There Ain’t Nothin’ Here For Me
HBO’s Girls has always been a confusing show. For the past five seasons I have found myself relating to Hannah Horvath in brief moments, only for her to turn around and display the kind of narcissism that immediately results in me loathing myself for relating. Still, I keep persisting with the show because I honestly believe that for all its problematic moments, it truly offers gems that make you think. Episode Three of Season Six, “American Bitch”, was a diamond in the rough.
In this episode, Hannah receives an invite from an established writer named Chuck Palmer, whose work she greatly admires, to come over to his apartment. Why? Because Hannah wrote a blog post about allegations made against Palmer for engaging in non-consensual sex with young women he met on his book tour. The entire episode is essentially the ‘anti-Before Sunrise’ in that it’s basically a long dialogue between a man and a woman about anything but love. I found myself engaged by Lena Dunham’s capacity to lend a mature and nuanced complexity to the question of consent, a complexity I didn’t quite expect from her. Yet, In true Girls fashion, the moment we let our guard down about a man’s intentions, he reaches down and unbuckles his belt.
Would I have liked the episode to end without turning Matthew Rhys’ flawlessly portrayed Chuck Palmer into the same sexual predator he ardently claimed not to be? Yes. Was I mad this didn’t happen? Not reaaally, but it took me a lot of thinking to get there.
At the most immediate level I was disappointed because I was hoping for an episode of Girls to discuss sex and consent without necessarily having Hannah get into a questionable kinda-consensual-but-not-really sexual situation (again). But then I realised my disappointment in the episode was misdirected. I was actually disappointed in Chuck Palmer. I, like Hannah, was swept up into this fantasy that perhaps the only thing wrong about Chuck sleeping with his young female admirers was indeed that he didn’t ask them about their hopes and dreams first. I wanted to believe that this episode was really about an acclaimed middle-aged male writer simply becoming a victim of consent and feminism in the age of Tumblr (without an ‘e’). But somewhere Dunham made him unforgivingly real.
While online blogging platforms do give everyone a voice, what they don’t give is a reason to deny allegations of non-consensual predatory behavior. To make this point, as much as it felt like a broken record, perhaps it was necessary to have Palmer turn a platonic interaction into an inappropriately sexual one. If not, then it would have backed every single claim that a man has made about a woman’s allegations against him as simply her seeking attention. Where this episode was successful was in the way Hannah’s character navigated gently through claim after claim Chuck Palmer was making of his own innocence. She demonstrated the kind of coherence I often feel like I lack when I encounter strange moments of having to define myself as a woman.
For instance, I once had a conversation with someone that turned into a discussion about male and female behaviour. He said with full earnestness and no malicious intent that, “men and women are just wired differently. Women are much more emotional while men tend to be rational”. Something inside me wanted to violently reject this notion, but I resisted. I resisted because my “emotional” reaction to this “rational” statement would only prove him right. Herein lays the trap. One does not have to look that closely to realise that there is nothing “rational” about this statement at all. But because it’s been said by a man, because it’s now out there, a woman can either react emotionally and prove him right, or react “rationally” and dignify a baseless statement despite her equally earnest attempt at disagreeing with it. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
It’s this dilemma Dunham weaves so carefully into the episode that eventually worked for me. In Chuck Palmer’s version of events, the young aspiring female writers he slept with wanted fodder for their fiction. In Hannah Horvath’s version of events, these women wanted to feel like they exist. Where things get complicated is in the fact that both of these desires are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, both of these statements are broad generalisations. Just as it’s odd to say that a woman would sleep with an older man she idolises for the sake of a story, it’s odd to say she would do this to find her own existence. But after a while doesn’t it seem pointless to debate why a woman would accuse a man of sexual misbehaviour? Isn’t the real question why a woman who may have consented at the time feels like she was mistreated afterwards? What actually happened to make her feel like a victim despite initial consent?
At the end of the day, according to this episode, seeking a man’s validation is the biggest trap any woman is capable of falling into. Chuck constantly reassures Hannah of how smart she is, but she only eases her suspicions when he tells her she has made him understand where he might have been wrong — the catch is: he only admits this on the condition that it was still irresponsible of her to write that blog post without hearing his side of the story. Just in case you forgot, we’re talking about an acclaimed ‘celebrity’ writer accusing a young almost-unheard-of writer for not reaching out to him.
The minute Hannah apologises for this, Chuck reaches for his zipper.