Trigger Warning and Spoiler Alert.
..it’s rape. The most recent episode of Girls was slightly spoiled for me as I had glanced at Amanda Hess’s piece on it before I watched it, but I stopped myself from reading the whole thing. Still, I found myself watching with clenched teeth, waiting for the inevitable and uncomfortable, triggering and uncensored moment when I would be watching rape on screen. And then it happened. After they had sex once, the second time Adam raped his new girlfriend Natalia.
I was shocked, but not shocked, to return to Amanda and find that some have argued this scene was a moment of “uncomfortable sex.”
In their Slate review of the episode, David Haglund describes the scene as “exceedingly uncomfortable sex.” It leaves Natalia “feeling debased, even borderline assaulted,” Jeffrey Bloomer writes. That phrasing is indicative of the way we talk about sexual abuse and domestic violence in this century. There is rape—a crime reported to the authorities, investigated by the police, and prosecuted in the courts. And then there is everything else that is not consensual, but not easily prosecutable, either: “gray rape,” “bad sex,” “they were both drunk,” the “feeling” of being “borderline assaulted.” It’s what happens when a person you want to have sex with “has sex with you” in a way that you do not want them to. And though we have a new, problematic vocabulary for these incidents now, they’re nothing new; this episode recalled Season 3 of Mad Men, when Pete Campbell pressured his neighbor’s German au pair into his apartment and sparked a debate as to whether or not he raped her.
As a viewer, it is indeed uncomfortable to watch, even frightening because of the build-up (when he follows her while she is crawling, it actually feels like a horror flick). While it is staged as slightly unclear as to whether what was happening was consensual, the apparent ambiguity only speaks to a collective difficulty in naming rape. There is no question left in the viewer’s mind that Natalie didn’t want to have sex like that. She says “no” multiple times and at the end she says, “That was not OK” and “I really didn’t like that.” And Adam seems confused afterwards as well saying, “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what came over me.”
Adam is a very creepy character, but he’s always engendered some amount of sympathy. I’m not sure why they took the character in this direction, because it puts the nail in the coffin of “deeply troubled” as opposed to “tortured artist.” And looking back, many of the scenes with Adam are terrifying–he stalks Hannah for a while (she even calls the police but pretends she didn’t) and he’s impetuous in a way that makes his presence on-screen uncomfortable. And while his character gets a lot of depth and compassion–from being in AA to that intense conversation he has with Ray on their way to Staten Island–Adam is a strain to watch and try to understand.
It’s not surprising, however, that they chose to push the story in this direction. Girls from the jump has been about showcasing the “in-between” uncomfortableness and ugly realness of sexual interactions. I’d like to think this could be an opportunity to talk about rape and its normalcy and push us, as Amanda writes, to “raise our standards of what is acceptable sexual behavior.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in, and there is a good chance that the majority of the viewing public will see this scene and be horrified but without the vocabulary to express or understand what happened. Since, ultimately, for it to really be rape, she would have had to reject the assault more seriously in the moment and she would have had to call the police. Otherwise, people have the audacity to suggest it was just weird, awkward or uncomfortable.