'Girls' Shows Uncomfortable Truths About Sexual Assault
The third episode of the sixth season of the landmark HBO show was a bottle episode centered around an ongoing conversation between Dunham's Hannah Horvath and Chuck Palmer, a successful novelist played by Matthew Rhys, at Palmer's gorgeous Upper West Side apartment.
It was a conversation about sexual assault. Several college women wrote on Tumblr that they had had non-consensual sexual relations with Chuck during his book tour.
Hannah wrote about the allegations, and Chuck invited her to his apartment to, as he says, tell his side of the story.
That phrasing prompted my first cringe. I'm of the belief that if a woman says an experience was non-consensual, a man's side of the story is not going to change that.
But Chuck did persist in telling it. Over the course of the episode, through intellectual sparring, listening and explaining, Hannah and Chuck ultimately connect.
Chuck describes his insecurities, which he believes are what leads him to these situations with college women. He says they throw themselves at him, and he can't resist. He invites them to his hotel, and when he tries to connect with them, they again throw themselves at him.
He describes this in a self-pitying manner, making it seem as if he is the true victim because the women he invites to his hotel room while on tour won't connect with him.
Hannah listens to him and indicates that she understands. She expresses regret for writing about him without knowing him.
As the final minutes of the episode approached, I was already tired of the outrage I thought the episode would leave me with.
Chuck may have given a sympathetic story, but it doesn't change the facts.
Dunham, who wrote the episode, does not have a great track record with discussing sexual assault.
She is also a widely discussed public figure, like the character of Chuck, who has been accused of sexual abuse for things she's written.
Sympathy doesn't erase assault.
Because of that, I worried the point of the episode would be a defense of celebrity. Based on the trajectory we saw as Hannah warmed to Chuck, I thought Dunham would be showing that if we don't know a person, we shouldn't make judgments of their character.
That bothered me because being a sad divorced man doesn't erase sexual assault. As Hannah tells Chuck, no matter his self-esteem, he had power over the college women by virtue of being an older, successful man whom they admired.
Because of the power dynamics at play, inviting young women to his hotel room in the first place already moves the situation into the "grey area" Hannah shouts about.
After giving Chuck some sympathy, Dunham turns the episode back on him.
Hannah understands Chuck. She sees his point of view.
He asks her to lie down in bed with him. He tells her it's not about sex. And then, he literally pulls his dick out and puts it on her leg.
Hannah nearly acquiesces to sex, touching his dick with her hand. But the grown-up, more self-assured Hannah we're seeing this season -- who is arguably more grown-up and self-assured than college-age women -- stops. She leaps out of bed and screams at him.
With this twist, Chuck's niceness, his persistence to connect, his compliments are turned into manipulations, all leading to him gaining power over her -- and putting his dick on her.
At the end of the episode, Dunham pushes to an uncomfortable truth about sexual assault.
After the dick incident, Chuck's daughter comes home and Hannah is made to sit with Chuck and watch her play the flute. (And the use of Rihanna's "Desperado" was truly inspired.)
Hannah looks at Chuck gazing proudly, lovingly at his young daughter.
She learns an important lesson. Someone can be humanized, relatable, loving and still be an assailant.
Rather than show an accused assailant as a human, Dunham showed a human as an assailant, which is reality.
Someone can be humanized, relatable, loving and still be an assailant.
The final shot of the episode drives this point home. We watch Hannah leave the apartment building. In an uncharacteristically surreal image, the shot stays on the apartment building and we see a series of faceless women flow into Chuck's building.
Chuck made Hannah feel unique and seen. But this shot shows us she's just one of the many women he's likely done this to.
Maybe he doesn't recognize it as manipulation, and maybe he really thinks he is trying to connect, but it's still manipulation.
It was an extremely powerful message that's especially important for men to hear. You can understand your motives as human, but that doesn't change the fact of putting a woman in a situation she does not want to be in.
And it's an extremely powerful message that's important for women to hear: Sympathy doesn't erase assault.
As Hannah shouts earlier in the episode, there is no "grey area." There's just a man putting his dick on a woman who does not want it on her.