In less than 30 minutes, the Feb. 26 episode of Girls, "American Bitch," can make you feel a lot of things. Confusion, anger, doubt, guilt, shock, and shame all coursed through me as I watched author Chuck Palmer meet with Hannah to convince her that he didn't force himself on multiple women (as she had claimed in an article), only to grossly accost her in the end. But those feelings aren't what stuck with me after the credits rolled. Instead, it was the sudden surge of self-doubt and insecurity as I remembered what it can feel like after you realize a man in a position of power may have had an ulterior motive for seeking you out — even if things never escalate to the point of Hannah's situation with Chuck.
During one of my internships many years ago, a higher-up at a company that shared a floor with the one I worked for took an interest in me after seeing me make coffee one morning. We had some casual conversations about work, he emailed me complimenting articles I'd written, and he met with me about my aspirations a couple of times. Truly, that's all that happened. Things never reached a physical level the way they do in "American Bitch," and he never made me feel outright uncomfortable. But years later, that experience still colors my perception of myself and of my professional interactions with other men.
At first, I didn't think there was anything wrong with the situation. A man with a job that I would've loved to have someday saw potential in me and wanted to foster it. But when I mentioned his email and the brief meetings to other people, I started to realize what could be happening. My dad warned me to "just be careful." My own boss thought it was odd and appeared a bit worried, but I reassured her that things seemed fine.
Soon, my company moved offices and I received an email lamenting the fact that we left without him knowing, with an offer to help me in the future. Once there was some distance between us, the what-ifs started to flood my mind. What if my dad was right, and I had a reason to be careful? What if his intentions weren't so noble? As Hannah sat across from that successful author's apartment on Girls, listening to the great things he had to say about her work, I started to identify with her. I imagined that she'd be feeling the same thing that I do when I think back to my own experience, or when I now force myself to step back and wonder why a powerful man seems to have an interest in me.
First, there's embarrassment. I realized I told people about this man, and the good things he said about me. "Did they think I was clueless?" I'd wonder. "Did they cringe behind my back?"
Then there's self-admonishment. "Am I just being conceited? Why would he even be interested in me?" These are the questions that still run through my mind, when I think back to those moments, or worry if I'm in a similar situation with someone else. What makes me think he actually wanted anything but to talk?
But then reality sets in, and I remember exactly what makes me think that. The fact that interns who actually worked for his company had barely spoken to him, if at all. How upset he seemed to see my company leave our shared space. How he reacted with apparent concern when someone once mentioned me to him months later.
That's when the self-doubt creeped in; when I started to think about his praise for articles I'd written and write off the comments as an extended way of hitting on me. Maybe there wasn't anything notable about them, except for the fact that they were written by a girl he watched make coffee from his office. Maybe I should think twice before taking pride in positive feedback from men in positions of authority.
We don't know what exactly Hannah was thinking as she walked out of Chuck's apartment onto a bustling street. But I'm willing to bet it centered on his reason for reaching out to her, instead of any of the other people who wrote about the allegations. He said it was because she was smart and funny. But after he spent the episode gaslighting her only to pull his dick out and lay it against her leg, Hannah surely doubted his real motives. Did the meeting stem from her intelligence and talent at all? Or was it just because of her "pretty face," which he also complimented?
If Hannah is anything like me, she will start to assume the latter. She will be ashamed of the confidence his words gave her, and her self-esteem will fall far, far below what it was before that meeting. And it won't recover for a long time.
If Hannah is like me, even years later, she will doubt herself and the actions of men around her. Not just because of what Chuck did, but because of the way other people will surely react to the story. They'll assume something bad was happening well before she gets to the end, and she'll feel dumb for buying into his words.
And the next time a man with any amount of power over her says that she's smart, or talented, or funny, something in the back of her mind will tell her not to believe it. So she won't, and her self-esteem will stay where it is.
That's what happens after Chuck Palmer. As for what happens after you've moved past it, well, I'll have to get back to you on that.