It’s Okay to Be a Shoshanna

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Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna Shapiro on <em>Girls</em>.
Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna Shapiro on Girls.Photo: HBO

The internet mandates that, if a show features four or more main characters with relatively equal screen time, it is your duty to identify with at least one of them. To this day, saying that someone is a “Carrie-Charlotte” remains among the more useful two-word descriptors I can think of. As a 20-something Girls viewer who has watched the show since it started, I have identified with different characters over the years, in different permutations (usually Hannah, with a Jessa wing). But this season is the first time I’ve identified with Shoshanna.

Shoshanna has received a lot of hate over the past five seasons, and it’s not hard to see why. On one hand, I have always admired Zosia Mamet’s commitment to Shoshanna’s peculiarity. With her rapid-fire patter and frenetic mannerisms, Shosh is a high-wire comic character in a way the other girls aren’t. But while the other girls usually feel real, Shosh has tended to seem cartoonish to the point of being distracting. I blame the writers, who have often pushed Shosh’s detachment from reality — her mortifying behavior in last season’s job interviews, for example — to such extremes that she seems to have something wrong with her. (Margaret Lyons explored this problem back in 2014). So, while most of us probably know some real-world Jessas and Hannahs (and sorry, Tay Swift, you’re definitely a Marnie), few would claim to have seen Shoshannas prancing around in the wild. She was never a character people were really meant to identify with in the first place.

Which would be fine if Girls were tonally consistent. But, surrounded by more nuanced characters, the chronic under-writing of Shosh felt unfair to anyone who might be inclined to recognize some of her more compelling eccentricities.

And then, weirdly, for much of season five, Shosh became the most likable and functional character on the show. In episode three, Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham took the girl they had created to Japan, plopped her in a glorious Lisa Frank fever-dream of an apartment, and all of a sudden her kooky traits seemed to make sense. Girls has always been a show about failure: failing at jobs, at relationships, failing at the basic 101s of adulthood. What a relief it was, then, to see a character not just succeeding, but flourishing. How refreshing! How un-Girls! Watching Shosh master the language, make friends, and succeed at her job (while looking fly as hell in her pink streaks and Hello Kitty headphones) made me think, Wow, this is a person who could actually exist in the world. In this new environment, her susceptibility to fads and trends began to feel like adaptability and openness, while her brash forthrightness started to look a lot like inner strength. Sure, from an aesthetic standpoint, seeing this Brooklyn gal with a fetish for decorative throw pillows in the land of kawaii definitely provided a lot of fun sight gags (which I imagine was a main intention). But it’s more than shared aesthetics that enabled Shosh to survive in a place so radically different from her home. Rather, left to fend for herself, character traits that had initially been comedic fodder came to resemble genuine survival skills.

But because this is Girls, Shoshanna had to regress. And she had to regress in spectacular fashion, causing a ruckus in the airport, berating her poor ex-boyfriend Scott (Jason Ritter), and prattling on about welfare while plowing through a multi-course omakase. Here again was the immature, self-absorbed Shosh of seasons prior, who had somehow managed to learn nothing despite the tangible growth we all witnessed just a few episodes ago.

But that’s the problem with relating to a TV character. Even when you locate a glimmer of humanity in them, you have to remember that there’s a team of writers manipulating this character to serve exigencies of their own. Shows need to have tension to keep them going, but they also have to have internal logic, and this has been a struggle on Girls from the get-go. Rather than staying with a given situation — whether it’s a marriage, or a grad program, or a personality — and watching it evolve, the Girls rhythm has been to toss characters into novel circumstances and see how they’ll react, offering only brief moments of respite before throwing them into the blender once again. (Ever wonder why everyone hates Hannah so much?) For Shosh, the road has been tougher than most. I hope next season the writers continue to treat her as the multifaceted woman who revealed herself this season, and not as an archetype you’d refresh if you got her on a BuzzFeed quiz.