Last night’s episode of Girls marked a new and decidedly dark turn in the series, as Hannah continued to struggle with anxiety and OCD, Marnie reaches a new low with a public singing stunt, and Shoshanna grapples with the guilt of cheating on Ray. And then there’s Adam. In this episode we watch Adam navigate a new relationship, lose control over his alcoholism, and have really terrible, painful-to-watch sex with his new girlfriend Natalia.
I’ve been waiting all day for an article that addresses this scene directly, but so far I’ve been disappointed. Slate Magazine’s re-cap describes the sex scene as “exceedingly uncomfortable” and goes on to say that the lingering shot on Natalia after the act “was about her disgust and, what may be worse, her crushing disappointment.” Disappointingly, Bitch Magazine’s re-cap barely scratches the surface of the complexities of the scene, and even goes so far as to applaud Natalia’s vocalization of her displeasure (“I really didn’t like that”) as a model for talking about sexual boundaries with partners.
People have all sorts of opinions about Girls, and that’s partially why I like it. I like shows that push buttons. I like shows that make people uncomfortable, that expose flaws both within the characters and within us as viewers, and that challenge us to turn a critical eye toward issues in our society. Good stories don’t always wrap up into convenient bundles of “happily ever after,” but good stories do always evoke emotional responses. Which is why I’m surprised that there’s not more emotional responses to the “On All Fours” episode. It seems like all of the TV critics just sort of cringed at that scene and moved on to easier topics to discuss. Where is the outrage? Where is the discussion of consent (or lack thereof) in this episode?
A lot of people may be reluctant to put a name on it and seem to be tiptoeing around the issue, so let me break it down for you:
What you witnessed in this week’s episode was rape. Period.
Just about everything about that scene screamed nonconsensual. And committing a sexual act with/to someone without that person’s consent is rape. Period.
Here’s where it gets tricky, however. The episode portrayed a lot of other factors that complicate my above statement. Adam and Natalia had already had consensual sex earlier in the episode. Natalia up until this point had been very open about her preferences. Adam up until this point had been respecting those boundaries. Throw in the mix that Adam is a likeable (if bizarre) character, that he generally means well, that he was drunk, and that his drinking was triggered by an interaction with his ex-girlfriend Hannah earlier in the night, and you get a whole lot of…confusion.
I’ve already heard critiques from several friends that Lena Dunham’s inclusion of those factors has given Adam an “out” of sorts—that it’s easy to blow off all of what happened as a result of his alcoholism. I don’t think so, however. I didn’t read any of these factors as excuses, but rather as explanations. It’s not Dunham’s style to create a pointed argument about an issue; instead, she exposes its existence, peeling the layers of a generation buried in complex interactions and social codes. Because let’s face it—sex is complicated. And though many people beg to differ, so is consent. You can have had sex with your partner in the past and not want to in that moment. You can want to try something new at first and then change your mind halfway through. You can like and trust a person, and a person can like and trust you, and still you can wind up in sexual situations that leave you both wondering what exactly happened, or who went wrong where. There is a sticky point in relationships between compromise and coercion that all too often slips under the radar.
How many women have found themselves in Natalia’s shoes at one point or another? Far too many. So let’s not go on ignoring that icky feeling in our stomachs as we watched Girls last night. Let’s face that feeling head on. Let’s talk about the rape culture in our country and the ways in which it can manifest in even seemingly healthy relationships. Let’s talk more with our significant others about consent and what it looks like or doesn’t look like. Let’s discuss safe words. Let’s discuss boundaries. And most importantly, let’s not look the other way when examples of sexual assault are brought to the table.
Written by Sarah Mintz