*Disclaimer: this has turned into a long blog, that wasn’t my intention. But there was so much to look at in this episode that it really deserves an extensive analysis. If Lena looks smug in this blogs image it’s only because she got it so, so right in this episode. but please bear with me, I do get to the point.
****Also, Major Spoiler Alert****
Girls the TV show has been a favourite of mine for quite some time now. The raw, uncensored portrayal of these four women’s lives, personalities, relationships, flaws and bodies makes it truly unique compared to much of feminist television. Lena Dunham holds nothing back in her writing of the events and lives of these women. She is a woman who isn’t afraid to go all in, to be herself, to show reality, even if that includes showing us everything. All in all the show tackles many feminist issues but none more so than the episode American Bitch (season 6 episode 3).
American Bitch was a phenomenal episode, a stand alone, bottle episode that tackles the definition (or whether or not one exists or can exist at all) of sexual assault and harassment.
In it we see Hannah arrive at a swanky apartment, awkwardly greeted by a famous novelist, Chuck Palmer, who asks her to remove her shoes, place them beside the others, but oh, don’t touch the suede boots, sorry not sorry, I’m just a bit quirky that way. It’s not long before we realize why Hannah is there at the home of her literary hero. He has invited her after reading an article she wrote about something important to her, namely that one of her literary icon was involved in some less than desirable sexual encounters with college students on his book tour. To Hannah his position of privilege steeped in fame, wealth and power gave him an unfair strength that allowed him to take advantage of women without actually forcing himself on them. To him however, he is the victim. He is the witch being burned at the stake and these women who came forward to expose his sordid sexual encounters were his accusers. He is the epitome of #notallmen, one who fails to recognize the realities of sexual assault, the grey areas of harassment. He is innocent and he spends the majority of the episode trying to convince Hannah of this. His sexual encounters with the women in question were had with good intentions, it was consensual and he gave them something all writers need and search for: a story, an experience. He has equated his penis with one of the seven fucking wonders of the world. And so a back and forth begins. He attempts to pursuade her of his innocence, she tries to explain how abuse of power constitutes seedy sexual behaviour and how it relates to the larger rape culture. Throughout the conversation we see both sides of the argument: How do you force a blowjob? How does ones position of power make a sexual encounter wrong? How does consensual sex become something else? Hannah speaks openly, undeterred, intelligently, and calculated. Chuck questions everything she says and jumps in when he disagrees.
Indeed when he talks about his life being hard it is drenched in privilege so much it’s dripping irony; his hardships revolve around his ex being a “very tortured woman”, not being able to sleep, losing weight, trying to learn Spanish, rowing, meditations, none of which work because god damn these women are turning him into a monster! In his reality his only crime is wanting to know these women, know who they are, what they read, watch, desire, hate. And so, he visibly wears Hannah (and the viewers) down. This is no easy feat, she is starkly on point in this episode, unflinchingly capable of rebutting his arguments, giving him perspective. Her monologue of being touched on the neck by a school teacher feels too real to be fiction, possibly because as a woman I too have had encounters like this in my early/teenage years, as I’m sure many women have. Her story is real to a lot of us. It feels like she’s winning him over, when up until this point he has given the distinct impression that he is fed up with her debate, complete with sighs, eye rolling and “really, that’s your argument?”.
Despite his earlier utterance that this is far from an important issue (apparently sexual harassment doesn’t matter-his words) she tries and tries again to prove that it is, because as she so honestly puts it “that shit never goes away”.
As one blogger says, what happened to Hannah in her story of an older man touching her neck isn’t too bad, “it’s relatively mild“, it’s not rape, it wasn’t violent, but it was scary. And not a hide under your covers with your eyes closed kind of scary, no. Not a fearful for your life kind of scary either. Instead what this type of sexual harassment and power play invokes is a fear of whether or not you, the one being touched, are over reacting, reading too much into something small. A gaslighting technique that questions whether our, the one who is touched, feelings of uneasiness and creepiness are valid. That lingering knee grab/hair twirl/shoulder run/lingering hug etc that felt too uncomfortable, was that just someone trying to be friendly? Was it someone who just doesn’t understand boundaries? Or is it a predator? Someone who knows I’m feeling uneasy about this unwanted contact and yet still goes in for the kill. It’s the kind of sexual harassment that most men (And some women) will question and ask Was it really that bad? Did he hurt you? Did he force you? Is it worth ruining someone’s career for?
It’s the stuff you can’t really complain about, because if you do you’ll end up being lied to and ignored like the recent essay by a woman working at Uber, sexually propositioned on the first day of work and after complaining to HR was told that he was very good at his job so wont be reprimanded. We live in a world where openly sexual predators win presidencies, where accusations of sexual assault don’t stop you from winning Oscars. Where a mans bright future is valued more than a woman’s ruined life. Hannah is eventually wore down, she giggles with him, accepts his compliments gracefully, believes his ‘you’re a good writer’, ‘you are smart’, ‘you are intellectual’ statements. She sees his self righteous whining as a someone who has just had a hard time, who maybe is being targeted by women with ‘hurt feelings’.
It isn’t until they lie down together, fully clothed, consent at being this close fully given, that she apologizes for writing about him. And then it happens.
The validation we all needed. The win at the end. He pulls out his penis and rests it on her leg. Yup. He’s an asshole. We were right, our feelings of unease, our skepticism, our squinting uncertainty, we had a reason to be tense, to be unsure, wary. We were right to question the safety of his company. But is this really a win. Is having our fears made a reality a win for anybody? Yes it proves women should be wary but in doing so proves that women cant ever really feel safe, so not really a win is it?
And this is the eye opener for me, the fact that yes ok, not all men are total fucking dicks that will take out their penises without a word and place it on your thigh (although dating apps and the prolific act of sending unsolicited dick pics to the point of women being able to set up actual fucking galleries of the stuff would suggest its pretty rampant), but yes all women should question the safety of a situation, all women who have ever felt discomfort with a man, who felt they were inappropriately touched, boundaries intruded upon, sexually harassed or outright sexually assaulted are validated in this episode because yes all women have dealt with some degree of this in their lives. All women are susceptible to grey areas of harassment where even they themselves are unsure about the nature of a small gesture or phrase, but are certain they didn’t want or enjoy it. If Hannah, a strong, intelligent, outspoken, feminist can find herself consensually lying beside a man she looks up to, only to have him unconsensually place his dick on her body, then yes it can happen to any woman.
So what Is this episode saying? Quite frankly, every woman’s skepticism, every woman’s uncertainty of a man or situation is founded on a dark reality that all women deal with this most of the time and it’s not personal if a woman questions a mans intentions, it’s self preservation. It’s not an insult if a woman feels uneasy around a man she doesn’t know, it’s protection. It’s not every mans fault this is the case, but like Chuck in this episode how are we women to know whether this man is really an asshole whose going to put his dick on our thighs or whether this man is just a regular dude who has no ill intentions towards us? The truth is we don’t. If there are grey areas around sexual harassment and assault legally, they definitely are not grey morally, ethically.
In an even bigger twist, as Hannah leaves the designer apartment where this creep lives, we see numerous faceless women walk past her into his apartment. Was he lying when he said he only invited her to his home? He only cared about her opinion? Or is this a larger metaphor, for all the future women who will find themselves entangled in his web of power plays and pity parties? I’m inclined to think that it’s both. In the end, I don’t think he cares if Hannah writes about the encounter, as their first interaction proved when he said his life was destroyed and she retaliated that he had only four days previously had an amazing review written. He knows that it won’t affect his career, that’s his privilege, that’s the power that he and most men wield. Sexual assault allegations rarely impact a man’s life. And yet we are constantly hearing the “that’s a very serious allegation” response that even Hannah heard when she told someone of her teacher touching her inappropriately. As if the possibility of a mans career being impacted is worse than the actual assault or even talking about the assault. But that’s the world we live in.
Thanks lena for this amazingly accurate portrayal of what Every. Woman. Deals. With. every. Day. We shouldn’t have to apologize for being cautious, it should and is evident why we are.