Lena Dunham’s defensiveness has rarely worked out in Girls’s favor. After the HBO comedy was initially met with broadsides for its lack of diversity, Season 2 featured Donald Glover as a black conservative in a plot development that sought to troll critics but ended up tokenizing people of color instead. Dunham’s on-screen response to Jezebel’s gross bounty for untouched photos of her Vogue cover shoot was similarly clumsy: a sarcastic (and long) diatribe that took audiences out of the show to remind us of its creator’s behind-the-scenes travails.
Judging by the February 26 installment (“American Bitch,” available now on HBO Go and On Demand), Dunham is getting better at replying to her detractors, perhaps because this latest rejoinder isn’t just about her. Essentially a two-person play between Dunham and guest star Matthew Rhys of The Americans, “American Bitch” mounts a debate about whether it’s right to signal-boost unconfirmed allegations of sexual impropriety by famous and powerful men — much like Dunham did with the child-molestation accusations against Woody Allen by Dylan Farrow, his adoptive daughter. There’s a prominent portrait of Allen in celebrated novelist Chuck Palmer’s (Rhys) apartment, which Hannah is nervously eager to enter at the start of the half-hour and which she can’t wait to flee by its end. In multiple shots, Chuck is seen in the foreground with the painting of Allen in the background. There’s nothing “sub” about the “subtext” here.
Hannah is on defense for most of the bottle episode as Chuck lays out the consequences of her offense, as he sees them. Her blog post on a “niche feminist website” — one article among many — about his history of coercing nonconsensual blow jobs from dazzled college students has “destroyed” his life, he claims. Hannah’s a huge fan of his work, and while he talks to his ex-wife on the phone about their teenage daughter, Hannah wanders off to the bathroom to dry her armpits and vagina in a very Dunham-esque reminder that we can be turned on by people we actively dislike. The two writers eventually end up in his bedroom, where he gifts her with a signed copy of a Philip Roth novel, tricks her into lying in his bed (fully clothed), then puts his penis (fully unclothed) on her leg. As Hannah leaves Chuck’s fancy Manhattan building humiliated by his manipulations, a stream of other young women pour into it.
If Hannah is interchangeable with any number of starstruck aspiring female writers, so is Dunham's Chuck character with any number of accomplished artists guilty of the queasy rumors that haunt them. Written by Dunham, “American Bitch” is a stark call to believe women (and girls) when they come forward with stories of sexual misconduct: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. There’s barely any mention of Chuck’s four accusers, except when Hannah rightly notes that sexual-assault victims tend to be disproportionately punished for disclosing that they were abused.
In “American Bitch,” Dunham smartly reveals the predator’s playbook, thereby illustrating how seductive it can be. To get Hannah to the point where she’d lie next to him in his bed, convinced that they have forged a genuine connection, Chuck showers her with compliments about her writing and her wit. He also burdens Hannah with his sufferings: Because of the rumors about him, he can’t sleep, he’s losing weight, and he worries about what his daughter and her friends will discover about him. (He’s not afraid to weaponize his own child against Hannah by inappropriately divulging that his daughter suffers from clinical depression.) Plus, he’s the guy who waited until he was 25 to lose his virginity, while the college students he slept with looked like Victoria’s Secret models. He wanted to get to know those hot girls better, but they closed themselves off to him emotionally and used him to have something to write about — a rather misogynistic dismissal of young women’s literary output. In his efforts to appropriate their victimhood, Chuck lists the objects of his self-pity: his receding hairline, the lonely hotel rooms he stays in during his book tours. Even before he pulls out his dick, it’s easy to see his narcissism. He drinks out of a mug that says “I <3 Chuck” while neglecting to offer his guest anything. More strikingly, anytime Hannah mentions his structural privileges — his maleness, his age, the power and influence that attend his success — he changes the topic or dismisses it.
Chuck sees women in patterns: young writers who sleep with him to have an interesting story to tell, scorned women who drag him down to hell for mere caddishness, “two-bit journalists” who write about his sex life when they could be writing about “subjects that matter.” In contrast, he just wants to be seen as a human being by Hannah. The courtesy that he demands but won’t extend to others is Dunham’s entry point. With “American Bitch,” she exacts her revenge against the Woody Allens and Philip Roths and — just off the top of my head, and in varying levels of fuckery, the Bill Cosbys and Louis C.K.s and Michael Fassbenders and Bill Murrays and Josh Brolins and Christian Slaters of the world — to say that they, too, are just a number, a type, a half-remembered name when yet another male celebrity is revealed to be a jerk and you conjure with a sigh all the famous and powerful men who’ll get away with disgusting behavior because they can. “You can’t let politics dictate what you read or who you fuck,” Chuck gently scolds Hannah. Perhaps not. But you certainly can let your gag reflex be your guide.