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Famous men and sexual harassment: the latest episode of ‘Girls’ is as relevant as ever

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Girls might be in its sixth and final season, but its most recent episode proves that Lena Dunham’s Brooklyn-set show still has the ability to drill down to the bones of issues affecting women everywhere.

The episode, titled ‘American Bitch’, aired on Sunday – the same night that the Oscar for Best Actor was awarded to Casey Affleck, a man accused of sexual harassment by two female former co-workers. In it, we see Dunham’s Hannah face off against Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), a wildly successful author who has been accused of coercing women into sexual acts. So far, so timely.

The premise of the plot is this: various young women have taken to social media to accuse Palmer of sexually assaulting them. Hannah has written about the allegations for a feminist website. Palmer invites her to his apartment, seemingly in order to discuss her article and defend himself. Simultaneously outraged, curious, and flattered that such a famous writer would even read her piece, Hannah goes.

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Matthew Rhys as abusive author Chuck Palmer in Girls.

Over the course of the next 26 minutes, Dunham and Rhys expertly pick apart the figure of the abusive male ‘genius’. Because while he might be fictional, Chuck Palmer is a man we know. He is, in a nutshell, every real-life author, actor, film director – or president, come to that – who is protected from allegations of sexual assault and harassment by his gender, fame, wealth, power, and supposed genius.


Read more: Examining the cultural legacy of Lena Dunham’s Girls


Palmer is also an unmitigated creep, a man who nevertheless presents himself as both sensitive victim and bullish egotist. At the same time, he flatters the infamously narcissistic Hannah relentlessly, telling her again and again that he thinks she’s funny, clever, a good writer. And – like the other young women who have accused Palmer of pressuring them into “non-consensual blow jobs” – Hannah goes along with it at first. And things escalate, slowly, as Palmer knew they would.

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Casey Affleck with his Best Actor Oscar on Sunday night.

It would be difficult to say that Palmer assaults Hannah, exactly. But that’s the whole point. He is a practised manipulator, secure in his own power, and he lures her into a situation where both characters know she will struggle to pin anything on him.

Rhys’ character may well be partially inspired by Affleck; Dunham hasn’t commented on whether it was a coincidence that ‘American Bitch’ aired during the Oscars. But he could just as easily be a melange of the many famous men whose alleged abusive behaviour has, over the years, ultimately failed to dent their power or prospects.


Read more: Disgusting, nasty and overrated: why we should all aspire to be the women Trump despises


Chuck Palmer could be Mel Gibson. He could be Roman Polanski. He could be Woody Allen, the poster boy and patron saint of men forgiven for sexual misconduct because of their ‘creative genius’ (Allen even appears in a framed print in Palmer’s apartment, with a golden halo around his head). If we’re looking for examples of men who have risen to the top despite multiple allegations of sexual assault, he could even be Donald Trump.

One of the common refrains we hear about accusations of sexual assault or harassment is that lines can be blurred; that two people can experience the same situation completely differently; that things aren’t always black and white. But, as Hannah tells Palmer in ‘American Bitch’, “I’m tired of grey areas.”

So, you get the sense, is Lena Dunham. And so, of course, are we.

Images: Rex Features, HBO

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