Lena Dunham Explains Girls’ Big Episode on Sexual Assault

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Lena Dunham in season six’s “American Bitch.” Photo: HBO

Spoilers ahead for the Girls episode “American Bitch,” which is streaming early on HBO Go and HBO Now.

The bottle episodes of Girls are when the show functions most like a short story. In season two’s “One Man’s Trash,” Hannah has a brief romance with Patrick Wilson; season three’s “Beach House” moves outside of New York City and places the four girls in close quarters, where the tensions in their friendship quickly bubble to the surface; season five’s “The Panic in Central Park,” which follows Marnie on a journey through New York with her ex, Charlie, is the show at its dreamiest. And season six’s “American Bitch,” the show’s final bottle episode, is Girls at its most political: Hannah goes to the home of a respected novelist, Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), whose name has been smeared by a number of sexual assault accusations. Hannah spends the episode debating Chuck on the ethics of who you trust in the absence of definitive proof: the powerful man, or the accused?

Vulture recently caught up with Lena Dunham to talk about writing an episode that also functions as a statement on the broader cultural conversation on sexual assault. Here’s what she had to say:

It was written in sort of a fever dream of rage and hopeful confusion. I started out thinking, “Oh, I want to explore what this looks like in the entertainment industry,” but then I realized it doesn’t really look different in the entertainment industry than it does if your boss at McDonald’s is yielding his power over you in a confusing way. The way men who have amassed a certain kind of capital think that it’s a fair trade for someone else’s sexual favors is just a really dark and complicated part of being female, especially because oftentimes you don’t understand that you feel victimized until after it’s already happened.

We’re having so many conversations about rape culture and assault and they’re really, really important conversations, but a lot of women walk around with a lot of shame about things that don’t look like rape in the traditional way. I’ve thought about this a lot. I have way less shame about my actual sexual assault than I do about some ambiguous encounters I had with some people in which I wasn’t able to properly express myself or create distance. When you’re raped, you’re raped. You get to go, “That happened to me. It was beyond my control.” But when you allow boundaries to be blurred without even knowing that it’s happening, it’s a different kind of pain and shame that eats away at you for a long time. We just wanted to look at it from all sides.

By the end of “American Bitch,” once the episode has raised just enough doubt as to whether Chuck is guilty as charged, it promptly provides an answer: Chuck asks Hannah to lay down on the bed next to him, pulls out his penis, and rolls toward her. She touches his penis, for just a second, then freaks out. “Matthew Rhys is so hot that it’s confusing, because you’re like, ‘But did I want him to show me his dick?’” Dunham says. “He’s so charming in real life that you definitely want him to show you his dick.”

Lena Dunham Explains Girls’ Big Episode on Sexual Assault