Last night, as I do most Monday nights, I crawled into bed, gummy bears in hand, and watched the latest episode of GIRLS. Usually it makes me laugh; sometimes it makes me rage-y (MARNIE IS THE WORST). So I wasn’t expecting anything too extraordinary. (I mostly watch because I love the recaps and commentary on the Man Repeller.)
But this episode was p h e n o m e n a l. Phenomenal in its timing. Phenomenal in its social commentary. Phenomenal in its telling of millions of women’s stories. Phenomenal in its response to so much of today’s public discourse and victim blaming.
To sum the episode up: A prominent author asks Hannah to come over to talk after she publishes an article about his predatory ways. He plays the victim card over and over again until winning Hannah’s forgiveness. Then he abuses it.
Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker of course, puts it a thousand times better than I ever could.
The key to “American Bitch,” Sunday’s scathing and timely episode of “Girls,” is the compliments. “Hannah, you’re clearly very bright,” Chuck Palmer, a novelist celebrated for his confessional work, says. “I could tell that from the first sentence you wrote.” He reads the sentence, as Hannah struggles to hide her pleasure: “ ‘If one more male writer I love reveals himself to be a heinous sleazebag, I’m going to do a bunch of murders, create a new Isle of Lesbos, and never look back.’ ” “You’re funny!,” Palmer says. “That’s a funny sentence.”
This initial intro scene was enough to make me put the gummy bears down and pay closer attention. As the episode progressed, the more I wanted to crawl inside myself and cry, while simultaneously wanting to run outside and scream THIS THIS THIS.
In certain ways, it’s a classic exchange between an older artist (rich, decadent, in print) and a younger artist (poor, moralistic, online). Chuck scores some points: it’s the women who throw themselves at him, he argues, because they are seeking stories to tell. Who really has the power, he asks: the zitty older virgin—him—or a beautiful young model? Hannah resists those arguments; she scores her points, too. “I’m tired of gray areas,” she tells him in disgust, when he waves off any sense that he’s even powerful. She shares a story about having being groomed by a grade-school teacher, another older man who selected her, making her feel chosen and special (a story that’s one of Lena Dunham’s own real-life stories, which she wrote about in her memoir). Chuck sympathizes. Eventually, he asks Hannah about herself—as, he suggests, a form of ethical payback for the exploitative relationships with his fans: he never really listened to the other young women, but now he’ll listen to her, see her as a person, in order to make up for it.
This scene made me cry.
Because I can count not one, but two teachers (one a professor), and a boss from a restaurant I worked at in high school, who would all rub my shoulders or touch my waist without my consent.
The first time it happened I was in elementary school and didn’t realize how inappropriate this behavior was. I’m lucky in that it never went further, and I was ignorant to know what this meant.
The second time was when I worked at a restaurant and the regional manager came over as I was working on the cash register and placed his hands around my waist. I immediately turned to him and told him to “please don’t touch me,” and I was fired a week later for a random reason. When I was fired I told my manager about what had transpired, and what was no doubt the reason for my being fired, and asked if I could have the contact information to file a sexual harassment suit, he told me “no such thing exists.” Though my parents encouraged me to take it to the corporate offices, I decided to just let it go.
A few years later, in college, a professor came over to my desk while I was working on a story and put his hands on my shoulders and rubbed them. I spun my chair around and told him to not touch me. He laughed it off. I reported it to the Dean. I have no idea if he was ever disciplined. But I’m glad I said something. Both to him and the higher ups.
These weren’t the only occasions this occurred, and I’m sure they won’t be the last (what a tragic reality to admit).
Being a female in today’s world, though we’ve come incredibly far, continues to be a incredibly difficult thing to be. Often I’m asked why I so strongly believe in the women’s movement and why I march. My response could be summarized into one simple sentence:
I march because I never want my nieces or nephews to have their shoulders rubbed predatorily.
Because this one sentence says so much more than the words used. Because this one sentence says everything.