No matter how progressive or liberal minded someone is, the one thing you can count on, is that they watch at least one show which they know to be problematic as hell. Media like all social organizations is problematic because it has been created by a world which privileged certain bodies. The only way to avoid this is to stop consuming media altogether, which as we know, is not really possible in our modern world. Shameless has filled this role for me for quite sometime. If you haven’t seen it, Shameless is about a poor dysfunctional Boston neighbouhood and family. The Gallagher kids will do anything to survive, including sell drugs, take tests for others, run an illegal daycare, scam the system for money by collecting a dead relatives SSI, and work the shittiest jobs you can think of. With a father who is capable for disappearing for months at a time on drunken binges, when he is not busy scamming people to stay at their homes, and a mother who is mentally unstable, they barely manage to make it through the week.Through it all, the one thing that has been certain is that they care about each other.
One of the surprising things about Shameless is how inclusive it is. There are several Black characters, a few disabled characters, and of course a few gay characters. These portrayals are always far from perfect but sometimes within the hot mess that is Shameless, there are moments which are extremely poignant. Each week, I tune in with one eye closed fearing how far they will take it this time, hoping that that there are lines which they will not cross. It’s always sort of been my agreement with Shameless that as long as certain things didn’t happen, I would continue to watch and deny to the world what I was doing. In the last two weeks, Shameless finally went too far.
Though it has been rocky, I have liked watching the growing relationship between Ian Gallagher and Mickey Milkovich. When Ian’s brother Lip, found his porn stash, Ian was forced to admit that he is gay. From that moment on, he remained out of the closet. Mickey is the local tough guy and is extremely concerned about how his sexuality will be viewed in the neighbourhood. The only one who knows he is gay is Ian. Mickey does everything to deny it but finally begins to admit that there is more between him and Ian than just sex. Their relationship progresses until Mickey’s father finds them together and after beating the both of them, orders Mickey to have sex with a prostitute in front of Ian to make him straight. This is rape and Ian can do nothing to help the young man he loves. It was extremely hard to watch, but I am not naive enough to think that this sort of thing does not happen and Shameless actually went to great lengths to show how much this hurts. Cameron Monaghan’s (Ian) acting in this scene was phenomenal because he portrayed so much with just a simple look.
Shortly after this incident, Ian learns that Mickey is going to marry the prostitute who raped him because she is with child. Ian confronts Mickey about this and asks him to admit that he is gay and that he loves him. Mickey then beats him up in a parking lot. The next time we see Ian, he is lying in bed, bloody, bruised and crying. Had Shameless just left it that, they would have presented a strong storyline about the evilness of homophobia.
Instead, we got the family patriarch Frank Gallagher pretending to be gay in order to attempt to be put on a straight man’s medical benefits because he wanted to see a doctor. He was adamant that even though he’s not gay, the fact that he was living with another man should have allowed him to do this. Frank even referred to the denial of benefits as “heterophobia,” suggesting that if they allow two gay men to do this, it should be allowed for two straight men. He completely ignored that this is a right which two gay men who love each other have to fight for. There must be a relationship present beyond simple cohabitation. I knew it was wrong when I watched this scene, but when I considered how hard it must be not be able to go to a doctor at will, wrongly I turned my head. When Frank was waiting for the bus after being denied the chance to be on his roommates benefits, he turned to the mayor, who was giving a speech, to rant about same sex rights. His inspiration was being turned down for benefits, for which he did not deserve but he hit all the right notes and was quickly declared a gay hero. The rest of the episode involved gay men cheering him on and him being invited to be the front man for a gay rights organization. Frank even went into a gay bar and sang Gloria Gaynors, I Will Survive, with all of the gay men singing along. This was juxtaposed to his gay son crying in bed, after being beaten by the man he loves. So, the straight man gets accolades for his selfishness because he pretended to be gay, and the real gay character is suffering directly because of homophobia.
I really should have quit Shameless then because what aired this week was absolutely beyond the pale. Frank now a gay rights spokesman, begins to push for more money from the organization. He is then offered an opportunity to be a part of a gay conversion group, offered money, a place to stay and women to sleep with. Being the asshole that he is, Frank goes along with this and ends up sleeping with a lesbian hoping to become straight. He is of course found out and then told to prove that he’s gay. This is going on while his gay son Ian, is trying to deal with the rejection and physical abuse from the young man he loves.
I was absolutely sickened watching this because the producers and writers of Shameless, essentially turned conversion therapy into a joke. Conversion therapy is extremely harmful to the GLBT community and those who have participated, have done so because of homophobia and the horrible treatment which gay people experience in our heterosexist world. It leaves life long scars and should never be reduced to a joke. Even now the gay community is fighting to have the practice made illegal.
On one hand, the storyline involving Ian, while painful is very real whereas; the storyline with Frank completely undermines this by making a mockery of how difficult it is to be gay, even as he profits from his deception. As an audience, we are expected to look at this and be disgusted because Frank is indeed a vile character but there is no explicit declaration that what he is doing is wrong. Allowing a horrific character to do something bigoted or problematic in some way does not address the issue being tackled and this is especially true if as in the case of Shameless, it is being played for laughs.
Part of the schtick of Shameless is that characters are meant to do offensive things and push boundaries. however; explicitly telling the audience that they will occasionally be offended, does not grant immunity from critique or responsibility for their action. Pushing boundaries in this manner does not make people think, it only normalizes the problematic, rather than challenging people to grow and change. Shameless seems to fail to understand that there is a difference between people running scams and doing things which are illegal to survive and purposefully demeaning marginalized people. One properly links things like property crime and drug dealing to poverty and the other just affirms oppressing people is completely acceptable.
It saddens me because Shameless has long been my secret pleasure. I always knew damn well that it was something I really should not be watching but now, there really is no excuse to continue. It’s one thing to turn a blind eye to wild antics and completely another to actively approve through participation (read: viewing) the minimization of historically marginalized people.