Girls is a frequent internet punching bag for good reason; most of the lead characters are narcissistic in the extreme, the narrative seems very self-serving for Lena Dunham, and the vision of being a young person in New York is clearly skewed by her privilege. But sometimes, every so often, the show hits something bang on the head in a way that gets my blood pressure up and stays with me long after the credits roll. The third episode of the final season, “American Bitch” is one of those episodes. In it, Hannah meets a personal hero of hers who contacted her after she wrote about allegations that he was involved in not-entirely-consensual encounters with college students while on a book tour. The push and pull between Hannah and the fictional Chuck Palmer at first seems tilted towards a “gray area” reading where we’ll never know the actual truth, but at the end it cannonballs to a conclusion that feels wholly inevitable and frighteningly relatable.
As a young woman, I am familiar with the moments when it becomes apparent that you and the person you are having a conversation with view the conversation in very different lights. When you are expressing your passion and interest in a topic without inhibition, and the person listening to you is not listening to your words but seeing only your passion and believing that they are the focus of it rather than simply the impetus for you expressing that passion. You don’t have the position to understand that just because someone you admire, someone likely in a position of power and influence, expresses physical desire for you it doesn’t mean that you’ve invited that attention. After all, they’re so smart and interesting, you admire them SO MUCH, they must be more perceptive than you. They must understand more of the world than you do. They’re probably right that you want this to happen. After all, why else would you be so interested in impressing them? Isn’t admiration an attraction of a kind? Isn’t this the most intimate kind of connection two people can have?
The men willing to exploit these situations like to pretend that they don’t understand this. That’s because they’re not as physically attractive, or because once upon a time a woman turned them down in a particularly cruel way, that they can’t POSSIBLY take advantage of anyone. Matthew Rhys as Chuck Palmer played this part perfectly, being at once arrogant in his appeal and also self-deprecating in his perception of himself in relation to the women he was engaging with. He had my shoulders around my ears from about a minute after he started talking to Hannah. Those sorts of men pretend not to notice the eyes darting down and away, or the shoulders that tense when you touch them, or the hesitation before agreeing to a drink. They pretend that a 20-year-old who’s been reading their work for years, or listening to them all semester, or working for them for months, has as much experience and perspective on the world as they do. That piecing out their compliments and flattery just as it’s becoming apparent that the young woman across from them may be getting it into her head to leave isn’t calculating. They decide that there can’t be a power imbalance because, after all, she can always just say no. And of course they’d respect a clear “no” but an “isn’t it getting late?” or “I think I should go” isn’t really no. If she suggests that the office door stay open, or you meet in a more public place, or that she’s uncomfortable with another drink, they’d be extremely affronted at the implication, which invites sympathy, acquiescence, and even a little shame for thinking so poorly of someone so nice. All of which just serves to make the situation less clear.
This is how it worked for Hannah. Palmer was able to get her engaged with him about his work, and then her writing, which he kept complimenting just as it seemed she had made up her mind about him, until it felt like her presence in his bedroom and their interaction there was just as much her fault as it was his. But it wasn’t. Hannah was invited in to a space where Chuck Palmer had more authority and power, where everything around her was designed to reinforce this. He dangled compliments and gifts in front of her, made her feel important that it was only HER who could really understand him, and then as she was relaxing and opening up to him about their shared love of writing, out comes his penis. It was never a matter of “if” that would happen, only a question of “when.” And he can make all the same “gray area” arguments that he was spewing before, and even add on top that given Hannah’s familiarity with the other accusations, wouldn’t she have known better? That knowledge and shame will keep Hannah from going public with her experience. It may even keep her from trying to raise up the voice of the next woman who does, since Palmer could throw an accusation back at her. And this is why the episode ends with a line of young women headed into Palmer’s building as Hannah walks away in disgust. And all of them, every single one, will walk away with a new bitterness about the world, a new cynicism about the intentions of men, and a little less willingness to trust the next man who asks it of them. As much as Hannah might say she wants someone to write a book about what a bitch she was, when her moment came she didn’t know what to do. Hannah Horvath might not be the voice of her generation, but seeing her without a voice last night is something that will resonate with millions of women.