Innocence and Sexuality in Copper

By Casey Wilson

Spoilers for the first few episodes of Copper abound below. Read at your own risk!

A few weeks ago, BBC America debuted its first-ever original series: Copper. Set in New York City in the 1860s, main character Kevin Corcoran is an Irishman working as – you guessed it – a cop. There’s a lot to be said about the show: debates about its quality, its self-conscious placement in the world of anti-hero cable dramas, its depiction of race relations and women.

But for the purposes of this site, I am, of course, interested in the show’s treatment of children – one child in particular, in fact. We meet Annie in the first minutes of the first episode, when Corcoran offers the hungry, ragged girl an egg to eat and she offers to “pleasure” him in return. It’s meant to be shocking, to set the tone of the show as gritty and real and unafraid to sully the innocence of children. In those moments, we are not to see in Annie the Romantic child – sweet, pure, and innocent – but a darker, more complex figure.

I admit to being intrigued by the scene, because it is rare for shows – even those that have no illusions about childhood innocence – to address children’s sexuality. Mad Men has done it with Sally Draper, in that much discussed scene where she masturbates in front of the television, but even that had an aura of innocence to it. Unlike Sally, Annie knows exactly what she is feeling and experiencing, and she offers it to this man because that is how her world operates. If a man is kind to her, she must repay him with the only currency she has.

Corcoran – as our hero – turns down Annie’s offer with an appropriate level of disgust. He thinks that will be the end of it, until shortly thereafter Annie turns up dead. But the case is more complicated than it seems, and it soon comes to light that the dead girl was not Annie but Annie’s twin sister. It certainly explains the disparity between the dirty, grime-covered girl who Corcoran met and the pretty, clean girl whose corpse they found – and it tells the viewing audience that even the Romantic child isn’t safe in this world.

Annie is, naturally, wise beyond her years. Or, perhaps more accurately, she is weary beyond her years. She speaks with a resigned acceptance of her lot in life, even as she mourns for her sister. And because the show is so determined to be shocking, it adds complication upon complication to her life. Corcoran enlists her help in taking down her sister’s killer – and it is Annie’s hand that drives the knife into the killer’s chest. When a man purporting to be her father arrives, he is viewed with suspicion until it is revealed that he is, in reality, Annie’s husband. Annie continues to present herself to Corcoran as an alternative to the adult female love interest even after she is freed from her life as a child prostitute, and he continues to turn her down.

Corcoran tells her again and again that she doesn’t need to live her life like that, his sympathies drawn, in part, from his own grief over the loss of his child. Corcoran sees something innocent in the child, even if Annie herself does not. In the most recent episode, he tells her to go play with the “other little girls” and she responds by saying, “There’s nobody else for me to talk to. Only grown men.” It is hard for her to revert to purity and innocence after all she has known and seen. (It is worth noting that she and the main female character – who has taken her in – are the two women in the scene wearing white.) Annie even states that explicitly, after a dance with one of Corcoran’s friends when she accuses her dance partner of having come to visit her in the brothel. “[Corcoran] thinks I deserve a childhood,” she says, “but I got no need for one.”

Here again, I think that the show wants us to see this as scandalous. No child should think such things, or live a life that could take that childhood away. And it is that very act of being so scandalized that undermines the scandal itself. If none of the adults got that panicked look in their eye upon being presented with Annie’s frank sexuality, then Copper might stand a chance of actually undermining the Romantic child. But by showing that, even in the 1860s, the good guys knew better, Copper reassures us that we’ve been right all along. The child isn’t sexual – or at least, the child shouldn’t be. If she is, something in her has been broken. In Copper’s world, Annie deserves a childhood, no matter her protestations. Her innocence was taken from her, and it is up to our hero to restore it, if he can.

Casey is a PhD student.

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