In each of its 10 seasons, the revolutionary TV show “Shameless” embraces sexuality, champions strong female leads and addresses mental disorders and political issues — and has been doing so since Episode 1. There’s more to the show than sex, booze and South Side-city-living. As U.S. showrunner John Wells stated in an interview with AssignmentX, the show “is good, filthy fun, but the undercurrent of it is, we’re actually trying to say quite a bit about the preconceptions we have about a lot of people in this society.”
On the surface, the Gallagher family from the South Side of Chicago might seem raunchy, unmotivated and yes, even filthy. However, the point that Wells tries to highlight is that there are many archetypes in this show that encapsulate how a lot of families live and survive. The Gallagher family, although stuck in a harrowing situation, takes life day by day, dealing with every obstacle that gets in their way with flying colors. So exactly what themes make this very real comedic show so tremendously revolutionary?
First, from the very beginning, “Shameless” champions strong, female leads, fighting against the inundating force of the patriarchal world we live in. In “Shameless,” the female characters are badasses, dominating their urban environment and owning their sexuality and prowess. Right from Season 1, with the characters Sheila, Karen, Veronica and Fiona, we are exposed to a world of female sex icons.
Sheila, whose husband leaves, revamps her life when he’s gone, bringing her BDSM fantasies to life. Karen uses her sexual prowess as a means of personal empowerment and commercial exchange; by offering blowjobs in exchange for tutoring sessions, she is switching conventional power relations, using her sex appeal for her own benefit.
Veronica brings in some extra cash with her webcam sexy chats with paying customers and is also into a multitude of kinky bedroom activities with her husband, Kev. Finally, Fiona assumes both parental roles — necessary because of her parents’ constant drug- and alcohol-fueled absences — and is a strong figurehead that balances an active sex life with manning the household of five kids.
Clearly, all of these powerful women work against the grain of the patriarchy, emboldened by their sexual appetites and their place in society. Even if the women don’t directly surpass the men, at the very least, they are seen as equals.
The theme of powerful women holds true to the most recent season, Season 10, where Fiona once and for all decides that she needs to put herself first. She leaves Southside behind, relieving herself of the constant responsibility of caring for her siblings and trying to make a name for herself in a city that never really allows for upward mobility (the wealth gap in Chicago is monstrous). By finally leaving the South Side and the crushing weight of her family obligations, Fiona fights the paradigm of the patriarchy. She is finding herself, prioritizing herself and acknowledging that her needs matter.
Additionally, “Shameless” embraces LGBTQ+ individuals in a genuine way. Again, right off the bat from Episode 1, we are introduced to a main gay character, Ian Gallagher. This initial reveal is extremely telling; in many TV shows, directors wait to divulge a major character’s sexuality until later in the series, when their personality has already been revealed and viewers can relate to them. The fact that Ian’s sexuality is revealed as soon as we are exposed to his character shows that his participation in the LGBTQ+ community is an integral part of his personality and character.
Through Ian and his relationships, we are additionally introduced to Trevor, a transgender man, in Season 7, and opened up to the gay community as a whole. In the more recent Season 9, Ian also transforms into a figurehead for the gay community, serving as “Gay Jesus,” actively fighting against conversion camps and making a safe space for LGBTQ+ children that are not accepted by their families.
“Shameless” doesn’t just champion sexuality and sexual orientation; it also portrays mental health disorders. With Ian Gallagher, we are introduced to his intersectional character: a gay man with bipolar disorder. We also get a glimpse of Monica, the mother of the Gallagher children, who is another intersectional character: a bisexual woman with bipolar disorder.
This portrayal of intersectional characters in television is absolutely critical, especially considering the stunning statistic that “out of 1,200 characters in TV, only 7% experience a mental health condition.” Only adding to this conundrum, in this same study, only eight characters of these 1,200 were a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Clearly, representation is crucial in transforming our world into an accepting and open place. Media and film play a large role in showcasing the perceptions of public opinion and consequential changing attitudes. If we fail to portray LGBTQ+ individuals with mental health disorders, we are refusing to acknowledge their existence and the resources they need.
Finally, “Shameless” weaves in a multitude of political issues. As mentioned before, choosing to place the Gallaghers in the South Side of Chicago was no random choice. Chicago’s wealth gap is utterly appalling and the segregation in the city is abysmal. Viewers get continuous glimpses into the poor side of Chicago, sometimes paralleled with the rich side of society. There are additionally many parts that deal with health care access, as the characters explore programs like Medicare, Medicaid and access to health care in general, especially through the alcoholic Gallagher father, Frank.
In Season 10’s “In A Little Gallagher Goes A Long Way,” Mikey O’Shea faces this conundrum firsthand, as he struggles with his kidney disease. Before, he had gone to the veterinarian to get diuretics to lessen his pain; however, his pain reaches a peak. Since Mikey cannot afford health care, he deduces that his only option is to go back to prison in order to receive free health care. Viewers are exposed to the harsh reality of the American health care system: Prison is sometimes the best option for poor individuals who can’t afford a plan.
Although on the surface, “Shameless” might appear to be a frivolous, comedic show whose sole purpose is to get its viewers to laugh, it clearly and consistently addresses heavy issues — including powerful women that fight patriarchal norms, sexual empowerment, sexual orientation and the LBGTQ+ community, mental health, intersectionality and politics.
Season 10 does not fail to continue addressing these prevalent issues in our society. After all, as Danny Boyle quotes, “To be a filmmaker, you have to lead. You have to be psychotic in your desire to do something. People always like the easy route. You have to push very hard to get something unusual, something different.” John Wells, every director, every scene producer and every actor and actress in “Shameless” propels our world forward, one slow step at a time. Acceptance is critical and film is influential and mobilizing. “Shameless” has broken norms, advanced critical political messages and empowered individuals globally. “Shameless” is utterly revolutionary.