Girls has always been a divisive show, both among the general population and among feminists. I’ve always defended it as an important, if wildly imperfect, show, for all of the usual reasons. Girls portrays women as equally flawed, crass, and indelicate as men (and sometimes, nearly as entitled), and displays the nude female form in a refreshingly desexualized way. But, as many have noted, it is extremely lacking in racial diversity, and is outright racist when a POC does actually appear. And considering how horribly spoiled and myopic all of the characters are, the show often appears to be more concerned with capturing the voice of the stereotypical privileged millennial than that of oppressed women.
“American Bitch” doesn’t change any of that, exactly, but it did single-handedly justify the show’s existence. If you’re going to watch one episode of Girls, make it this one. Not only because it’s conveniently a standalone, but because it’s a damn near perfect half-hour of television that is essentially rape culture in a bottle.
In “American Bitch,” a famous white male novelist (played by a wonderfully sleazy Matthew Rhys) invites Hannah to his home to confront her over an article she wrote about accusations that he had coerced young literary fans into sex. Technically, Palmer invites her to speak as equals, as colleagues in the literary community, but he takes every opportunity to assert his power over her. He proudly displays copies of his own novels, his Pen/Faulkner award, and a picture of himself with Toni Morrison. He tells her where to put her shoes (as long as they don’t touch the other shoes), he takes a long personal phone call in front of her, and he evaluates her writing in front of her, reminding her that she’s an unknown writer who should be (and is) dying for his approval.
Palmer tries to defend himself against the accusations, and better than you might think. I’m one of the biggest feminists I know, and even I found myself wondering if he might be telling the truth. He argues that he’s an asshole in his love life, that he hurts these girls’ feelings, that he “never claimed to be perfect” (the ultimate cop-out), but he’s not a predator. He’s simply a sad guy who will accept a blow job from an adoring fan once in a while and then never call her again, which he admits is pathetic, but isn’t a crime.
And herein lies the misunderstanding. When feminists talk about “rape culture,” they aren’t talking about indicting every man who perpetrates it in a court of law. They can’t, by definition, because non-consensual or ambiguously-consensual sex has permeated our entire culture. All of this “innocent until proven guilty rhetoric” from the accused is A) all but meaningless when there are multiple accusers, which there usually are, and B) misguided, because no one is actually talking about throwing men like Palmer in jail. You don’t have to be a “rapist” to be an irredeemable asshole who traumatizes women.
Hannah understands this, and holds her own surprisingly well in a debate with an intimidating literary idol. When he chastises her for basing a serious accusation on “hearsay,” she reminds him that the testimony of four women isn’t exactly hearsay. When he asks her what a “nonconsensual blowjob” looks like, implying that they can’t exist by definition, she rightly says, “very chokey, maybe holding her hair by the pigtails.” And when he tells her that these women threw themselves at him, that they just wanted attention and a story to tell, she corrects him that they felt pressured, and that they “just wanted to exist.”
With all of these tired excuses coming out of Palmer’s mouth, you might think that there were no ambiguity in their interactions. But you can easily see how a guy like him could convince with that writerly faux-self-awareness. Rhys’ performance successfully humanizes Palmer a bit, and the writing expertly plays on that paranoid question that is only partially wrapped up in the patriarchy: what if? What if, just by the law of averages, the MRA trolls were right for once? What if these women were lying, not because women lie, but because people occasionally do? What if Palmer is actually that one schmuck whose entire life and reputation gets ruined by a lie/exaggeration on Tumblr?
This is all nonsense, of course, if only because rape accusations usually ruin the accuser’s life more than the accused. It’s completely irrational to think that four different women would tell the same lie just for the privilege of receiving rape threats from Pepe the Frog accounts on Twitter. But still, considering that the “grey area” of sexual politics is such a hot-button issue these days, I wouldn’t have put it past the tragically hip and ever-controversial Girls writers to be ambiguous for the sake of ambiguity.
But as it turns out, when Lena Dunham says she’s “so sick of grey areas,” she really means it. Palmer subtly directs their conversation from an interview-style setting in the living room, to a more casual sit-down in the kitchen, to an intimate conversation on his couch. He pays her an endless string of compliments, first appropriate ones about her writing, and then a throwaway comment about her “pretty face.” He butters her up until she admits first that she can separate politics from the appreciation of a misogynist’s art (which is dubious, to say the least), and then that she shouldn’t have written her blog post “without getting all the facts.” He asks her to lie down next to him, insisting that he doesn’t want anything sexual, just to “feel close to someone.” He grooms her, just as her grade school teacher did by rubbing her neck without her permission.
And then, the grand finale: he nonchalantly takes his dick out and places it on her thigh. She touches it reflexively, before she really knows what’s happening, and then gets up and repeats, completely horrified, “That’s your dick!” He just smirks at her, because he knows he’s won.
Before the dick-on-thigh incident, Palmer was on track for a different type of victory. Hannah would have left his apartment with his words about the “lovely and lonely” women on Tumblr ringing in her ears, and written a thinkpiece for Jezebel called, “Sometimes, Where There’s Smoke, There’s Just Smoke.” His reputation may not have been restored immediately, but it certainly would have muddied the waters. But instead he just humiliates her, because he knows that he already has all of the power. Even with those allegations, he’s the one with a glowing review in the New York Times, he’s the one with the beautiful brownstone in Brooklyn, he’s the one who will always be given a second chance because he’s a “genius,” a get-out-of-jail free label that usually only applies to white men.
Meanwhile, Hannah is an unknown female writer. Her only power is to write about the assault, in which case she’ll be harassed, threatened, and disbelieved. She’ll be accused of having buyer’s remorse because she actively (if not willingly) touched his penis. She’ll appear just like all of those women on Tumblr, an impressionable groupie who “hurled herself” at a literary idol for her fifteen minutes of fame. She’ll be yet another woman who was treated like shit by a famous man without ever tarnishing his legacy, an ugly footnote on his Wikipedia page. She’ll be Chuck Palmer’s “American Bitch.”
That title, which refers to a rumored working title of When She Was Good by Philip Roth, encapsulates the brilliance of the episode. While Hannah is at the height of her manipulation, she concedes that she loves Philip Roth’s writing in spite of his misogyny, to which Palmer replies, “Never let politics dictate who you read or who you fuck, that’s what I always say.” (Which, ew.) She giddily tells him that When She Was Good is Roth at his best, even from a female perspective, because “What could be better than to ruin someone’s life with your wanton sex appeal and icicle-sharp intellect?” She’s being at least partially sardonic, because for Hannah, it would obviously be better to be the person telling the story. No aspiring author wants to be the Zelda. In that one line, Hannah summarizes why women who lack the power to tell their own stories settle for being the female lead (or anecdote) in someone else’s story. That’s why Chuck Palmer would be a creep of the first order, even if he hadn’t legally committed sexual assault.
In this episode, Girls wades into extremely difficult territory: “gray-area” sexual assaults that might not hold up in court, but nonetheless can leave women traumatized for life. Lena Dunham explained her intentions while making the episode to Vulture:
“I have way less shame about my actual sexual assault than I do about some ambiguous encounters I had… When you’re raped, you’re raped. You get to go, “That happened to me. It was beyond my control.” But when you allow boundaries to be blurred without even knowing that it’s happening, it’s a different kind of pain and shame that eats away at you for a long time.”
From a feminist perspective, Palmer undeniably assaulted Hannah. She agreed to lie down with him platonically, and he touched her with his penis when he clearly didn’t have permission. But this episode deftly demonstrates why many women blame themselves and stay quiet about sexual assaults–because most assaults aren’t committed by strangers jumping out of the bushes, but by acquaintances who exploit vulnerabilities and make women unwittingly complicit in their own violations. That’s why it was so significant that earlier in the episode, Hannah was staunchly defending Palmer’s victims with classic feminist rhetoric. Even someone like Hannah, who is armed with knowledge of these patriarchal forces, can still become a victim. It’s not a failure of intelligence, feminism, or cynicism on the victim’s part; it’s simply the risk you run going through life as a woman.