HBO’s Girls has always been an impressive and unique show. The poignant social commentary wrapped into quirky plotlines, the messiness of the characters’ journeys into adulthood, the voyeurism of peeking into the lifestyle of a certain group of young Brooklynites and Lena Dunham’s unapologetic humor and writing have brought me a lot of joy over the years.
This week, I was catching up on the current and, sadly, last season of the show when I came across one of the best episodes of television that I have ever watched. Season 6, episode 3, called “American Bitch” shows Lena’s character, Hannah, focused entirely on a dizzyingly layered and confusing interaction with the famous writer Chuck Palmer (portrayed by Matthew Rhys). The first few minutes of the episode are a delightful display of typical Girls-style humor. We are not yet sure who Rhys’s character is or why Hannah is meeting him, but we are chuckling along the sheer awkwardness of their first minute together. Hannah goes to Chuck’s apartment where one of the first things that comes out of his mouth are instructions on how she should arrange her shoes in line with his next to the front door, after which he gets unduly anxious when she accidentally touches a pair of suede boots in the process. We soon discover that Hannah was invited into Chuck’s place because he wants to discuss a recent blog post she wrote about sexual assault allegations against him from four different women who recounted Chuck taking them to his hotel room on a recent book tour and coercing them into non-consensual oral sex. The discussion that unfolds between them represents a brilliant portrayal of the very power dynamics Hannah tries to fight and explain throughout the episode, the complexity of consent when one person is in position of authority and coexistence between paternal love and respect for one’s daughter and a generally misogynistic worldview.
We understand from the get-go that Chuck Palmer is a famous writer and Hannah is a big fan of his work, establishing clear power parameters for the interaction, visually illustrated by the numerous Chuck Palmer books and awards Hannah has to pass by on her walk from the apartment’s entrance to the living room. There is even a picture of Toni Morrison that Chuck intentionally put right next to Hannah’s seat, though he tries to pretend otherwise until she calls him out on it. From the onset, Palmer’s behavior makes it very clear that his main intention for the upcoming interaction is to intimidate Hannah into agreeing with him. He starts by ‘graciously’ saying he won’t be asking for an apology from her, clearly implying he deserves one, and becomes immediately patronizing when she wants to speak first (not that anyone needed a testament of Rhys’s artistic talent, but the condescension he managed to pack into his “Oh, sure. Uh, go right ahead, Hannah” response when she starts speaking and his accompanying look that clearly says, “how cute, you think you have something meaningful to say”, is pretty amazing). Of course it’s not long before he is compelled to interrupt her and interject his point of view. Although he briefly acknowledges Hannah’s talent, he immediately shifts the power scale back in his favor by insulting her blog and authoritatively proclaiming what he thinks is the best use of that talent. “You should be using your funny to tackle subjects that matter,” he says with contempt, “me, who I may or may not have got a blowjob from, consensually, in a college town does not fucking matter.” He is upset and confused by the allegations against him and is feeling fully victimized – when using the Salem witch trials as a metaphor to describe his situation, he is dead serious when he exclaims “I’m the witch”. He is not in the least sarcastic when he describes his “struggles” – he did, after all, have to try a juice cleanse and a silent retreat to help him cope with the stress – even though, as Hannah points out, he seems to be doing quite well financially and socially, even receiving a rave review from the Times in the past week.
All the while, Hannah confidently and diligently speaks on behalf of Palmer’s victims, resisting his attempts to intimidate her and standing by her conviction that the stories of these women absolutely matter despite all of Chuck’s assertions to the contrary. He seems clearly unprepared to be challenged and looks visibly thrown off several times during the conversation – when Hannah explains to him in detail what a non-consensual blowjob might look like (“it would be very chokey”, she says calmly) even though he clearly thinks such a thing cannot exist, when she defends her work and the women’s accounts when Palmer tries to dismiss both, and even when she gets up to get her own drink after he fixes one for only himself. Most importantly, she explains to him exactly why a sexual encounter that to him appeared completely normal might be less than consensual when you take into account the fact that the he used his authority and fame to take women to his hotel room, he took advantage of the power imbalance and of their admiration for him and created for them a situation in which their sense of worth hinged on them pleasuring him. Hannah speaks for the women and herself even when Palmer indifferently calls their accounts hearsay. Dismissing women’s voices as nonsense is not new for Hannah who, without missing a beat, responds “I don’t consider the accounts of four different women hearsay”.
It’s at once amazing and unsurprising to see that, at the core of Chuck’s sense of hurt and betrayal is not simply the fact that these women (including Hannah herself) dared to speak out against him. He seems even more disturbed by their ability to get an audience, to have their voices heard and amplified. When Hannah says that the internet as so cool for giving a voice to previously silenced people, Chuck is visibly incensed. To him, having his monopoly on the social narrative taken away is the truly hurtful and tragic part of the whole situation. He is used to people of his race, gender, means and social status controlling that narrative and shoving aside less privileged voices, and the fact that others now have a forum for speaking up feels like his life and world are being “destroyed by something called Tumblr without an ‘e’”. Without fully verbalizing it, he is clearly lamenting today’s “oversensitive” culture that makes him the villain for something he feels entitled to – in this case superiority and control over women’s bodies, wishes and opinions and the singular right to determine what is right and acceptable in interactions with others. In that context, “American Bitch” is far from just the rumored alternative title of the novel Chuck gifts to Hannah, in his mind it is the epitome of those previously sidelined voices that are now ‘ruining’ Chuck’s life by being heard.
As the interaction progresses, Hannah starts inching from her role of observer and defender of Chuck’s victims to becoming one of them. More amazingly, his increasing vulnerability manages to throw us off as well, to get us to question our assumptions and to, very briefly, even sympathize with him. When he lies down on his bed, curled up and asking Hannah to keep him company, the creepiness of the situation is partially overshadowed by a sense that maybe he was telling the truth, maybe he is in a lot of pain and was misunderstood all along. He even gets the apology from Hannah that he felt entitled to all along. And then, 30 seconds later, he turns around and places his penis on her leg. Driven by the same confusion, false sense of recently-established trust, admiration for his talent and sheer surprise and awkwardness that Hannah realized drove the young women from Chuck’s hotel rooms to their sexual encounters with him, she reaches down and touches his penis. A few seconds later, she jumps up, shocked and disgusted, and turns around to see the utterly sleazy and self-satisfied smile on Chuck’s face, a smile that quickly erases any doubt about the creepiness and maliciousness of his intentions. Ironically, in that moment everyone feels vindicated. While Hannah (and we) are now more convinced than ever that those Tumblr accounts were accurate, Chuck sees the situation as proof of his own innocence. The fact that he invited Hannah to his apartment and, through a combination of intimidation, flattery and fake vulnerability, put her in a situation in which she felt compelled to reach down for his penis is completely irrelevant to him – in his mind, she touched him voluntarily, which is all the proof of consent he needs for this and all other sexual encounters of his past.
And then, just when we think the episode cannot provide us anything else to think about, we are introduced to Chuck’s daughter. She enters the apartment towards the very end of the episode and invites both Hannah and Chuck to listen to her play the flute. Moments later, both of them are awkwardly sitting on the living room couch, listening to the daughter play Rhianna’s Desperado. The expression on Chuck’s face at that moment is the polar opposite of the sleazy look we saw minutes earlier – Chuck’s eyes are now filled with all the paternal joy and pride one would expect from a considerate and thoughtful father. While at that moment we, as viewers, realize the irony of a man who approaches women with such sense of ownership, condescension and disrespect but looks at his daughter with such admiration, to him the disconnect is entirely lost. There was some discussion last year about how fathers of daughters are much more likely to appreciate the importance of women’s rights. However, to me Chuck’s look of admiration pointed to a different type of behavior, one that I’m all too familiar with personally – namely that having a daughter can easily have minimal impact on a man’s sexist worldview. Instead, the love and respect a man has for his daughter(s) can very comfortably coexist with disregard for many (or all) other women. A daughter can easily exist in her father’s mind as an entity separated from the rest of womankind, thus unaffected by his or everyone else’s attitudes toward or disrespect of women in general. In short, while having a daughter might change the worldview of some men, it’s also unlikely to make a dent in the sexist shields of many others.
I can write a lot more about this episode – I haven’t even touched upon the generational component of Hannah’s and Chuck’s debate, Chuck’s incredibly awkward fight that he has on the phone with his wife, right in front of Hannah, followed by a dramatic “she’s a very tortured woman” (who can’t appreciate the good old-fashioned “she’s crazy” technique of dismissing women’s opinions) or the brilliance of the last scene showing numerous young women walking towards Chuck’s building as Hannah walks away from it. Though I should probably stop here and let you go watch (or re-watch) the episode yourselves. I’m already getting ready to do the same myself.