Next

Badass Bitch of the Week: Lena Dunham

Next

Olivier Rousteing Talks his Nirvana-Inspired Balmain Collection

Next

Pierre Hardy Looks to "Blade Runner" for Fall 2017

Badass Bitch of the Week: Lena Dunham

Last week’s episode of Girls continued the much-needed dialogue about sexual assault 

BY HILARY SHEPHERD

PEOPLE  -  MARCH 04

 hero

Photo: BFA.com. View more at BFA.com.

Lena Dunham is not perfect. No one is, but considering she is a public figure, I feel comfortable expressing my distaste for certain things she’s done, e.g. admitting on her podcast that she wishes she’d had an abortion, despite never having had the need to (something she later apologized for); implying that NFL player Odell Beckham Jr. ignored her at the Met Ball because she was wearing a tuxedo and was therefore not fuckable, subsequently reinforcing the unfairly common trope involving the over-sexualization of black men (something she also publicly apologized for); and perhaps my biggest gripe of all, not including more people of color in her insanely popular HBO television series Girls, something she’s said she’s done deliberately to avoid tokenism in casting. But just because you don’t particularly like someone as a person doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate their work. I read Lenny Letter. I loved Tiny Furniture and finished Not That Kind of Girl in one sitting. I love Girls. And after watching last week’s episode, which frankly gutted me, I appreciate the show—and Dunham—even more. Not because of the format, which felt more like a short film than a 30-minute episode and was similar to the two other noteworthy episodes in the series, “One Man’s Trash” and “The Panic in Central Park.” Not because of the excellent casting (Matthew Rhys as renowned novelist Chuck Palmer) or the stellar soundtrack (Rihanna’s moody, drum-heavy “Desperado” played during the final scene), but because the narrative of "American Bitch," directed by Richard Shepherd and written by Dunham, brought to light an uncomfortable familiarity surrounding sexual assault. “People don’t talk about this shit for fun,” Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, says in one scene. “It ruins their lives.” But we need to talk about it. If not for the fictional (but very believable) accounts of four college-aged women who've accused Rhys's character of sexual assault, for the victims of prominent men like Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Dov Charney, Marlon Brando, Roman Polanski, Nate Parker, recent Academy Award winner Casey Affleck, and, shit, our President. (In case you haven’t noticed, society is very forgiving to straight males.) And, of course, for the countless victims of men who aren't famous, and whose assaults are just as brutal and painful but don't get media coverage. And finally, for ourselves.

The episode begins with Hannah, who’s a bit more grown-up this season and seems to have hit her stride writing-wise, arriving at Palmer’s fancy Manhattan apartment. He’s requested a meeting with her after reading an article she wrote about his aforementioned sexual encounters with four “Tumblr girls.” He wants to tell her his side of the story. Immediately, you can sense that she’s visibly out of her comfort zone—this is not Bushwick, and Palmer is not a lax surfing instructor (like Riz Ahmed’s character in the episode prior). She admires him, and admits to him early on that his work means a lot to her—it’s comforted her, it’s made her laugh, and her copy of one of his books is dogeared and underlined. But his actions have troubled her, hence the article. “Why would a smart woman like you write a very long and considered piece of writing on what is ultimately hearsay?” he asks her, comparing himself to a witch in the Salem trials. He feels wronged; he feels victimized. And he doesn’t like that his carefully constructed image (a photo of Palmer with Toni Morrison sits in plain sight) is being tainted. 

There are rich layers of symbolism throughout the episode—from the framed painting of Woody Allen to the picture of a visibly detached Palmer next to his young daughter on the refrigerator, it’s a semiotician’s dream, and you almost have to watch the episode twice to catch them all. Before Hannah can get into the meat of why she wrote about the accusations against him, he stops her, saying that it all gets “pretty fucking messy when words like ‘consensual’ are being thrown around.” He tells her he hasn’t slept, is going to therapy again, and has lost 20 pounds. And besides, “how does one give a non-consensual blow job?” He takes a personal phone call in front of her, in which we learn his daughter has depression. When he goes to the kitchen to get himself a coffee, he tells her he’s a “horny mother fucker with the impulse control of a toddler.” He gets it—there are kids dying in Africa, blah, blah, blah, but this is fucking hard for him. He’s sorry these girls from his lectures hurl themselves at him, but at least now they have something to write about, because writers need stories. “She has a story,” he says. “She has an experience. She has something different from every other creative writing grad that was bussed in from Virginia.” And besides, Denise—one of the accusers—practically ripped at his dockers! Hannah is smart, she writes well, and she writes sharply. Why does she care that he was getting head in some sterile hotel room in Rhode Island? 

This is precisely when we see Hannah at her best: She tells him the larger significance is lost on him—there is a power imbalance there, and it’s important to consider. "Well," he says, “the part where she looks like a Victoria’s Secret model and I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 25 and I was on Accutane—that part’s not lost on me.” For Hannah, this “very famous fucking writer” has got it all wrong—it’s not for the story, she tells him. It’s so she feels like she exists. Predictably, he fires back with the “gun-to-her-head” argument. It’s a tired retort, and one that tends to come up off-screen in topics involving rape and sexual assault, particularly when alcohol is involved. “I’m a grown man inviting a grown woman into my hotel room,” he says. “Did I put a gun to her head? Did I offer her a job? I may be stupid, but I’m not evil. An invitation isn’t inherently wrong or dangerous. Sexuality is muddy.” Hannah says she’s sick of grey areas, and cites an incident in grade school in which her male English teacher was a bit too touchy with her, but she allowed it because it made her feel special. “That stuff never goes away,” she says. 

From a first-person perspective, that specific line was triggering for me; like Hannah—and like those Tumblr girls—I, too, have grappled with sexual assault from a prominent male figure. I, too, know about the initial meeting, the flattery, the excitement, and the sheer surrealism of it all. Here you are, 25 and being asked out by a famous person, one you’ve watched for years, first as a handsome detective on a crime show and then as a moneyed bachelor on a '90s rom com series. Because you admire him, you go forth with the dinner invitation, only to realize that by the time you’ve arrived at the restaurant, the kitchen is closed, so it’s off to his apartment conveniently around the corner to see his art and his television memorabilia and share a glass of whiskey. He asks you what your goals are and you talk about writing. Next thing you know, you’re zipping up your skirt and gathering your belongings—the fantasy has dissipated, and now you’re left with the sobering realization of your naivety and the aftermath of nauseating memories. New York feels uglier, and you walk home feeling not so special anymore, and maybe more like a shell of something. This is why, I suppose, people tell you to never meet your heroes. Despite repeated calls from him (“Let’s keep this between us—I know how girls like the gab to their girlfriends.”) you try to remove it from your mind. After all, you willingly entered the lion’s den. And briefly, you felt like you existed. 

In the last half of the episode, Hannah starts to soften up. Yes, she’s written an article on a “niche feminist website” about how Palmer has used his power and influence to involve himself sexually with young girls, but maybe he’s just damaged. He reads her a piece of writing he’s working on about Denise, and reveals that she made him think of his daughter, his sister, and his mother. “I saw a woman who was lovely, lonely, and scared. I see now in myself every fucking guy who didn’t care to push a little further,” he says. Then, he shifts the conversation to Hannah, asking her where she’s from, what her goals are, et cetera. He talks about chocolate-covered cherries in Traverse City and makes a casual joke about bulimia. Now, Hannah is the interviewee, and as any Girls fan knows, Hannah loves talking about herself. When he tells her she’s a “fucking writer” and not a “two-bit journalist,” we realize we’ve lost her to his charm. “You thought you knew everything, but you didn’t,” he tells her. “You listened to one source and you flapped your lips—your funny lips—but all the same, you made me the face of this epidemic of literary men attacking industrious innocent women.” 

Enter: Both of them in his bedroom, happily thumbing through books and talking about Philip Roth. He asks her to lie down with him for a moment—if she pleases—and we are right there with her wondering if it’s a good idea, all things considered. “I’d encourage you to keep your clothes on to delineate any boundaries that feel right to you,” he says, as if sensing her hesitation. “I just want to feel close to someone in a way that I haven’t in a long time.” So she does, and you feel genuinely sorry for the man. She tells him his bed smells like snacks and he says it’s because he lives alone. And then, he unzips his pants, turns around and faces her, and places his flaccid penis on her leg. She grabs it briefly, and then immediately jumps up. “Oh my fucking god,” she says. “I touched your dick. You pulled your dick out and I touched your dick and it’s still out. You didn’t even put it away!” He stares at her with a devilish smile, and it’s then that we realize she was just a pawn to him.

The episode concludes with his daughter arriving just as Hannah attempts to slip out. She wants her dad to hear what she learned to play on her flute, and she invites Hannah to listen as well. And thus we are given one of the most powerful scenes in the history of Girls: The daughter playing her instrument to the tune of “Desperado," while Hannah watches Palmer beaming proudly at his spawn. His love for his daughter is sincere, but he can't respect women. This makes everything far more complex—and all the more disappointing. The final scene of Hannah exiting Palmer’s building against a current of blurry women entering it is captivating. In a discussion following the episode, producer Jenni Konner said she and Dunham wanted to explore the idea that most men who sexually assault women are not, in fact, “mustache-twisting villains.” Sometimes it’s more confusing than that. And sometimes manipulation is more powerful than a gun. 

0 Comment

Olivier Rousteing Talks his Nirvana-Inspired Balmain Collection

"I think I am the rebel of fashion"

BY KATHARINE K. ZARRELLA

NEWS  -  MARCH 03

 hero

Photo: firstVIEW

Pierre Hardy Looks to "Blade Runner" for Fall 2017

Cool, modern accessories with a sci-fi twist

BY ROXANNE ROBINSON

NEWS  -  MARCH 03

 hero 4

Photos: Courtesy of Pierre Hardy