Shameless Self-Disclosure: Showtime’s Unlikely Coming Out Story

shameless like photo Sigfrid Lundberg

More television programs are realizing that coming out plotlines don’t have to generic or predictable, including (surprise!) Showtime’s Shameless.

 

What does – and what should —  the coming out process look like on TV?

Is it a requirement to depict tearful handwringing? Do characters have to put on misery pageants to court audience acceptance? And, if they perform their agony convincingly enough, then can they win a golden ticket to complex stories and true humanity?

Luckily, more television programs are realizing that harrowing coming out plotlines don’t have to be the apex of LGBTQ characters’ usefulness. But the shows that give coming out a casual, “no big deal” treatment don’t necessarily mirror all viewers’ experiences, either. They fail to acknowledge complicating factors in the lives of many LGBTQ people: factors that make lying low until “it gets better” seem downright impossible.

Showtime’s Shameless has confronted this omission head-on, leading audiences through a winding, protracted, and ultimately triumphant coming out story from one of the most subversive queer characters on television.

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Inspired by the long-running British series of the same name, comedy-drama Shameless is a rare beast for American TV in terms of tone and content. At the show’s center is the Gallagher family, feebly helmed by alcoholic patriarch Frank (William H. Macy), living a hand-to-mouth existence on the South Side of Chicago.  Shameless doesn’t pull punches when it comes to examining the far-reaching effects of multi-generational poverty, addiction, and mental illness. It also avoids condescension and pity. Shameless traffics heavily in gray areas with its deeply flawed, but usually not all-good or all-bad, characters. And whenever viewers are tempted to moralize, difficult truths emerge to muddy the waters.

Mickey Milkovich (rivetingly played by Noel Fisher) first made his mark in an unexpected Season 1 sexual encounter with teenage Gallagher son Ian (Cameron Monaghan). Ian, established as gay early in the series, receives tacit support from the handful of family members and friends to whom he comes out. Mickey, by contrast, is a profoundly closeted neighborhood thug: a belligerent, grubby kid with the words “FUCK U-UP” tattooed on his knuckles … who also happens to be an exuberant bottom.   However, instead of writing off this hook-up as another one-time moment of comedic outrageousness, Shameless has made Mickey’s arc a surprisingly sensitive one, examining the impact of poverty and family violence on the character’s life.

Showtime’s Shameless has changed TV’s “coming out” scripts and led audiences through a winding, protracted, and ultimately triumphant coming out story from one of the most subversive queer characters on television.

Mickey has been raised in a household ruled by terror. The Milkovich brood is overseen by tyrannical father Terry, who is often out of sight (thanks to frequent incarceration), but never far out of mind. Mickey’s appearance is disheveled: at times visibly dirty. His speech is littered with wisecracks and put-downs. He’s cagey and mean and picks fights. All of these at-once repugnant qualities are undercut by viewers’ slow, sobering realization: This is how an abused child survives. Because, as we discover in both subtle clues and scenes of explicit brutality, Terry’s hairpin trigger rage is calibrated to fire at any mention of homosexuality.

It’s clear that Mickey’s sexuality is a liability in his home and neighborhood. He is too scared to even identify his feelings, routinely physically attacking anyone who labels him “gay”. He is unable to act on emotional connections with men, bristling at signs of affection from Ian. (“Kiss me and I’ll cut your fucking tongue out,” he tells Ian in Season 1. And, in Season 2: “You’re nothing but a warm mouth to me”).  Mickey’s internalized homophobia is especially writ large in the scenes where he lashes out against other gay men. This season’s “The Legend of Bonnie and Carl” depicts Mickey robbing a married man, and threatening to expose the man’s same-sex attractions. “His fault for living a lie,” Mickey shrugs.

If viewers are tempted to question whether Mickey’s deep self-loathing and sense of dread are baseless, his father’s actions quickly dispel this notion. A critical moment for our understanding of Mickey’s fear comes in the middle of Season 3, when Terry catches Mickey and Ian having sex in the Milkovich family home. Terry savagely beats and pistol-whips his son, then enlists a female prostitute to “fuck the faggot outta [Mickey]” at gunpoint – forcing Ian to watch. It is corrective rape by proxy: plain and simple. And it’s a challenge to the audience’s sentimentality. What heroics are we demanding from Mickey? Should he sacrifice his life for the sake of ‘honesty’? For the sake of love?

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This is weighty stuff. But it isn’t all that makes Mickey Milkovich a remarkable character. Shameless’ biggest coup with his storyline has been, in fact, showing us Mickey’s “survival-in-spite-of”: in spite of abuse; in spite of sexual assault; in spite of his lack of healthy relationship models; in spite of growing up in a family where he has only heard people like him spoken of with mockery and hatred. For all the character’s faults, it’s undeniable that he has accomplished something significant just by staying alive in the face of cruel circumstance.

Mickey’s struggle to survive reached a crescendo in the show’s March 30 episode. Painted into a corner by the convergence of typically Shameless-operatic circumstances, Mickey announced, before a crowd of drunken bar patrons and his recently-paroled father, “I’m fuckin’ gay.”

A melee ensued, of course. When the dust settled, it was clear that Mickey had finally freed himself from his father’s stranglehold, illuminating possibilities for the character that he hadn’t previously even allowed himself to imagine. (In this week’s season finale, for example, we got to see a freshly unguarded Mickey looking more comfortable in his newfound self-actualization as he rallied intervention for Ian’s incipient bipolar disorder). And what’s more? The moment underscored the courage Mickey –- chided as a “pussy” by other characters – has had through the entire series.

This, all of this, is what coming out looks like.

In tiny increments since his first encounter with Ian, and at clear risk to his own safety, Mickey has pushed himself further and further past his fear. We are reminded of the time Mickey, returning from a stint in juvenile detention, greeted Ian with a deceptively terse, “Missed ya.” Of Mickey and Ian’s first kiss, hurried and nervous, long after they began meeting for sex. Of the futile, single-word plea – “Don’t” – when Ian told him he was enlisting in the Army. Of Mickey’s hesitant response to a stranger who asked, of his relationship with Ian, “Did you guys just meet last night, or are you together?”

Finally, after a pause: “Together.”

This, all of this, is what coming out looks like. And this is what Mickey Milkovich’s relevance truly hinges on: not only an acknowledgment of the suffering and self-denial that is still a reality in the lives of many LGBTQ people; but the validation that coming out is not irrelevant or passé or an all-or-nothing game. No matter how small and unwhole these acts of disclosure may seem, they are still brave.

 

 

—Photo Sigfrid Lundberg/Flickr

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About Amanda Schumacher

Amanda Schumacher works in the interpersonal violence prevention and intervention field as a counselor for sexual assault and abuse survivors. Her chief professional interest is enhancing outreach to underserved populations, particularly LGBTQ survivors. The parent of two young children, Amanda is also an unabashed film and television fan . She lives in the Midwest.

Comments

  1. Alex Cooper says:

    Excellent article. I especially like how you acknowledge that coming out isn’t a one-time thing, as many television shows pretend: in some situations, the process of coming out (or not) is a daily (or hourly) negotiation. Mickey’s character embodies that beautifully.

  2. Certainly one of the best shows on tv.

  3. Could have NEVER said it better.

  4. Thank you for writing something that addresses the depth and subversion this (IMHO) wildly underrated series provides. There are a LOT of queer stories out there, but so many of them are shockingly similar. The coming out story has almost become a trope in itself in contemporary entertainment. Shameless has taken that story and made it relevant and impactful again. It has shown far more than “nervous queer kid comes out despite his/her family.” It has shown how deep the scar tissue of poverty and violence can reach, and what it means to come out over and over again in different arenas within one’s self and one’s environment. The latter is something every queer person understands, even if the former doesn’t apply.

    I love how this show had focused a unique lens on the coming out story, and I love your input on it and the light you’re bringing to it. FANTASTIC work!

    • “The latter is something every queer person understands, even if the former doesn’t apply.”

      Thanks, Jason. One of the main ideas I wanted to explore, with regard to Mickey, was the concept of a “non-binary” closet. A lot of fans (myself included) were incredibly moved by the March 30 episode “Emily”, in which Mickey makes his big, public announcement. It was certainly a fantastic showcase for Noel Fisher’s acting abilities!

      But I was surprised at all the reactions to the effect of, “It’s about time! Why didn’t this happen sooner?” Well, the “why” should be painfully clear. Beyond that, though: it HAS been happening all along; we’re just not conditioned to immediately notice the character’s smaller gestures as “coming out”.

  5. such an excellent article – finally an article that names mickey (and mandy!) as a victim of child abuse and rape. mickey WAS absolutely painted into a corner and forced to come out – ian made that perfectly clear – but this article omg, it’s just PERFECTION.

    • I really appreciate this comment! It was very interesting to me how Mickey’s coming out process was shown to be simultaneously carried off on his own terms, and … not (especially concerning that final, public declaration). This reflects, in more dramatic terms, a lot of folks’ experiences: not able to orchestrate their coming out in an ideal/gradual/safe way due to prevailing circumstances.

      I can empathize with Ian’s situation (while not endorsing what he did) to an extent, because he has an equal stake in the relationship – and feeling so acutely conscious of the repression and oppression your relationship is operating under is painful. However, Mickey clearly tried to address that, to the best of his ability, with “What you and I have makes me free.”

  6. There are still a lot of people who gloss over the fact that Mickey was raped, so it is nice to see it acknowledged. Because he is a male, and especially because Svetlana got pregnant, a lot of people have treated her as the victim and Mickey as a deadbeat dad. Never mind that he was only just regaining consciousness from being beaten, was still bleeding and held at gunpoint when Terry had her mount him. Would it have been more “noble” for him to resist, and get himself and Ian shot?

    But it set the stage for an amazing season, where Mickey discovered that Ian wasn’t just his sex partner, but his life partner. In the end, he was willing to brave even Terry’s wrath to save his relationship. It was an intense and impressive storyline.

    • Thanks. Yes, Mickey’s experiences around the sexual assault are really key to understanding of the rest of his character, and deserve more than the passing mention I included here.

      I think the show took a calculated risk when it portrayed this rape (as with other incidents involving Mickey and the rest of the characters) in a way that diverges sharply from typical victim/survivor narratives in the media, which tend to erase a lot of survivors’ real-life experiences. That audiences didn’t universally identify what happened to Mickey as “rape” speaks to the idea that many people’s concept of rape, in general, is incredibly narrow.

      So, I like the idea that Shameless laid the groundwork for this conversation by presenting viewers with a queer, male sexual assault survivor, contending with poverty and family violence, working in an extra-legal economy, etc., etc., etc. But I am even more heartened to learn, based on the feedback I’ve gotten, that folks are *having* this conversation!

  7. You didn’t mention the time he kisses Ian in the gay bar. There’s this little moment that Noel portrays so beautifully, where Ian is about to kiss him and Mickey quickly rejects him, before realizing where he is after looking around at the club: a safe heaven, a place where he can be himself, and feel his feelings, and kiss the man he loves. There’s this little moment before the kiss, where he gasps of relief, where for the first time in the whole series, he is completely himself, and he completely surrenders to his feelings.

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