We’re not just one person. We think of ourselves as individuals, as people with distinct personalities, when in reality we’re a bunch of identities and personalities at odds with one another. We’re white, rich, and disabled. We’re black, queer, and poor. We’re Latinx, undocumented, and a business-owner. Those personalities and identities intersect to create the whole of who we are, and they always contradict one another, leaving us confused and frustrated, trying to figure out how to live in the world. And it’s not just those contradictions and hypocrisies that make it difficult to find our way through the world. It’s that people use our fear and our uncertainty against us, manipulating us to feed whatever insecurities they have.
“American Bitch” is a great episode of Girls. It might be one of the best episodes the show has produced in a long time. And it does what Girls does best, taking Hannah alone into a particular situation outside of her comfort zone and watching her flail about as she maybe learns something, maybe fails miserably. But this episode, more than any in recent history, shows how Hannah inhabits a couple distinct identities, showing how these identities contradict one another and make it difficult for Hannah to hold strong in the face of manipulation.
I’m going to structure this review by breaking it down to three separate but intertwined identities that Hannah holds within herself.
1: Insecure Writer: Hannah has been unsure of her capabilities as a writer for a long time. She never had many successes through the first few season, dropped out of her MFA program in Season 4, tried and failed at teaching in Season 5, and now has a very slight hold on the beginnings of a writing career. She doesn’t really expect to make much money writing; she’s still living in this headspace where adherence to ideology and purity are a way to keep from trying to make her writing a fully-fleshed career. So when she sees one of her writing heroes, Chuck, after writing a piece about the sexual assault claims against him, part of her is desperately looking for acceptance, even if she wants to hold her own against him. It’s a part of her that she hates, because she wants so badly to feel confident in her own voice. She wants to be able to stick to her beliefs in the face of intense opposition. But she’s scared of being wrong, of not fitting in with the “writer” crowd. And that causes her to be sucked into his toxicity.
2: Feminist Woman: It should be said that Chuck is a creep. He’s a deeply selfish, deeply awful person. But Hannah can’t call him out to his face the same way she can online. Men, even the most feminist of men, are frustrated when women assert equality. Women expressing feminist thought is something that those men enjoy, but to an extent, it’s also something that they simply tolerate. I can see Chuck calling himself a feminist if it weren’t for his intense aversion to anything organized or structured. He’s the kind of person that finds himself opposed to structured identities like feminism or activism that shine a light on how perverse his actions are, breaking the self-deluded trance he’s in. Now, Hannah sees herself as wanting to engage in important work. She wants to accomplish something beyond herself with her writing. And no matter how problematic her feminist and activist ideals might be, she does take those on as identities, however apprehensively she does so. She’s just pulled between two forces, between the cursory feminism she engages in and the desire to please others around her. The concept of the “American Bitch” is alluring to her because it’s an identity that orbs embraces feminist ideals and sheds the control that men have on her. And as much as she wants it, she’s not quite here and it’s unclear that she ever can be. It’s an ideal, and ideals are impossible to reach.
3: Experience Chaser: The entire series has focused on the notion that writers seek out experiences in order to find something to write about. It’s an exercise in insecurity, as people are so anxious that they’re not interesting or not good enough that they attempt to make up for what they perceive as lacking within themselves through seeking out experience. And that can be useful. But it can also be damaging. Hannah has spent the entire series seeking out experience. She’ll do coke and go dancing to write about it. She’ll go to the beach and surf to write about it. But in these experiences there has always been a set outcome she looks for. She knows she’ll hate surfing. She knows she’ll do crazy things on coke. So what kind of experiences are they if the lesson is predetermined? Here, Hannah goes to Chuck’s apartment for the purpose of having this conversation, but also to meet a great writer. And she goes into it looking to reinforce ideas she had about people like Chuck. And to an extent, her ideas are reinforced. After lulling Hannah into a false sense of security by praising her and framing himself as a tortured, decent man, he ends up exposing himself in front of her. Maybe it was meant to toy with her, maybe it was meant as some sickly satisfying act for him, but Hannah comes away from that experience with something she didn’t expect. She comes away understanding a little more about how awful, powerful men operate, and how to become a person that can counteract that.
In all of these focused, Hannah-centric episodes, she’s always whisked off to a different place where she has some sort of adventure. She sleeps with a guy in East Lansing. She plays house with a doctor. When she left all those other places, had those other adventures, some higher message always seemed to elude her. This season feels different. In the premiere, we see the look on her face when they’re all sitting around the fire. Here, when we see the look on Hannah’s face during Chuck’s daughter’s little recital, when we see the faceless women pouring into Chuck’s apartment, we can see the wheels turning in Hannah’s head. She sees her heroes for what they are. She’s beginning to stretch outside of this preconceived notion of who she is and how she’s supposed to fit into the world. While this series has pushed away from defining adulthood, it suggests that moving into adulthood involves finding who you are outside of the perception of yourself that you’ve previously held for much of your life. And that says a lot about where Hannah is going in this final season. She’s a writer, but maybe she’s something more than the writer she was when she was 18, or when she was 21, or when she was 23. Maybe she’s more.
What did you think of “American Bitch”? Do you like these Hannah-centric episodes as much as I do? Let me know in the comments!