On an Audacious Girls, Lena Dunham Harpoons the Great White Novelists and Auteurs
Courtesy of HBO
A stylized painting of Woody Allen, a golden gun to his forehead, stares down at Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) in the astonishing third episode of Girls’ final season. She’s seated in the study of a best-selling wunderkind novelist, planted in the middle of his sofa while he faces her, coldly, from an armchair. Of course she feels intimidated. She’s encased in his self-worshipping shrine, surrounded by every relic of a literary success she can only wish for. She’s the vulnerable ingenue in the presence of an anointed genius. And she’s been summoned for a scolding.
That genius is Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys, all smirking, unctuous perfection). Palmer pretends not to care much for his awards and Times raves. What irks him: a snarky post Hannah wrote for a niche feminist website that endorses the accounts of four women who have accused him of sexual assault and coercion. “If one more writer I love reveals himself to be a sleazebag, I’m gonna do a bunch of murders, move to the Isle of Lesbos and never look back,” she wrote. She hasn’t met these women but firmly believes that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Palmer has invited her to his Manhattan home to convince her otherwise. “You should be using your funny to tackle subjects that matter,” he commands. “Who I may or may not have gotten a blowjob from consensually in a college town does not. Fucking. Matter.”
Lena Dunham has both publicly admired and been held up against Great Men like Palmer her entire career. She has also consciously imitated them. Early on, Girls looked as if it might become a millennial Sex and the City, detailing the New York sexual adventures of four postgrad women. Instead, the series comes off like Portnoy’s Complaint but told by a young, female Alvy Singer, showcasing the droll narcissism, sexual rawness and intellectual insecurities of a person swimming against the tide of conformity (despite being desperate for social validation).
Twenty-something Dunham, called a wunderkind herself, carefully cultivated a neurotic, sex-obsessed creative persona in the vein of Woody Allen, Louis C.K. or Philip Roth. Now, in a 28-minute teleplay that deliberately mirrors scenes of intense sexual debate between men and women in her predecessors’ work, Dunham audaciously inverts their narratives to actively confront the darkest edge of these artists’ power. “You’re a very fucking famous writer, and she’s working really hard to just get a little bit of what you get every day,” Hannah snipes, laying out why a striving young fan would jump at the chance to spend time with her idol. Their protracted exchange isn’t another retread of the closed-room he-said/she-said debates familiar from topical shows like Designing Women: Dunham deliberately utilizes seething intimacy to expose the trauma of sexual exploitation.
The achingly self-reflexive episode, titled “American Bitch” (the apocryphal working title of Roth’s novel When She Was Good), is a study in manipulation. Namely, what influential male artists are able to do to the diffident young women who admire them. Hannah and Palmer pass from room to room as their dynamic evolves, evoking the apartment-spanning deliberations of an Allen film like Husbands and Wives. In the study, Palmer confronts Hannah’s indictment. In the kitchen, Hannah dashes Palmer’s defenses against the rocks. They bond over a love of literature in his bedroom.
A spiritual sequel to the second season’s bottle episode “One Man’s Trash,” in which Hannah spends an uninterrupted sex weekend with an older stranger, “American Bitch” showcases a more mature Hannah still grappling with what it means to be an object of desire. She even monologues to Palmer about the adoring sixth-grade teacher whose inappropriate neck rubs still haunt her — and the former classmates who silence her to this day when she compares her experience to molestation. She and Palmer debate the thorniness of consent. “I invite them back to my hotel room,” he announces. “We may drink teeny, tiny bottles of booze if the place is nice enough to have a minibar. A couple of them might stay, and voilà, they have something to write about. Because what do writers need? They need stories.”
Operators such as Palmer tell themselves and others that sex occurs in a vacuum — it’s just something raw that “happens” between two people. They need to believe that, in order to disregard the murky ethics of sexual power imbalance. “I didn’t stick a gun to her head,” he protests. Soon, he opens up about his sexual addiction, weaponizing his pathological need for confession in order to soften Hannah. His icy justifications give way to flat affect, negging-like compliments. “You’re funny,” he deadpans throughout the encounter.
He wields authority and control, repeatedly telling her she’s smart and talented, that he chose her and only her to reveal himself to. She can’t resist such approval; it’s painful to watch her fly directly into his web. She even makes the common mistake of apologizing for having written that post. The denouement, involving his bared genitalia and trickster god leer, is simultaneously shocking and not shocking at all. The only consolation is that Hannah stops herself mid-act.
Looming over all of this, of course, is the director of Annie Hall and Manhattan — also famed for marrying his stepdaughter — holding that gun to his own head. It is Chekhov’s Woody Allen Portrait and foreshadows our dread as we watch Hannah stumble into the monster’s trap. The frank reference makes you wonder exactly what kind of real-life evisceration went down in the Girls writers room while crafting this episode. Palmer, whom blogs in the Girls world have nicknamed “throat piercer,” is the composite of every creative enfant terrible of the last half-century. Picture a wall of faces darted in the forehead, any virtuoso who has ever been accused of sexual assault or rampant misogyny: Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Alfred Hitchcock.
Palmer’s characterization even feels like a call-out against the mere tone-deaf arrogance of literati royalty. (Think Jonathan Franzen or John Updike.) Despite Hannah’s puerile claim, while clutching a Roth novel, that she hopes “someone writes a book about what a cunt I am someday,” Dunham refuses to let her alter ego become fodder. Yes, Palmer humiliates her, but a younger Hannah might have succumbed completely to his manipulation without coming to her senses a moment later. He thinks he’s won but has only proven her original point: Assault occurs more often with smiles than it does guns.
Allen has been dogged for decades with claims of sexual impropriety and outright pedophilic battery. (Dunham has made it clear she is no fan.) But when Hannah describes Palmer’s “move” — inviting young women to his hotel room, ambushing them by pulling out his penis — it actively recalls rumors that have swirled around Louis C.K. Dunham has always had a positive public relationship with C.K., even dressing up as him for Halloween one year. Her choice here reverberates like a battle cry for the Pussy Grabs Back era.
The claustrophobia of the episode brings to mind David Mamet’s Anita Hill response Oleanna but also feels linked to David Harrower’s Blackbird, another play about the complexities in confronting an abuser. From beginning to end, however, it is as much daring self-critique as it is feminist grenade-lobbing. “I’m so sick of gray areas!” she barks at Palmer when he goes down a cerebral rabbit hole about the convolutions of sex. This declaration reads like an admonishment of Dunham’s past self, the younger director who featured a violent, nonconsensual “gray rape” sex act in the second season of Girls, an act that the show never addressed as sexual assault. There will be no more gray going forward for Hannah or Dunham.
On Sunday, the Academy may well crown Casey Affleck as Best Actor for Manchester by the Sea in the face of troubling sexual harassment allegations. The same audience that gave a standing ovation to Lady Gaga following her performance of a rape survivor’s anthem awarded a Best Director Oscar to Roman Polanski in 2003 while he hid in Europe to avoid jail time for drugging and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl. The ubiquity of celebrity makes it easy to forgive these artists and entirely impossible for their targets to forget them.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.