Every week until the series finale of Girls, Vulture TV columnist Jen Chaney will serve as an advice columnist for various characters on the HBO series. This week’s advice recipient: Chuck Palmer, the character played by Matthew Rhys.
Dear Chuck Palmer,
I realize you did not write a letter to me seeking advice. You would never do such a thing. Asking for guidance would imply that you don’t have all the answers, you’re not always right, and that you might even want to become the kind of man whose impulse control is greater than that of a toddler. That is not who you are.
So I am sharing the following thoughts with you unsolicited, in the vague hope that some of it might have an impact on you and other men like you.
When you invited Hannah Horvath to your apartment to discuss the piece she wrote about your sexual relationships with young women, it initially seemed like you were interested in hearing her perspective. You told her, repeatedly, that you respected her writing. You said you invited her over because you wanted to rectify the mistakes you made with Denise, the woman who wrote that Tumblr post accusing you of initiating non-consensual sex. You acted like you wanted to get to know Hannah, a courtesy you had not shown to Denise and, presumably, other women with whom you have been involved.
But that is not what you wanted at all. You wanted to prove that even an intelligent woman who has obviously thought deeply about the way you abuse your power could still be seduced by that power. And, from your perspective, you were successful. That sly, deeply disturbing look on your face after you flung your penis onto Hannah’s thigh, silently but undeniably insisting that she touch it — which she did, though just for a moment until she dropped it like a phallic, politically charged hot potato — suggests that you believe you won some sort of victory in this scenario. But you won no victory, and certainly not a moral one. The bummer is that you think you did, and will always think you did, no matter what anyone else says to the contrary.
You’re a confusing bundle of contradictions, Chuck. On one hand, per your overly precious work of fiction inspired by the whole episode with Denise, you seem to understand women and sympathize with the need that some of them have to be seen and heard by men like you, who are successful, and, thanks to the fact that you are played by Matthew Rhys, charming. You’re a father with a lovely daughter who deserves respect, and that seems to have helped you realize that other women deserve the same kind of respect.
And yet you can’t stop yourself from being disrespectful, from putting women in a position where they feel violated but the circumstances are so murky that they emerge feeling confused about exactly what happened. (That passive-aggressive penis trick is your move, isn’t it? It’s your version of Frank Costanza’s stopping short, except much more creepy and closer to assault.)
Instead of merely telling Hannah that she got it all wrong in her piece, you wanted to show her. You didn’t want to have a conversation, you wanted to pull off an abbreviated version of a long con. And you did.
But here’s the thing. Hannah got out of your apartment. She walked away from you. Though I haven’t yet seen any additional episodes from this season of Girls, I am guessing she won’t be giving you much more of her attention or mental energy. As we saw in that final moment of your episode, clearly other women — all those real or imagined ones who were entering the lobby of your building — probably will. But here’s what is heartening to me, and hold on to your blatantly planted photos of Toni Morrison, because I’m about to go full meta on your ass.
The great thing about you, Chuck Palmer, is that you are an invention created by a woman named Lena Dunham. You’re not a real guy. Are there guys in the real world who are like you, or even worse and more predatory than you are? Of course, and unfortunately women as well as men will continue to be victimized by such individuals in ways that are sudden and unavoidable.
But the fact that you are a fiction writer who happens to also be a work of fiction yourself underscores another fact: that a man like you only holds sway over the women in your orbit when they buy into the stories they’re telling themselves about who you are, what you have to offer, and what you could take away from them if they don’t follow your sexual lead.
As Hannah — who is technically Lena Dunham, but also, you know, not — put it with regard to Denise’s interest in retiring to your hotel room: “It’s not so she has a story. It’s so she feels like she exists.” But the idea that she can only feel like she exists by being recognized by a Chuck Palmer is a false narrative, too. As soon as Denise or Hannah or anyone else stops believing it: poof! Chuck Palmer’s power ceases to influence them.
Did you ever watch Mad Men, Chuck? There’s a phrase that two of its main characters, Don Draper, a pretty lecherous type himself, and Peggy Olsen liked to use: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Every woman is capable of changing the conversation about men like you, the same way Hannah tried to do in her piece. They can do it by arguing against your version of events and what you stand for. Or they can do it by not writing or saying a thing, but just walking out your door and as far away from you as their feet will take them.