Why do the girls of Girls act that way? That’s the question underlying five years of baffled cultural responses to Lena Dunham’s epic of questionable decisions, cruelty, narcissism, and grace. Girls has never given a straightforward answer to the question. Despite unflinching confessional dialogue and occasional backstory development and sharp cultural satire, Hannah Horvath and her friends still have an air of Athena, sprung into existence fully formed. Asking why these girls spill drinks and impulsively marry and vomit off of bunkbeds is like asking why anyone exists at all.
This has made Girls unusual in a cultural landscape where the tragic flashback is the go-to decoder of individual motivation. To take two recent examples from HBO, The Young Pope connected Pope Pious’s childhood abandonment to his adult torment, and Westworld’s so-called “key insight” was that to be human is to remember suffering. In society more broadly, ongoing dialogues about trauma, triggering, and privilege—dialogues that Dunham often wades into as a public figure—insist that personal history needs to be taken as seriously as present conduct does.
On Girls, parental issues occasionally surface—Jessa’s flaky dad, Hannah’s closeted one, Marnie’s controlling mom—and brain chemistry came to the fore in Hannah’s OCD plot line. But sometimes it has seemed like the show wants to satirize the notion of explaining character through trauma. Once, Hannah recalled telling her mom that her babysitter touched her vagina at age 3—but added that she had probably been lying at it. At the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, her peers insisted her short story about violent sex must have been nonfiction from an abusive past; the joke was that it actually reflected her adventuresome present: “the time that I took a couple Quaaludes and asked my boyfriend to punch me in the chest.”
This week’s sure-to-be-provocative episode “American Bitch”—posted to online platforms now and airing on HBO Sunday night—sharpened the show’s point of view on psychological cause and effect. In it, Hannah visits with a famous author, Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), after writing an essay about accusations that he’d serially preyed on college-aged female fans. Chuck makes his case for innocence, Hannah relates some details from her past, and the two seem to come to an understanding—and then Chuck takes his penis out and presses it against Hannah. It’s a story of personal monstrousness and trauma, but it’s also a story about a system: a gender dynamic that ensures a common experience of degradation for women, whether in their pasts or in the present.
Chuck Palmer has a surprising amount in common with Hannah. His fussiness hints at OCD. He proposes that writers need stories more than anything else, echoing Hannah’s experiences-at-all-cost outlook throughout Girls. The two bond over their love of Philip Roth, agreeing that “you can’t let politics dictate what you read or who you fuck” (Chuck’s words). And most tellingly, Chuck professes to want to understand the person he’s talking to but constantly interrupts with his own observations—perhaps a sexist tic, but also a narcissistic one plenty familiar to Girls viewers. In all of these things, Dunham may be sketching some ideas about the intrinsic traits that make a writer.
But most of their conversation is a clash of biographies. Chuck emphasizes his loneliness, his daughter’s depression, his ex-wife’s hostility, and the sadness of book-tour life. When Hannah suggests an inappropriate power balance in him hooking up with girls on the road, Chuck shoots back that the real imbalance is that “she looks like a Victoria’s Secret model and I didn’t lose my virginity till I was 25 and on Accutane.” He is the victim in this reading. The women complaining online are exploiting his fame and desperation as well as the power of the internet to amplify harmful claims.
It appears that this version of events nearly persuades Hannah, who apologizes for having written something that upset Chuck. But the apology is colored by all the buttering-up that has come before. Chuck repeatedly tells her how smart he thinks she is. He gives her a signed copy of Roth’s When She Was Good. And he claims that he invited her over to try and correct his true error with his accusers: not “pushing” enough to get to know them as people. When he then asks questions about her life, Hannah giggles and blithely answers.
But during an earlier, tenser point in the conversation, Hannah relates a less happy bit of her history. In fifth grade, her English teacher Mr. Lasky took a liking to her based on her talent as a writer:
He liked me, he was impressed with me, I did like special creative writing, I wrote like a little novel or whatever. Sometimes, when he was talking to the class he would stand behind me and he’d rub my neck. Sometimes he’d rub my head, rustle my hair. And I didn’t mind. It made me feel special. It made me feel like someone saw me and they knew that I was going to grow up and be really, really particular. It also made kids hate me and put lasagna in my fucking backpack, but that’s a different story.
Anyway, last year I’m at a warehouse party in Bushwick, and this guy comes up to me and he’s like, “Horvath, we went to middle school together, East Lansing!” And I’m like, “Oh my god, remember how crazy Mr. Lasky’s class was? He was basically trying to molest me.”
You know what this kid said? He looks at me in the middle of this fucking party like he’s a judge, and he goes, “That’s a very serious accusation Hannah.” And he walked away. And there I am and I’m just 11 again, and I’m just getting my fucking neck rubbed. Because that stuff never goes away.
If this is Hannah Horvath’s long-awaited revelation about her past, it’s a relatively mild one: no rape, no violence, just some neck rubbing in class. But the insidiousness of it is in how it fits a pattern of warped gender relations. Chuck is like Mr. Lanksy: an older, powerful man praising a younger woman’s intellectual talents—but also tying that praise to flesh. Hannah’s value as a writer and her value as a body were long ago swirled together by a gatekeeper, and Chuck did something very similar to the young would-be authors he had sex with. If they consented, what were they consenting to? A validation of their mind, or the notion that what really matters is their body?
The trauma here is not merely what happened, either. It’s in how honest expressions of discomfort by women are met with hostility and invalidation by men on legalistic pretenses. Consent is hugely important, but the issue isn’t entirely a legal one in this case. It is a moral one, a social one, and an emotional one. Hannah doesn’t seem to want either Chuck or Mr. Lasky in jail. She just wants to tell the truth about a troubling, degrading dynamic, and she is told—both by the guy at the Bushwick party and by Chuck—that she is wrong to do so.
The sick twist is that the trauma has now been amplified and reenacted on Hannah for speaking out. Chuck flatters her, convinces her he’s no monster, and then unzips and thrusts against her without warning. For a moment, Hannah seems confused; for another moment, she seems to consider going along with it—she grabs him. Then she freaks out and screams at him.
He gives her an evil grin. All the respect he had previously paid her has been rendered a joke. His praise of her mind was foreplay to the reminder that what he really liked was her body. And in Hannah’s moment of her considering whether to give in—for the rush, the faux validation, and the avoidance of conflict that would come with saying “yes”—she was in the same impossible situation as so many women before her.
As a public figure, Lena Dunham has written a lot about trauma, especially about how a rape in early adulthood has had a concrete effect on her life over the years. But she also, recently, apologized for saying she “wished” she had had an abortion so as to help destigmatize the practice—a very inartful expression of the idea that a person and their worldview is not merely a result of biography.
Girls seems to be trying to reconcile the need to honor the past's influence on the present while recognizing that no individual's history is an island. Did the Mr. Lasky experience change Hannah forever? Maybe. He could be the reason why she wants “to write stories that make people feel less alone than [she] did,” the exact kind of story that brought her to Chuck’s apartment. But that earlier trauma, in itself, didn’t create the new one she experienced in this episode. Nor was it, theoretically, necessary for Hannah to have gone through what she went through in order to care about Chuck's accusers.
Why is Chuck such a creep? Girls doesn’t say that it’s because of any specific circumstance in his past. It’s not just because he’s what he calls a “horny motherfucker.” It’s simply because he can be this way. Because he is successful and male, he can put women in spots like the one he put Hannah in. He can expect them to often consent, queasily or not. He can even expect that other men will tell the women not to complain about it later.
What he can’t expect anymore, Girls suggests, is for the women to actually remain silent. In the final moments of the episode, Hannah watches Chuck’s daughter play flute. She alternates her gaze between the girl and her father, perhaps weighing the implications of what just happened and what she should do about it. If Hannah writes about his actions, she may hurt him in a way that harms his daughter. But she keeps staring at the girl. She may well be one day put in a situation like the one Hannah was just put in. She may already have been.
As Hannah leaves, we see a handful of women walking the opposite direction up the sidewalk, and then turning to enter his building. It reads as symbolism: a nod to all of the women past and future who can relate to what Hannah just went through, as different as their individual backstories may be.