forging for themselves in inhospitable conditions is an important reminder of the true length of the fights for equality, dignity, and respect. And in our visions for the future, it would be a real loss to erase the adventures and victories of the people in the past who made our present possible.