How HBO’s GIRLS Shaped A Conversation On Consent

How HBO's GIRLS Shaped A Conversation On Consent Through The Mind Of Millennials

Image: Facebook @girlsHBO

On the latest episode of HBO hit series GIRLS, viewers were taken on an emotional rollercoaster as the episode discussed and dissected sexual consent in its entirety.

Consent has been a highly debated topic over the last few years, especially in context of powerful or famous individuals. From Bill Cosby to college campuses across the country, to our very own president Donald Trump, everyone is pushing for the awareness and justice against public figures violating women in a variety of contexts.

The episode begins with Hannah meeting a highly regarded author at his home to discuss a piece she had written about his sexual misconduct during his book tour. As Hannah rides the elevator up to his high rise apartment, she reapplies her lipstick as both an added boost of confidence and an attempt to look nice for an author she has great admiration for.

As she enters the author’s home, it is adorned with best selling books and accolades, adding to the acclamation of this fictional character – Chuck Palmer. Palmer makes, what is unbeknownst to the viewers, his first attempt in an episode long mission dedicated to breaking down Hannah’s walls. He first asks her to remove her shoes and offers to take her bags. Compromisingly, Hannah removes her shoes but tensely clutches onto her bags as if they are crutches. The two sit down to clear the air.

Hannah’s opening dialogue had me fist pumping after every proclamation that left her mouth.

I’m a writer. I may not be a rich writer, or a famous writer,
or a writer with a picture of myself hanging out with Toni Morrison.
But I am a writer, and as such I think I am obligated to use my voice
to talk about things that are meaningful to me. I read something about
you that troubled me greatly. Namely that you were using you power
and influence to involve yourself with college students on you book tour.
Whether all of those encounters were consensual or not…

Palmer interrupts her, attempting to undo some of the damage Hannah’s mouth has caused, but it is too late. The bomb had been dropped. The word consensual, in particular, makes Palmer squeamish as he attempts to garner sympathy from Hannah, explaining how he is unable to sleep since the release of her article.

Let’s explore what consent really means. Shafia Zaloom, a health educator at the Urban School of San Francisco, uses  the perfect explanation citing, ”Consent from the person you are kissing — or more — is not merely silence or a lack of protest.” This new clarity, being used as a vehicle for the new-age slogan “Yes means yes,” illustrates that explicit consent (actually saying the word yes), must be given at every level and in every context of sexual contact.

RELATED: Op-Ed: Will Society Ever Stop Rape Culture

A great example of this is explored in AMC’s hit series Mad Men (Season 2, Episode 12: “The Mountain King”). In this episode the character Joan, is forcefully attacked by her fiancé in an effort to exert power and romance over her. This is a great example of where consent can be absent even within the context of a romantic relationship or marriage. Hannah and Palmer further debate these particulars surrounding blow-jobs and how they could, in fact, be non-consensual.

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Image: AMC’s Mad Men

At one point, Hannah takes a moment to clarify her respect and admiration for Palmer as a writer. When she mentions how she discovered the first account of his sexual abuse via Tumblr, Palmer condescendingly dismisses the platform as a ridiculous tool used to ruin his life. This scene is both layered and relevant, as it highlights how the internet has allowed marginalized millennials a platform to tell their stories of abuse in a way that has influence. An outlet and tool not available to those in previous generations.

Palmer worries that his daughter will one day Google him and find the article about his behavior, even comparing himself to the witches of The Salem Witch Trials to which Hannah so eloquently replies,

These women don’t have the reach that you do. The can’t get the New York Times to hand them over the op-ed page. That’s why the internet is so cool.” Palmer argues that the internet is a self created monster that is going to ultimately destroy us. To which Hannah responds, “The people that argue that are probably a generation above me. Game, set, match.

Palmer, never once, tries to see any other perspective as he drowns in a sea of narcissism. With unwavering attempts to get Hannah to understand what he sees as his plight, he then commits the act of victim-shaming with phrases like, “they asked for it” or “they hurled themselves at me.” As the episode goes on, it becomes clear that Palmer is using the same power of manipulation Hannah called out earlier on.

Nevertheless he begins to slowly break Hannah’s walls down and weasel his way into her comfort zone. She even allows him to, undeservingly, become privy to a story about her elementary school teacher molesting her. It is at this moment that Palmer’s notions about getting inside of Hannah’s mind are confirmed. He continues showering her with more compliments and seals the deal by gifting her a signed copy of her favorite book.

Palmer then invites her to lay down on a bed beside him, to which she accepts. Palmer unzips his pants and places his genital on Hannah’s leg. In a knee jerk reaction Hannah grabs a hold of his penis then quickly hops out of the bed suddenly realizing what he had done to her.

She tossed the once coveted book he had gifted to her across the room, symbolic of the “American Bitch” confidence Hannah displayed entering this meeting Palmer had now robbed her of. On the surface, Palmer acts naive by playing the victim, a well known author used for his fame by groupies. However in actuality, I believe Palmer took this moment as an opportunity to say, “I’ll show you,” and throw all of Hannah’s feminist confidence and snark back in her face through sexual abuse. Palmer also wanted to show Hannah that she was “just like them,” referring to his previous notion that young women used him to “have an experience” to write about. 

Palmer’s daughter arrives at the apartment as Hannah attempts to make a modest exit. Her plan is ruined once the daughter asks Hannah if she and Palmer would like to listen to her play the flute. A smug smirk grows on Palmers face, knowing the dirty deed he has just committed and the deeper level of torture Hannah is sinking into by staying. Nevertheless, the two sit in the living room and play audience to the young girls acoustic flute cover of Rihanna’s “Desperado.” 

As the episode ended, I felt both violated (in Hannah’s shoes) and supportive (of what the piece highlighted and accomplished). What I appreciated most was that this was not another rape scene scenario played out to make an audience like a seemingly cold-hearted character, or to create an opportunity for a male hero to save the day.

Rather, it was a real and raw discussion about what sexual assault is, what consent is, and how mental manipulation and status can play a major role in violating a woman. The title, American Bitch was a play on a rumored former title of the book gifted to Hannah, as well as what Hannah’s character represented.

One thing I know for sure is that I stand with them. *fist pumps* You don’t have to physically force someone for actions to be considered abuse. That is what some people fail to understand, or choose to be oblivious about. As uncomfortable as it was, this episode of GIRLS forced all of us to think deeper about manipulation, power, and sexual abuse.

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