Sex and The ‘Penny Dreadful’

Penny Dreadful is a dark gothic horror television show; its main appeal is its excellent cast, which includes Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, and Josh Hartnett, and the fact that it features popular horror characters that are now in the public domain, including both doctor and creature Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, Mina Harker,  and Van Helsing. The London it portrays is dark and brooding and slides with ease between the unfettered opulence of the rich to degradation of the poor. The show manages to capture the atmospheric blend of strife and ambition that seems to characterize the period of industrialization.

The control of sex and sexuality was a fascination of the 19th century. In a reaction to the thought-to-be morally bankrupt licentiousness of the regency period, Victorian sexual values were characterized by repression, control and purity. Fitting as a common theme of the era was man’s victory over nature. It was a time when the medical establishment was obsessed with classifying and categorizing and “disorders” such as homosexuality and hysteria were invented. The latter led to the invention of the vibrator as women were treated for the condition by being stimulated to orgasm by doctors. Ironically, masturbation in men (women were not really thought to be capable) was heavily pathologised and blamed for a vast array of ills. However the obsession with strict sexual morality and the regulation of sexual impulses meant society was obsessed with talking about and policing it, hence the prevalence of sexuality as a theme in both medicine and art during the period. Parallel to the puritanical public standards existed a large private world of sex work and pornography.

The character of Brona Croft, played by Billie Piper, a northern Irish sex worker plagued with consumption, represents the particular paradox of the sex worker in the 19th century. Her life is difficult, she is poor, and there is the ever-present threat of violence which is made apparent on the show by the reports of sex workers being torn apart by what might be the re-emergence of Jack the Ripper. However, Brona also on a certain level exists outside of the highly patriarchal social structures of the day. She makes her own money, she decides how to spend it and chooses her own relationships, freedoms most other women do not have. Brona is a fully realized character in a way that sex workers normally are not on television. We learn that she came to the trade because she was replaced by a machine in her factory job, but she prefers it anyway because the money is better and she doesn’t have to spend her days cooped up inside never seeing the sun. She speaks eloquently about the grim poverty of her childhood and her escape from an abusive relationship. Her sex work is not viewed as a barrier to her having meaningful romantic relationships. Her profession is an aspect of her but it is not who she is. I can’t believe just how refreshing it is to have a sex worker on television that is fully human in her own right and not just a plot device to be thrown away at the writers whims. Brona certainly does not fit into the “happy hooker” trope. There are many issues that she has to contend with that the show addresses; some are due to her work and some are not. What matters though is that Brona’s life is not tragic simply because she is a sex worker, nor is it perfect because she is. For example, she is dying of consumption, but this is portrayed to be more a symptom of her poverty rather than a punishment for her work.

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Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green), on the other hand, is a Victorian lady of leisure. She lives with Sir Malcolm Murray, a famed explorer of the African continent, and their relationship is not explained until mid-season but seems vaguely paternal. What we do know is that Vanessa is in the possession of some super natural abilities and is helping Sir Malcolm to locate his daughter who is currently under the power of a vampire. Vanessa’s sexuality is constantly and consistently pathologised. She ruminates on whether viewing a sexual act for the first time awoken a wickedness inside of her. Her very first sexual experience ended up breaking up two families who had been very close and triggering her first episode, of what is referred to by two different doctors over the course of the season, a “psycho-sexual” illness. The treatments that she is subjected for this illness amount very literally to torture and Vanessa’s mother ends up dying of shock when witnessing a display of her daughter’s sexuality. For Vanessa, her sexuality is not the source of her freedom from restrictive patriarchal norms of the day; it is a curse that she must control with utmost care otherwise the consequences could be devastating. Vanessa’s sexuality is dangerous–not just to her but to the people around her.

 

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Having the two characters on the same show makes for a really interesting dynamic. It seems to capture the sheer obsession Victorian society had with the policing of sexuality and channelling it into the proper avenues while at the same time there existed many women who manage to carve out lives outside the structures of society despite the extreme social disapproval. Overall, the show manages to capture the two sides of the society quite nicely and explores both characters in a way that does justice to their humanity.

 


Gaayathri Nair is currently living and writing in Auckland, New Zealand. You can find more of her work at her blog A Human Story and tweet her @A_Gaayathri

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