Hoo boy. What to make of an episode of Girls that follows Shoshanna — its least realistic character — on a fabulist journey through modern Japan, complete with all-girl pop rock bands, kinky nurse costumes, and Hello Kitty headphones? Is there any way this wouldn’t be a disaster?
I’ve never been to Japan, so, much as I suspect that this candy-colored-by-day, sex-dungeon-by-night version of Japan is the oversimplified result of an overactive colonial imagination, I am unequipped to make an assessment because I have not been there. What I can say is that this episode made me uncomfortable, and I’m not sure if it was uncomfortable in a good way, uncomfortable in a bad way, or a bit of both. It’s complicated, but I’m accustomed to being uncomfortable while watching Girls — uncomfortable is even part of the show’s creative appeal.
At its best, Girls lets discomfort spread through an episode like an infection through a wound. Whether it’s watching Adam overstep boundaries on a date or Hannah poke a hole in her eardrum in the middle of a relapse, the show pushes its audience past their comfort zones when it comes to things like consent and mental illness. What is the boundary between rape and bad sex? What is selfishness and what is self-care? And when you’re dealing with mental illness, how can relationships both enable and soothe? What’s exactly the problem with watching Lena Dunham hook up with Patrick Wilson — or in perceiving a problem, am I the problem?
Girls makes me cringe like no other show, but I enjoy being given opportunities to challenge myself, and if I can remove Girls from the cultural baggage it has accumulated over its five years on the air, the act of watching Shoshanna negotiate her own foreignness with her coworkers seems to strive for a similar sense of productive discomfort.
Jessa described Shoshanna as a cartoon in the first episode of this season, and this episode is about watching cartoon Shoshanna fit into all of the stereotypical cartoons that characterize the Western imagination of Japan. She has altered her walk, she has taken on the speech patterns of coworkers, she is performing a different form of femininity than what we’re used to seeing from her. And, for the most part, the world around her is receptive. Shoshanna is still an outsider in this cartoon world, but if her cartoonishness in the New York setting of Girls often reads as a wildly different tone from the rest of the characters, the world that Girls has constructed out of Japan is precisely A World That Fits Shoshanna. It’s not just the fish-out-of-water experience of two discrete cultures meeting, but the experience of a person who feels at home in a foreign environment — and the presence of both cultural consonance and cultural dissonance — that makes this an unsettling episode to watch.
Japan does not solely exist inside a Sanrio Surprises store. But Shoshanna is exactly the kind of person who would seek out the most cartoonish aspects of any place she inhabited. Whether the romance between Shoshanna and her boss is a white feminist fantasy on the part of the Girls writers' room or the character, it’s a fantasy that exists because these things do happen. My immediate desire watching this episode was to see a more holistic version of a country I’ve never visited. Is that more or less patronizing than what Shoshanna was doing here?
This would be uncomfortable territory on any TV show, but even on an episode that doesn’t venture outside the borders of New York, it’s hard to watch Girls without recalling its external baggage. Too many seasons have passed by without substantial characters played by actors of color, and even four years out, the Lesley Arfin tweets are still too recent for me to feel comfortable trusting Girls on issues of race and cultural blending the way I do on rape and mental health. I don’t have the answer for how everyone should respond to this episode, and I don’t think my moral judgment would satisfy everyone. So for you, was this episode healthy cultural exchange or harmful cultural appropriation? For myself — for now — I’m settled on remaining unsettled.
Compared to what was happening with Shoshanna, the rest of the story lines on this episode were pretty simple. Hannah and Fran had a fight about nude selfies he kept from ex-girlfriends, which led to some questions about the ethics of pornography and the aesthetics of masturbatory material, and this choice moment of clarity from Hannah: “What I lack in skill, I make up for in extreme curiosity.” Truer words, girl…
I wonder whether, if this were an earlier season, Hannah’s nude photo shoot would have been more central to the episode. But if Lena Dunham is still fighting magazines for the right to be seen as she is and not as the fashion industry demands, by now it seems that her interest in her own body has settled into a place of pure comfort. It’s interesting to see Dunham probably wisely let the selfie story line slip into silliness rather than trying to affect contemplation — comfort is good for life but bad for drama.
Jessa and Adam continued their flirtation over a friends-night-in watching Adam’s guest spot on a BRUTAL parody of network crime dramas, which hilariously starred Lucy Liu as a detective who managed to bring up growing up in a group home within two minutes of questioning her mark. Something about the camerawork — shaky with lots of canted angles — reminded me specifically of ABC?
Jessa and Adam are still cute, and there’s some very endearing gushing by Jemima Kirke on display here, but I hope there’s real movement in this relationship soon, as the momentum from the last episode seemed to dip a little into repetition here. There’s only so much meta “I’m not gonna do this will-they-or-won’t-they shit” referencing the Girls writers can get away with before the thread starts to collapse.
But the focus here is for once on Shoshanna — often the most sidelined character, often the most out of place. Leave it to Girls to find a way to make seeing Shoshanna feel at home even more frustrating than watching her stick out.