We Are the Bitches

Last year, I’m at a warehouse party in Bushwick, and this dude comes up to me, and he’s like ‘Horvath! We went to middle school together. East Lansing!’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, remember how crazy Mr. Lasky’s class was? He was basically trying to molest me.’ You know what this kid said? He looks at me in the middle of this fucking party, like he’s a judge, and goes, ‘That’s a very serious accusation, Hannah.’ And he walked away. And there I am, and I’m just 11 again, and I’m just getting my fucking neck rubbed. Because that stuff never goes away. (“American Bitch”, Girls).

I finally got around to watching the latest Girls episode “American Bitch” — and it’s a masterpiece. That last frame, capturing a slew of women walking towards Chuck Palmer’s (Matthew Rhys) honey-trap of an apartment, was the perfect, haunting final image to one of the most unique television experiences I’ve ever watched. And I watch a lot of TV.

Not since the brutal rape scene in Outlander’s “Wentworth Prison” did I feel so defiled. And, in a way, Lena Dunham’s masterful writing is a physiological exercise meant to say exactly that about women’s experiences with (powerful) men. You don’t have to hold someone in a literal cell and rape them in order to violate them. And that feeling of violation never goes away.

Inadvertently, or intentionally, the episode aired the same night Casey Affleck and Mel Gibson were sitting in their black suites at the 89th Academy Awards, both nominated. Both powerful men. Men who have money, charm. Men who have both been accused of hurting women.

A certain resemblance?

As Girls suggests, Chuck’s behavior, just like Affleck’s and Gibson’s alleged actions, wasn’t triggered because he was simply “horny.” As The Atlantic put it — “It’s simply because he can be this way. Because he is successful and male, he can put women in spots like the one he put Hannah in. He can expect them to often consent, queasily or not. He can even expect that other men will tell the women not to complain about it later.”

I don’t know one woman who has not experienced some sort of sexual harassment at least one time throughout her career, let alone her life. Harassment doesn’t necessary mean rape, you know. It can be inappropriate contact. Innuendos. Sexual advances. Nicknames. Comments. Compliments.

Yes, it can be all of those. And yes, I can see how you might be confused. How can men hit on women (why does that term also sound violent?)? How can relationships form? Where is the line drawn?

I still remember things said to me by former male managers and co-workers. I’ve had men talk to me about my body and my life choices like it was theirs to begin with. “You know, at a certain age you shouldn’t focus on your career. It’s time for a family, no? ”Things were said about my body, the way I looked, what I was wearing, what I was eating. Complimenting me on being “so polite and sweet” or commenting on my “lovely smile.” Harmless, right?

Try saying it to a man.

I recently heard from a friend about a group of his coworkers who had an interesting conversation. One of them was convinced the office manager, a woman, was pregnant, saying he “noticed her boobs grew. They’re huge!” Then a whole conversation started on whether or not she was in fact pregnant. She wasn’t a part of the conversation of course. Then one of the guys, totally normal, smart, nice guy, suggested they bet on it. My friend said he was kinda shocked and didn’t want to be a part of it. So he put on his headphones and continued working.

The horrible thing is that I wasn’t shocked when he told me. In a way, it’s what I have grown to expect from men. They can do that. They can discuss our bodies, our most intimate parts. They can joke about it, bet on it. It’s not frowned upon. It’s a normal part of their day. And no one cares. They also don’t have to be sexual predators or accused rapists to behave this way. Actually, I’ve heard and seen on countless occasions that such behavior is forgiven or discarded because those men are “high performers” or beneficial to the company.

I told my friend he should have stepped up and said something. He should have shut them down. He said he might do that next time (and obviously there will be one).

That’s why it’s not just about rape or unwanted physical contact. It starts before any of that. It’s about the way men demean women with their words. It’s about that sickening, uncomfortable feeling we get when men talk at us, about us. When men make it their business to tell us how to behave, stand, smile. When men put us in impossible situations we can’t get out of, and we just have to sit there and listen and stay silent as they smirk and feel like winners.

Well, you know what, it’s not that difficult. You can ask someone out nicely. And you can do that without touching them or forcing yourself on them. You can give a compliment that doesn’t have to do with what we’re wearing or how we look today. It can be about our work ethic, about a successful event we helped organize or a product we launched together. And most importantly — you can be the man who steps up and tells your friends or coworkers that it’s not okay to behave any other way. It’s pretty easy.

And yes, we’re grown adult women, we can make up our own mind, we can decide whether to stay or go, whether to take you up on a sexual advance or not, whether to come up to your apartment or not. But that doesn’t mean this “grey area” equals “opportunity” for men. We don’t have to say “no” for you to know it’s not okay.

It’s also not always that simple for us, as women, to object. Take for example the following situation I’ve encountered: I sat at lunch with a group of co-workers, both male and female, including a male senior manager. Then an 8-months pregnant co-worker walked by, and the manager said to us: “Wow, she just blew up, didn’t she? She definitely put on some pounds.”

What do you say to that? And what if that manager is your boss?

With this Girls episode in particular, Dunham makes good on her promise from season 1:

A lot has been said about this episode and about Dunham’s articulate way of writing about real-life situations in such a unapologetic manner.

She has become the voice of a generation. My generation. We’re the generation of women who have given up on “having it all” because it was a lie told by fancy NYC women wearing Jimmy Choo (who, btw, ended up not having it all because, well, it’s impossible). We’re the generation who still goes through life not feeling safe walking down the street alone at night. We’re the generation who is still harassed, talked down to, sexualized at our place of work, at a local bar, or while standing in line to order coffee.

“Feminists believe that men and women should have the same opportunities. If you are a feminist you believe in equal rights as a whole. That’s not a concept you can really shoot down.” (Lena Dunham)

We’re the generation of women who define feminism as equal opportunities for all genders. We’re the generation who have had it with men shushing us in meetings, on dates, in debates. We don’t need to shout in order to make our voices heard.

Both Hannah and Chuck’s daughter are all of us. They are our present and future. We all know an Amanda White, an Magdalena Gorka or an Oksana Grigorieva. We are these women. We are the Ladies. And we need to do something about it, because that stuff never goes away, so let’s make sure it doesn’t happen in the first place.

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