The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Girls, Rape, and Rom-Coms

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

Girls has become my favorite love-to-hate show.  It’s often frustrating, maddeningly inconsistent, and glaringly unrealistic, but I have more fun talking about it with Phoebe Raven and Kristen Lopez (CC2K’s television and movie editors, respectively) on Facebook the next day than I do actually watching the episode.  From a critical perspective, the show gives us a lot to dissect, and the darker tone of season 2 has given me, at least, more to sink my teeth into than season 1.

Despite the darker tone, season 2’s finale, “Together,” milked every romantic comedy cliché in the book.  From Ray and Shoshanna’s tearful (but necessary) breakup to Marnie and Charlie’s ill-advised reunion, complete with over-the-top romantic declarations of love from Marnie, I could almost picture Meg Ryan and Amy Adams stepping into these roles.

But the most disconcerting development of the episode was Hannah’s reunion with Adam.  Hannah and Adam’s incredibly messed-up relationship was one of my favorite plotlines of season 1.  They were both just so odd and idiosyncratic that they felt more like real people to me than some of the other characters did.  But I think this season has been stronger in the times when Hannah and Adam were apart.  They’re both incredibly messed up characters, and they seem to feed into each other’s neuroses.  

In the episode, Adam receives a video call from Hannah and realizes how much her mental state has deteriorated.  He runs across town—shirtless—while triumphant music plays in the background.  Then he kicks down Hannah’s down when she won’t answer.  Hannah, who has been desperately searching for someone to rescue her all episode, croaks, “You’re here.”  Adam responds, “I was always here.”  He swoops her up in his arms, they kiss, cut to credits.  The scene seemed so ripped out of a rom-com that I almost expected “Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong” to play during their final kiss.

As someone who dearly loves her happy endings, I should have loved it.  The Adam/Hannah relationship was one of my favorite parts of season 1.  Both characters were just so odd and idiosyncratic that they read more like real people to me than many of the other characters on the show, some of whom barely surpassed cardboard cutout status last season.

Instead, it disturbed me deeply.

Let’s rewind for a minute.  The penultimate episode of the season, “On All Fours,” was one of the most unsettling half-hours of television I’ve ever watched, specifically because of one scene in particular.  Adam, a recovering alcoholic, has just seen Hannah, and the experience shook him enough to drink again.  He and his new girlfriend, Natalia, come back to his apartment.  It’s a mess, and Natalia comments that it’s “darker” than he is.  He orders her to get down on all fours and crawl to the bedroom.  She mutters angrily about the dirt and nails on the floor, which he ignores.  He then throws her into the bed and begins performing oral sex on her.  When she protests that she hasn’t showered, he brushes off her protests and keeps going.  Then he takes her from behind and finishes on her chest—again, despite her protestations.  Adam is apologetic, but just barely.  “Is that it?  Are you done with me?” he asks.  The scene was horrific enough to prompt some bloggers and commenters to question whether it was rape or not.

I’m not sure whether I would call the scene rape.  But it certainly fell into a gray area between consent and non-consent.  Unlike some commentators, I felt like this scene went a lot further than the bad sex scenes the show generally features.  During season 1, Hannah and Adam had a few sexual encounters that were certainly unconventional.  Adam liked to role play and assert his dominance, and Hannah sometimes seemed uncomfortable with that.  (One scene in particular comes to mind where Adam gets Hannah to pretend she’s a child prostitute.  It was cringe-worthy, to say the least.)  But Hannah, despite whatever discomfort she might have had, always seemed to be game for Adam’s unusual sexual desires.  I always felt like both her permissiveness and her discomfort came from a lack of experience and sexual confidence, that Hannah either didn’t know what she wanted or was afraid to express it to Adam.  It wasn’t something I particularly liked about her character, but I suspect a lot of women—me included—could relate to that insecurity in their own early sexual experiences.

Unlike Hannah, Natalia came across as both sexually aware and confident.  She gives Adam explicit guidance about what she likes and doesn’t like before their first encounter—and technically, nothing Adam does during the encounter at his apartment violates that.  But Natalia’s emotions quickly go from enthusiastic, to uncomfortable, to horrified and violated.  The camera cuts to Natalia’s face after Adam ejaculates on her chest.  She’s flushed, near tears, unable to meet Adam’s eyes.  He gives her his shirt to wipe the semen off her chest.  She pulls her dress up and tells him, “I didn’t like that.  I really didn’t like that.”  I watched the scene again as I was writing this article.  If anything, it’s worse the second time around.  (Some clips of it appear in the “Inside the Episode” below, starting around the 2:35 mark.  I think it’s also interesting to see Dunham refer to Adam’s behavior in the scene as “not gentlemanly.”  A rather weak and apologetic description, in my opinion.)

We could split hairs and say that she doesn’t really say no.  But I think the scene raises some bigger questions about the nature of consent within a sexual relationship.  Does being in an ongoing sexual relationship with someone, as opposed to a fling or a one-night stand, mean that consent is implied?  Where does one partner’s responsibility for the other’s well-being begin and end?  I also think, given the nature of Adam’s character (especially his continued inability to read people’s emotions), it’s also fair to wonder whether Adam didn’t read Natalia’s reactions in the scene…or couldn’t.  I also wonder whether it’s a coincidence that Shiri Appleby was cast as Natalia.  As the star of the 1999-2002 teen WB series Roswell, Appleby is likely a familiar face to many of Dunham’s now-20 something viewers, who would have watched the show as teens and tweens.

However you look at it, it’s a horrible, upsetting, traumatizing scene.  I spent the better part of a week thinking about it, questioning my own reactions—and my own experiences—in light of the episode.  I didn’t enjoy the episode, but I was glad Dunham made it.  I suspect those kinds of ambiguous encounters happen more often than we think within relationships, and they just don’t fit neatly enough into the “no means no” paradigm to be discussed as openly or as often as they should be.

Fast forward to the finale.  Just a week after this horrific encounter with Natalia, Adam gets to play the romantic hero.  He literally rushes in and swoops Hannah off of her feet.  To be honest, I had trouble buying the fairy tale ending, especially after the darkness that permeated the season.  Maybe if there was a note of dissonance—a jarring musical selection, a Graduate-esque ambivalent final shot—it would have come together more for me.  Instead, I almost felt like the entire finale—and maybe the season as a whole—was the television equivalent of a Salvador Dali painting.  I kept expecting to see eyeballs and melting clocks in the background.

But Dunham, in her post-show commentary, seems more optimistic about Adam and Hannah’s chances that I could be.

Really?  Should we be rooting for Adam and Hannah’s relationship at this point?  Has her evolution as a character really led up to her being rescued like an old-school Disney princess?  But, sexist implications aside, why should I root for a man who just sexually assaulted his last girlfriend?  Why does he get to play Hannah’s romantic hero—or anyone’s, for that matter?  Granted, Hannah is not always the most likeable character.  But her self-obsession and continual narcissism don’t compare to Adam’s blatant violation of Natalia’s trust and boundaries.

And yes, I get that, in real life, people are rarely black and white.  Adam is one of the strongest characters on the show not because he’s likeable, but because he’s incredibly complex and well-developed.  I also get that Hannah the character would have no way of knowing what transpired between Adam and Natalia and therefore couldn’t factor it into her decision about contacting Adam, or rekindling their relationship.  But Dunham the writer/director knows exactly what happened between Adam and Natalia.  By reuniting Adam and Hannah, it’s almost like Dunham is dismissing the importance of Adam’s actions with Natalia—which were, at best, a major violation, and, at worst, a crime.

But look!  It’s all good.  Adam’s messed up.  He’s “troubled.”  But he’s good at heart, and he gets to play the romantic hero.  Adam and Hannah will live happily ever after, and Adam will never answer for his earlier actions.  And yes, I get that this often happens in real life, but Girls is a fictional show.  In every episode, Dunham is putting a message out there—and this isn’t a message that I like.  The worst of it is that, upon second viewing, the scene is even more affecting.  Hannah is broken in this episode, in a way that we’ve never seen before.  Regardless of how I feel about Hannah as a character, it was painful to watch.  Throughout the episode, she continually reaches out to people—her editor, her father, the former drug dealer from the apartment downstairs—all of whom reject her pleas for help.  By the end of the episode, I wanted someone to reach out to Hannah and tell her everything was going to be all right.  Adam does it in a way that, on the surface, marks him as a worthy successor to Say Anything-era John Cusack.  (In that light, Adam’s YouTube “tributes” to Hannah earlier this season seem less like stalking behavior and more like the understandable despair of romantic disillusionment.  *Sigh.*  *Gag.*)  And the way Hannah’s voice cracks when she sees him just about undoes me.  Much as it bothered me, it’s one of the best-acted scenes in the series.

Some critics have avoided genderized critique of Girls; after all, the show was created and written by a woman, and stars a primarily female cast, so how could the show possibly be sexist?  But I think in this case, it’s valid.  With one grand romantic gesture, Dunham seems to be saying it doesn’t matter whether your boyfriend is arguably a date rapist, as long as he comes to your rescue when you’re unwilling or unable to sweep up your own damn broken glass. 

Given Girls’ tendency to complicate its characters’ lives, I don’t think the over-the-top optimism of the finale is likely to last.  But still, we’ve got almost a year before season 3, which means we’ve got almost a year in which a man who is arguably a date rapist gets to be the romantic hero of the show.

After season 1, I made the argument that perhaps Dunham does not have the maturity or objectivity to write about being in her mid-20s when she’s too busy actually living it.  Given this plot twist, I think that remains a valid question.