Image from Girls: American Bitch.

The third episode in the last season of Girls had a pretty strong effect on me. A bottle episode, it focuses on one day, one apartment and one conversation between Hannah and a writer she admires, Chuck Palmer. The premise seems simple enough: ¬†he has asked her there to discuss an article she wrote recently about his alleged sexual assault of four women. However as the conversation unfolds, we‚Äôre carried with Hannah through¬†the still-contested grey area of consent, the ‚Äòhe-said-she-said‚Äô push and pull. She’s swayed by the charm and apparent innocence of Palmer, then thrown by his eventual aggressive sexual move when he pulls his penis out and flops it onto her leg. But whose ‚Äòfault‚Äô was it (if we could even ascribe fault to such a situation)? Though increasingly aware of and sensitive to cases such as these there is still a lack of understanding as to how the situation should be addressed, and at what point we perceive someone as being sexually abused, or being an abuser. In addition this episode pulls in issues regarding status, the common perception of artists being above retribution and of their potential victims being merely in need of media attention. Though in the episode Hannah says she‚Äôs sick of grey areas, the episode throws up a whole host of them, raising more questions than it can answer as it is still (unfortunately) a wholly uncertain issue.

Hannah‚Äôs ‚Äòseduction‚Äô, as it were, is predicated on Palmer‚Äôs drip-fed compliments, slowly wearing her down through admiration and emotional intensity. The honey-trap unfurls as he strokes her ego, praising her writing, intelligence and humor, taking the interest in her that he supposedly failed to take in his accusers. In this way his charm is not at first overtly sexual but holds the promise of authentic and intimate conversation between peers‚Äìan alluring proposition from an admired author. The situation is flipped fairly rapidly when he asks her to lie down with him, and the previous conversation now seems nothing more than an elaborate ruse to pull her into the very situation she was vehemently opposing. The smile he gives as she realises what‚Äôs happened is genuinely chilling, maybe because it is a situation that is all too familiar to so many girls. (Of course, this is a scenario which is not specific to heterosexual experience. However the power balance between men and women is unfortunately such that it is an alarmingly common situation girl’s face.)

In the case of Hannah and Palmer, nobody can deny that she consented to get next to him in bed–she even briefly grabs the offered penis–but her immediate horror at having done so clearly shows her dismay at the situation having thus turned. What’s crazy is how often these things happen, how often girls are forced into a position of feeling awkward at saying no, afraid of incurring offence or embarrassment. Yet this fear comes at the cost of their own sense of personal happiness and safety. The excuse Palmer gives for wanting to lie down together is to feel close to someone, and so for Hannah to reject him would be to deny comfort to someone who’s lonely and in need of emotional support. And sometimes a fear of seeming presumptuous or prudish by refusing is enough to make a girl lie down and hope he really did only want to feel close to someone. For those who have never felt manipulated or taken advantage of in this way, it perhaps doesn’t seem like it should have such an effect–you can push the guy away, shrug it off and go about living your life. But this is to deny the emotional impact of feeling you allowed someone to touch you without consent, and feel as though it were your own fault for leading them on. This dilemma is (sadly) so typical that I’m at risk of stating the obvious in explaining its effect, however the fact that it continually arises means that it is still not fully understood. Does engaging in one-on-one conversation invite a sexual advance? Of course not. The idea that girls respond to aggressive sexual moves, that reluctance indicates not uncertainty but playfulness, is a falsity that is still so ingrained in our culture. Countless films show strong and sexual men as those who aren’t afraid of ‘making the first move’, men who know what the women want before even they do. But at the end of the day, what girl wants to be forced into a sexual situation?

It’s like watching Hannah being groomed within the space of a half hour. And it’s sad because you can see and understand the validation she gains from his praise, yet simultaneously wonder why she should base her perceived capabilities as a writer on his opinion. It’s the same with the girls who accused Palmer, girls who idolise him as an author and so oblige his wishes in their momentary excitement at being noticed by him. Palmer’s advances are problematic not only in regards of how people should treat one another, but also in considering his abuse of a power he self-consciously holds. The problematic nature of such status–that held by respected artists–is something that has in itself recently come to light with this year’s Oscars. The ceremony saw Casey Affleck winning Best Actor despite his resurfacing cases of sexual harassment incurred during the filming of I’m Still Here. The accusations from Amanda White and Magdalena Gorka include abusive messages, encouragement of other crew members to harass them, climbing into bed with Gorka while she was asleep, and refusing to credit them in the film as retaliation for their rejection. The cases have been settled outside of court, but the events sparked a number of articles questioning the morality of giving such a person a highly-esteemed award.

The cases of sexual assault being blithely ignored in Hollywood circles is extensive–Roman Polanski, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson, remain respected figures in Hollywood history, despite respectively being accused of raping a 13 year old girl, sexual assaulting a fellow actress and threatening his wife with rape. Every time these men gain accolades, awards, fame and praise it is just another way of telling their victims that their stories don’t matter, their experiences aren’t relevant, they’re simply necessary casualties in a successful man’s rise to fame. Cases such as these reflect an unnerving power balance between an artist lent credence and support by an industry that simultaneously denies serious consideration of their actions. Though a different type of scenario, Palmer’s power over Hannah derives from his status and her comparative invisibility. His knowledge and abuse of the position he holds is what makes the situation uncomfortable, his manipulation of insecurities and issues of self-worth simply to gain sexual favors borders on cruel. The instance of Affleck is simply another illustration of an artist using their status to coerce women into unwanted sexual situations. What’s more, it shows them getting away with it, remaining in the canon of acclaimed artists while the victims are dismissed as simply wanting attention and money.

The capability for a single half hour episode to so succinctly depict the unnerving issues of consent and questions of power is what gives Girls its occasional brilliance. The ending shows her walking, stunned, from Palmer’s apartment as a stream of young women file in to take her place. The effect of this is that Hannah is not unique in her experience, she was not chosen by Palmer for any particular reason other than he simply knew he could. And so, in a sad way, he’s won- he remains a respected author, getting away with acts of sexual assault while she is left with a small article and an experience that makes her a part of the crowd, rather than an exception. Until girls feel they can initiate and end a sexual encounter with the same liberty as men are afforded, then episodes such as these will be a much needed reminder of the overlooked victims in such cases, sidelined to the grey area and too often forgotten.

-Scarlett Evans
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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