Like many of us who have been following the show, I’ve had lukewarm feelings about Girls’ contribution to feminism. Though many commentators have raised valid criticisms about the show’s handling of race and class, it’s been refreshing to see a female lead with an “imperfect” body, and I’ve praised the show for focusing on young women’s lives—including awkward dating and awkward sex—in a way that at times feels a great deal more authentic than anything we’re used to seeing on TV. But it wasn’t until episode 9 of the second, just-completed season that the show really struck me as breaking important new ground.
In the final scene of the episode, the character Adam (Adam Driver) orders his new girlfriend Natalia (Shiri Appleby) to crawl to his bedroom on her hands and knees, then roughly picks her up and throws her onto the bed. Natalia is clearly distressed by Adam’s behavior; at one point she explicitly says the word “no,” but Adam simply tells her to relax and she reluctantly submits. After sexually penetrating her from behind, Adam flips her over and ejaculates on her chest while she’s telling him not to mess up her dress. After it’s over, Natalia quickly covers herself and seems near tears when she tells Adam “I, like, really didn’t like that.”
We’ve seen Adam in uncomfortable sexual situations with Hannah (Girls‘ creator and star Lena Dunham) in the past, including scenes that raise questions about consent. Hannah never said no, but she certainly went along with things that she clearly felt awkward and uneasy about. The scene with Natalia, however, took Adam’s behavior to a new extreme. Natalia’s distress is palpable. And though Adam claims he has no idea “what came over him,” the viewer knows better; we should be able to recognize this behavior not as a one-time anomaly of his character but as the peak of a gradually escalating pattern.
As many women are painfully aware, these scenarios are all too common in real life. They are the kind of sexual encounters that leave us feeling violated and traumatized, yet uncertain whether we are entitled to apply the label “rape” to what took place, and even less sure of how to articulate the awfulness of the experience if we feel the word rape does not apply. We find these events especially confusing when, like Natalia, we’ve consented to sex with the guy in the past, are in a relationship with him, or said “yes” to one kind of sex but not to the kind of sex that actually took place. My feelings about seeing this scenario play out on a TV show were echoed by Rae Alexandra at the SF Weekly blog, where she wrote:
This one incident on Girls is so universal and so unspoken and so prevalent that seeing it on television was incredible and revolutionary—it makes us want to track down writer Lena Dunham and hug the crap out of her for putting it in the public consciousness.
Arguably one of the most important things about this scene is that Adam’s character is complex. Though we may have loathed him in the beginning, we’ve come to see him as multifaceted; there have been plenty of moments when we’ve sympathized with and actually liked him. He’s made us angry but he’s also made us laugh. There is something frequently endearing about his awkwardness. And this is the reality of most men who commit rape and pressure women into uncomfortable sex: They are not simply villains with no appealing character traits. They are guys we know and like and sometimes love. Adam is turbulent and volatile, but he is not evil. And understanding that actual rapists do not adhere to our profile of the dark, predatory stranger is as vital as understanding that rape itself does not often unfold as a brutal attack in a dark alleyway.
In spite of Girls many shortcomings, I was extremely thankful to see these unspoken realities of sexual violence actually depicted in a way that felt genuine. But my gratitude turned out to be short-lived; by the end of episode 10, Adam was a romantic hero, and any hope I had of Girls making a powerful statement about rape and rapists had been dashed.
In a closing scene that seems to purposefully paint the “strong, handsome man saving the day” as a laughable cliché, Adam runs shirtless through the streets of New York while dramatic music plays in the background. All the while, he is talking to a distraught Hannah on Facetime, telling her to hang on and that he’s on his way. Hannah is alone, suffering from a breakdown, and Adam is the one who is going to rescue her. When he arrives at her apartment and she refuses to get out of bed, he breaks down her door. Instead of this being portrayed as violent or intimidating behavior—from a man who was previously arrested for refusing to leave this same apartment—it is clear that we are supposed to see this act as one of heroism. As the episode draws to a lose, Adam is cradling Hannah in his arms, telling her that he has always been there. And with that, all of the feminist possibility of the previous episode has quickly been tossed aside.
The problem is not that women on the show continue to be involved with Adam. I was not angry, at the opening of episode 10, to see Natalia back in bed with Adam; on the contrary, it felt sadly realistic that she would continue to attempt a relationship with him even after he had violated and dehumanized her. And the problem with the final scene is not that Hannah still has feelings for Adam, but that the viewer is clearly intended to be swept up in this great romantic moment, with Adam playing the role of dashing hero. This is not okay. This is like telling millions of women to root for Team Edward even though he creepily stalked Bella Swan in Twilight, or to swoon over Christian Gray even after Ana Steele experienced his behavior as abuse in 50 Shades of Gray. However low my expectations might have been, I expected better from Girls.
It’s incredibly valuable to portray rapists as more complicated characters than one-dimensional, evil men. But it is dangerous to expect viewers to continue to romanticize those characters after we have seen them commit acts of sexual violence. This only encourages women to overlook atrocious acts, to accept them as a normal part of our lives and our intimate relationships. We can and should see the men who commit such acts as complex human beings, but not glorify them as romantic ideals. I can forgive Dunham and Girls for failing to challenge patriarchy as much as I’d like. But I can’t forgive them for actively upholding it.