'Girls' Team Discusses Sexual-Consent Episode, Downplays Bill Cosby Comparisons

"It's meant to be a conversation starter," executive producer Judd Apatow tells THR as showrunners Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner recount their own similar experiences in the industry.
Courtesy of HBO
Lena Dunham and Matthew Rhys in the 'Girls' sixth-season episode "American Bitch"

[Warning: The following story contains spoilers from the third episode of Girls' sixth season, "American Bitch."]

Well, that was uncomfortable. Girls viewers likely felt uneasy after watching the third episode of the season, entitled "American Bitch."

In the stand-alone half-hour, which was posted on HBO Go and HBO Now on Friday ahead of its Sunday linear premiere, Lena Dunham's Hannah visits the apartment of famed novelist Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys) after writing an article about him in response to hearing that he'd used his power and influence to engage in multiple, possibly nonconsensual, sexual encounters with college students on his book tour.

The two have a fiery conversation about consent and "gray areas" and the influence that a famed author can have on those he admires. Ultimately, Hannah seems to let her guard down as Chuck admits he regrets not getting to know one of the women from his dalliances and says he wants to learn more about her.

The two talk about their pasts and books, and Hannah reveals her hopes as a writer. And then, as they lay next to each other on the bed, Chuck rolls over and pulls out his penis. Hannah reaches down and grabs it before realizing what's happening. She then jumps up in horror as he gives her a mischievous smirk from the bed.

After Hannah manages to extricate herself from the situation and Chuck's apartment, she walks down the street with multiple women passing behind her.

It's an unsettling episode — and one that Girls co-showrunner Jenni Konner and executive producer Judd Apatow hope sparks conversations with its lingering questions.

The episode gave the normally apolitical Hannah "a chance for her to really flex her muscles and explore some of the more complicated issues of being a woman and being a professional woman," Dunham recently told The Hollywood Reporter.

When discussing the lead character's journey over the course of the episode, Dunham agreed that Hannah is struggling with questions for which there aren't easy answers.

"Her growth period in that episode is having to really face, 'OK, your heroes may not be people that you actually want to spend time with. And what does it look like when someone really disappoints you and really takes advantage of their position of power? And what does it look like to step up and defend other women?' Those are all of the kinds of questions she's grappling with throughout the episode, and it felt good to ask those questions but not end with a tidy, triumphant answer."

Konner and Apatow spoke to THR further about the origins of the episode, why Rhys' character isn't inspired by Bill Cosby and what they hope viewers take away from what they've seen.

How did the idea for this episode come about?

Jenni Konner: We're very interested in male power and how men use it and how they may or may not know they're using it. We're often in positions with men that you would think they would understand things that were consensual or signals. And successful men, I think, have a strange relationship with power. And it can be very overt or very gray, and I feel like this was us exploring the gray area of that.

Judd Apatow: It's meant to be a conversation starter. That's something that I like about it. It's something that Lena was very passionate about writing and, in her travels, has experienced all sorts of different situations with people and has had moments where she was surprised at the inappropriateness of people that she respected. So that had been something that we had been talking about at the office for years. She found a way to express what that feels like from her point of view.

Konner: I just wrote about this in Lenny Letter. But just this summer when we were shooting, the director of another show was so crazily inappropriate with us. And that is not when we don't have power. That is a time when we have a lot of power. And he still felt compelled to talk to us about sex in a way that was so inappropriate, it was really shocking. It's a constant problem.

How did Matthew Rhys become involved?

Konner: Judd and I are both, I would say, almost criminally obsessed with The Americans.

Did you approach him as fans of The Americans?

Apatow: Well, he's such a great actor. That role had to be somebody who's so intelligent and also attractive, so you could see how these situations would happen.

Konner: And you have to believe he's a great novelist. There aren't that many actors in the world that you're like, "That guy could be writing a great novel." And you do believe it with him. We absolutely approached him as fans.

I feel like you can see elements in Rhys' character of more famous recent examples of men who've been accused of sexual assault, like Bill Cosby ...

Konner: It's not Cosby because Cosby's just ...

Apatow: Cosby's just a rapist. He just knocks you out. There's no subtlety.

Konner: There's no nuance in Cosby. So it's really not Cosby. It's meant to be much more in that gray area of inappropriateness and power.

The episode's really unsettling to watch. What do you want people to take away from it?

Apatow: People need to think about their role in those moments. There still isn't a great conversation about consent happening in the country. I have a daughter in college, so we talk about it all the time. I think it's an important issue for women who sometimes wind up in dangerous situations with people they know and for men to understand what they're doing to women because I think a lot of people think it's all part of the game, and it's a hunter's mentality and it's manipulative. And so this episode's a way for people to observe one scenario and discuss what they take from it.

Konner: And I want all the men in the world to stop acting inappropriately. That's what I'm hoping comes out of it.

Girls airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO. What did you think of the episode? Weigh in below with your thoughts.

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