In a recent interview with comedian and podcaster Phoebe Robinson, Lena Dunham admitted she has a hard time keeping her mouth shut. Despite the many documented instances when Dunham has said something offensive or clumsy or generally ill-advised, “It’s still really hard for me when I have the instinct to express myself to hold back in any way,” she confessed — adding that she’s not sure if it’s bravery or just a lack of self-control that so often pushes her foot in the direction of her mouth.
The truth is, Dunham is far more persuasive when she expresses herself through the lens of fiction, particularly her show, Girls, than when making an off-color Twitter joke or throwing out a half-baked argument in an interview that sets the internet aflame. With Sunday’s episode (originally made available on Friday because of the Oscars), written by Dunham, the thinkpiecer becomes the thinkpiecee: “American Bitch,” a two-hander between Dunham and guest star Matthew Rhys, is a prime example of the ability of fiction to communicate certain truths, particularly when it comes to sex. It’s simultaneously a celebration and an indictment of the power of stories.
We open on Hannah (Dunham) walking down a tony, tree-lined Manhattan street, with a beautiful white building in the foreground. She enters the marble lobby and heads up to the apartment of novelist Chuck Palmer (Rhys), who invites her in and instructs her to take off her shoes: “I’m sorry, if they could not touch the suede boots, it’s just a whole thing.”
Director Richard Shepard establishes Chuck’s literary dominance in a few brief shots of his well-appointed home. The camera lands on framed newspaper raves, a PEN award nomination, books upon books lining built-in, custom-lit shelves, piles of manuscripts, a photo of him and Toni Morrison, a painting of Woody Allen with a gun to his head. This is a Man of Letters, a Serious Writer, and, in all likelihood, a total misery.
We soon learn why Hannah’s there. After a college student took to Tumblr to accuse Chuck of being sexually aggressive with her following a book signing, three other women came forward with similar stories, and Hannah wrote an article on a feminist website condemning him for taking advantage of the women. To her surprise, Chuck sought her out and summoned her to his apartment. “I’m not trying to get an apology out of you,” he says. “I’m just looking to give my side of the story.”
At first, Chuck is easy to shrug off as an entitled jerk. But as their conversation progresses, Hannah slowly finds reason to doubt herself. Does she know any of Chuck’s accusers? Does she have any proof beyond their word? “These four women are the witches,” Hannah says when Chuck makes a Salem reference. “I’m the witch!” he protests.
It becomes harder for Hannah — and, by proxy, the viewer — to dismiss Chuck outright. He flatters her sense of intelligence, telling her he called her over the others who wrote about the incident because she’s actually a good writer, and he doesn’t think she should be wasting her time writing about unfounded rumors for a website that’s not going to pay her much. He insists his young female fans use him just as much as he uses them —they leave with a story about that time they hooked up with a famous writer. Hannah tries to explain how difficult it is for a young woman with literary ambitions to turn down a hot shot writer who invites her back to his hotel room — “It’s not so she has a story. It’s so she feels like she exists” — but Chuck isn’t having any of it. That is, until she tells him a story about herself.
When he trots out the old “sexuality is a grey area” line, Hannah tells him about a fifth-grade teacher who doted on her because he thought she was a talented writer. “Sometimes when he was talking to the class he’d stand behind me and just rub my neck. Sometimes he’d rub my head, rustle my hair. And I didn’t mind. It made me feel special.” Years later, she runs into a former (male) classmate, and brings up the teacher: “He was basically trying to molest me!” The classmate goes stone-faced, and tells her that’s a “serious accusation” before walking away. “But look at me,” Hannah concludes, “I’m smart and amazing. And now I have a story.”
The anecdote seems to soften Chuck, to endear him towards Hannah. He tells her he’s guilty not of sexual assault, but of not pushing hard enough to find out the young woman’s “story” instead of just using her for sex. Hannah’s there to “fix that,” he says — to help him right that wrong by asking Hannah the questions he should have asked Denise.
Chuck knows how seductive a good story can be, both for the teller and the told. It’s only after Hannah’s opened up about her life and her dreams that he invites her into his bedroom and offers her a signed copy of Philip Roth’s When She Was Good. He gives her the book; he tells her she’s funny; he slides off his slippers and lies down on the bed, inviting Hannah to join him. He looks so forlorn. “I just want to feel close to someone in a way that I haven’t in a long time,” he begs. “If you please.”
She hesitates, then awkwardly lies down on her back beside Chuck. She begins to apologize for writing the piece “without considering all the facts.” Then he reaches down, unzips his pants, and turns to face Hannah, his penis flopping out of his jeans and onto her leg. Again, she hesitates, then reaches down and holds it; he lets out a slight moan. She lets go and stands up. “Oh my fucking god. I touched your dick! You pulled your dick out and I touched your dick!”
The kicker? Chuck’s front door opens and his young daughter calls out to her dad. “Hi honey!” Chuck responds, his voice raising an octave, his eyes still squarely on Hannah. It’s the look on his face — a “gotcha” look, a look that says, “I told you so” — that’s most infuriating. The look reveals that for Chuck, this is not about sex but power. He doesn’t want to make a genuine connection with Hannah; he doesn’t want to hear her story and thus atone for his sins. He wants her to know that he’s the man with the power — the power to give her a story — and she’s just another eager young female writer, a blank page waiting to be filled.
In the end, the talk stops, and we’re left with two conflicting, contradictory images that symbolize the concept of separating cherished art from a contemptible artist. First, Hannah watches, stunned, as Chuck listens to his daughter play the flute, a look of pure pride on his face. Then, she leaves the apartment and walks down the street, and after she exits the frame we see a faceless procession of pretty young women, shot from behind in soft focus, file down the block and up the steps of Chuck’s building.
That final image tells a more truthful story about power dynamics between men and women — about victimhood, authority, and who gets to speak and when and why and how — than any op-ed or legal argument I’ve read. You can take it literally, to mean Hannah’s not the only writer Chuck summoned to his gilded palace. Or you can read it symbolically, to suggest the never-ending stream of ambitious young women who end up caught in the trap of a powerful man who promises to give them something they couldn’t possibly find on their own: a story.