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HBO’s ‘Girls’ Showcases a Unique Take on Trauma in ‘American Bitch,’ Starring Matthew Rhys as a Creepy Author

why the girls of Girls act that way? That’s the question underlying five years of bewildered cultural responses to Lena Dunham’s epic of questionable decisions, cruelty, narcissism and grace. Girls has never given a direct answer to the question. Despite the unflinching confessional dialogue and occasional backstory development and sharp cultural satire, Hannah Horvath and her friends still have an air of Athena, risen fully formed. Asking why these girls spill drinks and impulsively marry and throw up on their bunks is like asking why anyone exists.

this has done Girls unusual in a cultural landscape where the tragic flashback is the decoder of individual motivation. To take two recent examples from HBO, the young pope connected Pope Pius’s childhood abandonment with his adult torment, and Western worldThe so-called “key insight” was that to be human is to remember suffering. In society at large, ongoing dialogues about trauma, activation, and privilege – dialogues Dunham often engages in as a public figure – insist that personal history must be taken as seriously as current conduct.

In Girls, parenting issues occasionally crop up (Jessa’s flaky dad, Hannah’s closeted dad, Marnie’s controlling mom) and brain chemistry came to the fore in Hannah’s OCD plotline. But sometimes it feels like the show wants to lampoon the notion of explaining character through trauma. Once, Hannah recalled telling her mom that her nanny had touched her vagina at age 3, but she added that she had probably been lying. At the Iowa Writers Workshop, her classmates insisted that her story about violent sex must have been nonfiction from an abusive past.; the joke was that it actually reflected his adventurous present: “the time I had a couple of Quaaludes and asked my boyfriend to punch me in the chest.”

This week’s surely provocative episode, “American Bitch,” now released on online platforms and broadcast on HBO on Sunday night, sharpened the show’s take on psychological cause and effect. In it, Hannah visits a famous author, Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), after writing an essay about allegations that he had serially preyed on college-aged female fans. Chuck defends his innocence, Hannah recounts some details of his past and the two seem to come to an understanding, and then Chuck pulls out his penis and presses him against Hannah. It is a story of monstrosity and personal trauma, but it is also a story about a system: a gender dynamic that ensures a common experience of degradation for women, whether in their past or present.

Chuck Palmer has a lot in common with Hannah. His irritability hints at OCD. He posits that writers need stories more than anything else, echoing Hannah’s experience-at-all-costs perspective throughout the book. Girls. The two bond over their love for Philip Roth, agreeing that “you can’t let politics dictate what you read or who you fuck” (Chuck’s words). And the most revealing thing is that Chuck says he wants to understand the person he is talking to, but he constantly interrupts him with his own remarks, perhaps a sexist tic, but also a narcissistic one very familiar to him. Girls viewers In all of these things, Dunham may be sketching out 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 the book tour life. When Hannah suggests an inappropriate balance of power in him dating girls on the road, Chuck replies that the real imbalance is that “I look like a Victoria’s Secret model and I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 25 and on Accutane.” He is the victim. In this reading, women who complain online are exploiting their fame and desperation, as well as the power of the Internet to amplify damaging claims.

It seems that this version of events almost wins over Hannah, who apologizes for writing something that upset Chuck. But the apology is colored by all the praise that has come before. Chuck repeatedly tells her how smart he thinks she is. He gives her a signed copy of Roth. When she was good. And he claims he invited her to try to right his real mistake with his accusers: not “pushing” hard enough to get to know them as people. When she asks questions about her life, Hannah laughs and answers happily.

But during an earlier more tense point in the conversation, Hannah recounts a less happy part of her story. In fifth grade, her English teacher, Mr. Lasky, took a liking to her because of her talent as a writer:

He liked it, he was impressed with me, I liked special creative writing, I wrote like a little novel or whatever. Sometimes when I was talking to the class, he would stand behind me and rub my neck. Sometimes he rubbed my head, stroked my hair. And I didn’t care, it made me feel special. It made me feel like someone saw me and knew I was going to grow up and be very, very particular. It also made the kids hate me and put lasagna in my fucking backpack, but that’s another story.

Anyway, last year I was at a warehouse party in Bushwick, and this guy came up to me and said, “Horvath, we went to high school together, East Lansing!” And I was like, “OMG, remember how crazy Mr. Lasky’s class was? He basically he was trying to abuse me.”

Do you know what this kid said? He looks at me in the middle of this fucking party like I’m a judge and says, “That’s a very serious accusation, Hannah.” And she walked away. And there I am and I’m only 11 again, and they’re just rubbing my fucking neck. Because those things never go away.

If this is Hannah Horvath’s long-awaited reveal about her past, it’s relatively mild: no rape, no violence, just a little neck-rubbing in class. But what is insidious about this is how she conforms to a pattern of distorted gender relations. Chuck is like Mr. Lanksy: a powerful older man who praises the intellectual talents of a younger woman, but also associates those praises with the flesh. Hannah’s value as a writer and her value as her body were conflated long ago by a guardian, and Chuck did something very similar to the young aspiring authors he had sex with. If they consented, what were they consenting to? A validation of your mind, or the notion that what really matters is your body?

The trauma here is not simply what It didn’t happen either. It’s in how women’s honest expressions of discomfort are met with hostility and invalidation by men with legalistic pretensions. Consent is very important, but the problem is not entirely legal in this case. It is moral, social and emotional. Hannah doesn’t seem to want Chuck or Mr. Lasky in jail. She just wants to tell the truth about a disturbing and demeaning dynamic, and is told by Bushwick’s party boy and Chuck that she’s wrong to do so.

The sick twist is that the trauma has now been amplified and recreated in Hannah for speaking out. Chuck shakes her, convinces her she’s not a monster, then unzips and lunges at her without warning. For a moment, Hannah looks confused; for another moment, she seems to consider humoring him—she grabs him. Then she freaks out and yells at him.

He gives her an evil smile. All the respect that she had previously shown him has turned into a joke. The praise of her from her mind was a foreplay to the reminder that what she really liked was her body. And by the time Hannah considered giving up, because of the rush, the false validation, and the avoidance of the conflict that would come from saying “yes,” she was in the same hopeless situation as so many women before her.

As a public figure, Lena Dunham has written extensively about trauma, especially how rape in early adulthood has had a concrete effect on his life over the years. But she also recently apologized for saying she “wished” she had had an abortion to help destigmatize the practice, a very clever expression of the idea that a person and their world view are not simply the result of a biography.

Girls he seems to be trying to reconcile the need to honor the influence of the past on the present while acknowledging that no individual’s history is an island. Did Mr Lasky’s experience change Hannah forever? perhaps He could be the reason she wants to “write stories that make people feel less alone than [she] he did it,” the exact kind of story that led her to Chuck’s apartment. But that earlier trauma, in and of itself, did not create the new one that she experienced in this episode. In theory, Hannah didn’t need to have gone through what she went through to care about Chuck’s accusers, either.

Why is Chuck so gross? Girls He doesn’t say it’s because of any specific circumstance from his past. It’s not just because he’s what he calls a “horny son of a bitch.” It is simply because the they can being this way Because he’s successful and masculine, he can put women in places like he put Hannah. You can expect them to often consent, nauseated or not. You can even expect other men to tell women not to complain about it later.

What can no longer wait Girls suggests, is that women really remain silent. In the final moments of the episode, Hannah watches Chuck’s daughter play the 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 she Hannah writes about her actions, she may hurt him in a way that harms her daughter. But she keeps looking at the girl. It is quite possible that one day she will find herself in a situation like the one she just put Hannah in. She may already have been.

As Hannah leaves, we see a handful of women walking in the opposite direction down the sidewalk, then turning to enter her building. It reads like symbolism: a nod to all the women past and future who can relate to what Hannah just went through, however different her individual backstories may be.

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