I cannot remember the last time a television show left me unable to sleep.
Up until this week, I had been largely underwhelmed by season six of Girls. It felt as though the characters were moving further away from me, becoming millennial caricatures rather than complex characters. Hannah’s inability to read social cues felt more exaggerated and borderline gimmicky. At the end of the first two episodes I felt unsatisfied; had it lost it’s magic? Why wasn’t I feeling understood?
Then I heard whispers of episode three. “‘American Bitch,'” I read, “is one of Girls’ most challenging episodes to date.” According to Slate, this was the episode that “proves this show is still brilliant.”
Mia Freedman, Monique Bowley and Jessie Stephens discuss the show you absolutely must watch this weekend. Post continues below.
‘American Bitch’, is what the television world calls a ‘bottle episode’. It’s self contained, unrelated to the episodes either side of it, reminiscent of a think piece or a short masterful play. This is not an episode of television – it’s a work of art.
Hannah Horvath, played by Lena Dunham, has been summoned to the house of wildly successful author, Chuck Palmer.
We soon discover why. Hannah has written an article on a “niche feminist website”, supporting claims by a female blogger that Chuck forced a number of college-age women into sexual acts without their consent.
Chuck attempts to reason with her – and it must be said, quite convincingly. He works in an industry where men are routinely sabotaged by younger female writers desperately looking for a “story”.
“Who I may or may not have got a blow job from consensually… does not fucking matter,” he says to Hannah.
“By the way, how exactly does one give a non-consensual blow job?”
It's clear from the outset that Chuck is not who Hannah expected. He was a virgin until he was 25, he tells her. A divorcee. A dad who is terrified that his daughter will stumble across the rumours. He can't sleep without pills. He's in therapy.
But Chuck doesn't only tell us that he isn't a creep, he shows us.
He is bizarrely charming. Vox refers to him as "menacing and pathetic". He is self-deprecating and showers Hannah in compliments. An accomplished and highly respected author thinks that Hannah is funny. And talented.
But Hannah doesn't buy it. She's better than this.
"I'm tired of grey areas," she says to him. No woman is writing a blog about sexual assault for fun. This is not just for a 'story'. Hannah's article does matter, because this is about male privilege. It's about a woman accepting a sexual offer from Chuck, simply because she wants to feel like she exists.
Hannah tells him the story of an elementary school teacher who noticed her. "He was impressed with me," she tells Chuck. And then one day he started rubbing her neck and rustling her hair. But she never stopped him, because it made her feel special.
Chuck understands - he's sorry that happened to her. He says he knows why the blog post "triggered" Hannah. Could it be that Hannah was really just telling her own story? And Chuck was an unlucky stand in for her English teacher?
But Chuck doesn't claim to be faultless. “I’m a horny motherfucker with the impulse control of a toddler," he says. He's the tortured bad boy we know better than we'd like to admit.
So, who do we believe? They both state their case. Do we believe the innocence of the flawed but ultimately charismatic literary genius? After all, it becomes clear why women would throw themselves at him. Or do we believe the claims of multiple young women? Students who might just want a claim to power?
Something about Hannah, her wit, her intelligence, her ability to challenge, seems to soften him. He wants to know her. Where is she from? What does she want to do?
Chuck sees her.
They journey throughout Chuck's immaculate home, trading backdrops of Woody Allen, for a bookshelf in his bedroom.
Wait, how did they get there? We can barely remember.
She stumbles across a signed copy of a book by Philip Roth, one of her favourites. They talk. They laugh. He insists she keep it.
But - if I'm honest - there's a feeling in my gut. It's been there the whole episode. I don't know why, but something doesn't feel right. But I continue to dismiss it - I'm just overthinking it.
Mia Freedman recommends Girls season 6 on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below.
Intellectually, Hannah knows these girls are telling the truth. She is championing their defence. But emotionally? Perhaps she is not so certain after all.
Chuck then lies on his bed, staring at the ceiling. "Would you lie down with me for a moment?" he asks Hannah, before making a joke about how he understands the boundaries.
"I'm sorry," Hannah says.
That's when Chuck pulls out his penis, which lies gently on Hannah's thigh.
We've been here all along, yet we have no idea how it came to this.
Hannah is momentarily startled, before she reaches down, and holds his penis, gently stroking it.
Chuck's coercion is both implicit and painfully explicit. Things like this are not meant to happen to girls like Hannah. She was aware - she's not a dupe. She certainly isn't a 'victim'. Did she grab his penis on her own accord in an act of self-defence? Was she trying to prove to herself that she would not be another victim, and in so doing, immediately became one?
Did she reach for his penis to avoid an uncomfortable situation? Does she feel sorry for him? It's messy and weird and Hannah feels stupid but so do we.
She jumps up - as though only just realising what's happened. She's angry, but she's not sure who at.
He looks at her, with no hint of embarrassment or shame. He maniacally laughs. Why do we feel as though this was his plan all along?
His daughter then calls out, re-humanising Chuck-the-father. And Hannah doesn't leave. She stays to listen to Chuck's daughter play the flute. Because leaving at this point would be socially uncomfortable, awkward, weird. Imagine that.
As I went to bed after watching this episode, I couldn't sleep. I was haunted by the nuance and complexity of consent. The role that power plays in any social interaction, and how someone can manipulate you into thinking it's you that has it.
I thought about a situation I'd tried to bury.
When I was 17, my boyfriend at the time broke my heart. He'd broken up with me for another girl, but hadn't quite let me go. He came over one afternoon, and said all the things I'd ever wanted him to say. He apologised and told me I was the only one he wanted. He'd made a mistake.
I'm not sure how it happened, but an hour later I was giving him a blow job. An absolute concession of power.
As he left not long after, he looked me in the eye and laughed;
"I can get you to do whatever I want."
And that is an experience a woman never, ever forgets.
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