Shameless concluded its profoundly mediocre ninth season on Showtime this week with a finale that said goodbye to show lead Fiona (Emmy Rossum) but not to the program itself, which will seemingly live forever, just like Frank! The U.S. adaptation of the British hit by the same name, Shameless tells the story of the messy, scrappy, fiercely loyal and often profoundly fucked Gallagher family, who live in Chicago’s South Side.
When you think about LGBTQ+ representation on Shameless, you think about Ian (Cameron Monaghan), and the relationship Buzzfeed called “TV’s most wonderfully unique gay relationship,” which at one point overlapped with another instance of groundbreaking representation — Ian’s relationship with Trevor, a trans guy who works at the local community center for LGBTQ teens. They consulted with experts on the storyline, Ian had brunch with somebody who used “ze” pronouns and it was very good and progressive, if not entirely tonally consistent with the rest of the show.
However, Shameless’s universe has also been consistently teeming with lesbian and bisexual women characters, although it is rarely highlighted for this fact. In fact, Shameless has featured more LGBTQ women characters than any show currently airing on television, although that’s also surely due in part to its longevity.
We’ve had eight guest characters, five recurring characters and three regulars. None have received — or, arguably, deserved — the level of acclaim granted to Ian. Shameless prides itself on being both liberal and politically incorrect, which makes for a fun if uneven watch, but sometimes it’s hard to tell when Shameless is giving us a very fair drag and when they genuinely believe that we are, as a population, a total drag. Still, their portrayal of female sexuality as essentially fluid — well, for everybody except Fiona — is remarkable in its own way. I was introduced to the show by an ex who’d also grown up in an often haphazardly-composed working-class family in a major Midwestern city, and could therefore relate to Shameless in a way she rarely did to a television show, because they’re usually about rich people, or middle-class people who somehow have no financial problems ever and also huge apartments.
Now, the only person I know who has seen the whole show is Valerie, so I got her to talk to me about lesbian and bisexual representation on Shameless!
Riese: So, first of all, does it surprise you that Shameless has had more LGBTQ women characters on its show than anything else currently on television? I mean, granted — it’s had nine seasons to do it.
Valerie: Actually, yes. I guess I’ve never thought about them collectively since there wasn’t a lot of overlap, and aside from Debbie (Emma Kenney), Veronica (Shanola Hampton) and Svetlana (Isidora Goreshter), none of them were very well developed? A lot of them had potential – I really thought Nessa (Jessica Szhor) and Mel (Perry Mattfeld) were going to end up being way more important but they just kind of…vanished. The Vee and Svetlana storyline was great though.
Riese: When I was putting together the TV Database last year, I learned that Karen Jackson (Laura Wiggins) has been classified by the internet as bisexual? Which I had totally overlooked? Did you ever catch that?
Valerie: I sure did not. And I feel like that was back in the earlier days when I was feeling more desperate for it, not only on this show but everywhere? Maybe I knew but I forgot… six seasons ago is at least two lifetimes in TV time…
Riese: It seems like Shameless men often date women who like women — but their sapphic dalliances are usually sexual things and most or all of their serious relationships are almost always with just men: Karen, Amanda (Nichole Bloom), Jasmine (Amy Smart), Monica Gallagher (Chloe Webb). Lip’s current girlfriend, Tami (Kate Miner), also talks about experimenting with her roommate in college. You could also put Vee in this category, but I think her situation is part of a different conversation.
Valerie: Yeah, I agree that usually the bisexuality is used as a comment on their overall sexuality. And the Lisas (Jenica Bergere and Lee Stark) were meant to represent Angry White Lesbians everywhere. Until Ian got involved with the LGBTQ+ center, of course. That was a nice change, since it’s true that queer people tend to at least try to find a community.
Riese: Although there were plenty of Angry White Lesbians at the LGBTQ+ Center too!
Valerie: Right. But I agree that V’s situation happened more organically; it wasn’t played for laughs (at least, not all the time) or a one-off thing, it actually developed and changed with time.
Riese: Yes! So let’s dig into the main lady-queer situation we’ve had on Shameless (until Debbie TBD). For me, I actually loved the Svetlana / Vee / Kevin relationship — I watched it with Erin, who later wrote in our “sex scene that changed our lives” roundtable:
“My dream couple is Vee and Svetlana from Shameless. I consider any scene either one of them is in to be a sex scene, and so when they got together in the sixth season of the show, my brain melted a little bit. There’s Svetlana with this attitude and this Russian accent (I know it’s not real and it’s probably a bad one but I don’t give a shiiiiit because without getting into a whole thing about me and Eastern European accents I’ll just say it works for me) and then there’s Vee who looks like Vee and, I just, it meant a lot. Riese can attest to this. In this scene it’s their first time together – well, alone (they’d had a threesome the night before with Vee’s husband) – and they’re in the bar where they work. Svetlana is putting down chairs and locking doors with a purpose and they’re sassing each other and there’s a pool table involved and I want to kiss on the mouth whoever gave this the green light.”
I loved the kinky power play, I loved Vee discovering that she liked women — I loved that Kevin was like “you know what I’m gonna try dudes, too!” I felt like it was really an unexpected and interesting dynamic, but whenever I read AV Club recaps it was all straight dudes being like “they’re just being sensational, this is ridiculous.” I actually never read it as sensational, it felt totally realistic to me and was one of my favorite storylines until we got to Vee thinking maybe she didn’t like girls, she just liked being bossed around.
Riese: What did you think of the Vee/Svetlana/Kevin story?
Valerie: I liked that it wasn’t a once-for-fun thing, it developed into a pretty legitimate throuple situation for a while there, they had a real family dynamic, however unique. I agree it wasn’t sensationalized; at least, no more than anything else on this show is. Shameless does everything in extremes, so this fit right in. It wasn’t any more or less sensational than anything else, and it never changed Kevin and Vee’s dynamic with each other at its core, which I loved. And Kevin (Steve Howey) continues to surprise and delight me.
Riese: I really like Kevin. He’s such a softie! I love it when strong attractive men are represented as super emotional and sensitive and I love that Vee is 100% in charge of their relationship. I often struggle with throuples on TV — and honestly, many moons ago, in my own personal life — because I’m like “this man does not deserve to have TWO GIRLFRIENDS!!!” For example, You Me Her. But I was like, okay sure Kevin, you can have two girlfriends. So, let’s switch gears and talk about Debbie. When it looked like Debbie was going to discover lesbianism this year, you were not thrilled. Why not?
Valerie: I find Debbie impossibly annoying, which maybe is largely the point of her. She always takes things Too Far and is Too Much and frankly if one of the Gallagher girls was going to be queer I was really banking on Fiona. (I blame Nessa for getting my hopes up on this one.) I didn’t think she was going to take it seriously, I thought it was just going to be another way for her to be annoying. And in some ways I was right, but I will say the idea has been growing on me. And I also strongly believe that statistically it was likely that at least one other Gallagher was queer, as someone with a lot of queer cousins on one side of my family.
Riese: I never liked Debbie either! At least not adult Debbie. Pretty much from the pregnancy forward I was over it. I barely remember young Debbie. But if there’s anything that can redeem a character for me, it’s lesbianism and welding! Alex (Ashley Romans ) was SO HOT and I was pretty stoked for that, but the “lesbians process their feelings too much” trope — which is rooted in some truth — felt overplayed here. It was one of a few lesbian situations on this show that would’ve been a cute sideplot on The L Word, but felt a bit frustrating in a show otherwise about straight people. Do you think tropes like that can work in a show like this?
Valerie: I think the stuff with Alex was overplayed just a little. Which again, is KIND OF this show’s whole thing? Like on one hand, I know there really are lesbians/queer folks in real life who fell just as hard just as fast and wanted to move in with their first girlfriend after a week, etc, but on the other hand, the whole situation seemed to lack the nuance a lot of the other plotlines in this show tend to have.
Riese: The episode where they were in the diner all day talking about Alex’s breakups, I felt… embarrassed to be gay? Like if Debbie was someone I knew in real life and that was how her first lesbian relationship played out, I would’ve been like I PROMISE THAT’S NOT HOW WE REALLY ARE GIVE US ANOTHER CHANCE. The fact that Debbie’s exploration of women didn’t end there is the only thing that came close to redeeming that for me.
Valerie: I started to turn the corner when it came to Kelly (Jess Gabor) because I think THAT is more realistic to how queer girls first start to really come into their queerness, when the line between intense female friendship platonic feelings and Big Gay Feelings starts to blur.
Riese: Yes, totally! My experience was more like Debbie’s with Alex than it was with Kelly, but I think the latter felt very authentic to me except for the part where Kelly turns out to not be queer because COME ON but okay fine. The finale scene where Debbie yells at Kelly in the street and drops that bit about her “dyke truck” made me tear up. My feelings about Debbie did a complete 180 in that moment. She’s so rarely vulnerable and angry in a way that isn’t also stupid and aggressive — not unlike her younger brother and father — but she really just vulnerable and angry here.
Valerie: YES. That moment in the finale was so perfect and so Gallagher, the way she was like “listen I’m hurt but I’m more angry that you hurt my brother.” It showed how much she learned from Fiona raising her, I think, even though she often tries to rebel against that part of her. I agree, in that one moment I was like, “Oh. So there’s Debbie, eh?” And I finally, finally didn’t hate her.
Riese: So then there’s Monica (Chloe Webb), for whom a girlfriend was sort of portrayed as part of her overall mental instability — not a first for Shameless. But as far as I can recall, she was the first major character to be a queer woman.
Riese: This is always tricky for me — it does seem like sexual experimentation for women is often portrayed as part of a mental breakdown or bender or wild phase or something, but also, that’s sort of like complaining that the queer women in American Horror Story end up dead… the topic of the show is essentially “killing people.” However, gay male sexuality seems to be taken a bit more seriously on Shameless. (Although not quite as much during Frank’s brief romance with an LGBT rights movement.) How would you compare the treatment of gay characters to lesbian & bisexual characters?
Valerie: Yeah the AHS comparison is a good one, but at the same time it felt like, for a long time, Shameless was toying with that unwritten Highlander rule (“there can only be one”) re: gay main characters on a show. If you have gay men, you can’t have gay women, and vice versa. But that did all change with Vee and Svetlana – because while it still did start as a sexual experimentation thing for Vee, I do think it developed into something, albeit something somewhat dysfunctional, more along the lines of Ian and his boyfriends. But also, in the end, Vee walked away from any kind of queer label and decided she was only into Svetlana for the sexual power dynamic, which I thought was a bummer of a conclusion.
Riese: I think that this is why I have sort of disregarded it, like I did with that episode of Buffy (you know the one), because it was just so… ugh. It was so ugh! Shameless does that a lot. They build up a huge story and then throw it away in a few lines. (The L Word does that too.) I didn’t like or buy that conclusion. V was into Svetlana, not just domination.
Valerie: Right. I’m not sure why it couldn’t have been both. “Oh I’m bisexual AND into power play, look at all the things I learned about myself in this relationship!”
Riese: Totally! Okay so… obviously, Fiona’s had a lot of opportunities to switch teams — there was Jasmine (Amy Smart), the former classmate of Fiona’s and current party girl going through a divorce who kissed Fiona when they were drunk and clearly had interest in her. Then there was Angela (Dichen Lachman), who was tracking down Fiona on Jimmy’s behalf and also crushed on Fiona. It seems like Fiona’s had a bad time of it with men so of course for that reason I think she should try girls, but I’ve never really WANTED her to be a lesbian. But I think you have! Talk to me about that.
Valerie: I wanted Fiona to be bisexual SO BADLY. For all the reasons you listed! The fact that there were SO MANY MISSED OPPORTUNITIES, but also because like Fiona, I was tired of men treating her like garbage just because she’s brassy and gets shit done and has a lot on her plate so she can’t dedicate her life to one person. (I mean brassy as a compliment, for the record.) Also I think I’m biased because I’ve been low-key (and then eventually high-key) in love with Emmy Rossum since I saw the Phantom of the Opera movie. Also, I thought at least Nessa was into Fiona?? And they were going to explore that??? Even if Fiona ended up concluding she was straight???? DID I IMAGINE THIS?!?!?!?
Riese: Right! We were kinda stoked for Nessa and Mel, the lesbian couple in Fiona’s building, but… where did that really ever go?
Valerie: I WAS HOPING FOR MORE. A LOT MORE. I feel like their friendship ended so abruptly and I’m not even sure what their purpose was except to tease me, to be perfectly honest. I would appreciate it if you had more clarity in this situation since I’ve ALSO been low-key in love with Jessica Szohr since Complications so I was blinded from both sides on this one.
Riese: Okay — so, Ian’s whole “Gay Jesus” thing never landed for me, and I often cringed to see the LGBT youths clinging onto his profoundly bad ideas with wild passions.
Valerie: Yeah at first I was excited, when it was him helping out at the youth center, and I loved Trevor and his whole storyline. And I agree with what you said earlier, that it was treated more gently and thoughtfully than most things on this show. But that one girl who was all up in Ian’s junk and everyone worshipping him was… a lot. It’s not like they live in rural Kansas where he was the first person to come out and lead the way for all the other youths who had previously felt unsafe to come out! They were all already out before he showed up. I dunno, I agree it was overdone and went on far too long. I do like that ultimately it forced Ian to deal with his bipolar disorder more carefully/take it more seriously, and I loved the episodes leading up to him going to jail, but I agree, I felt pretty meh about the whole situation.
Riese: That’s interesting, I actually never thought of it in that context (Chicago vs. Kansas) because I feel like in cities there are SO many homeless LGBTQ youth so that’s what they were speaking to — and many of them have come to cities from less tolerant places to find community. I just felt annoyed that the kids were pushing for him to throw his life away over mistakes made during a manic episode. Trevor, though, seemed to often be framed as our more reasonable entry point into the story, with a more moderate view on this strategy of activism. But the speech Ian gave at his hearing when pleading not guilty by reason of insanity was incredible, and wow it hit me in the heart when he was back in jail with Mickey. That made me happy.
Valerie: Yeah, that felt like some hard-earned joy for Ian.
Riese: In addition to having a lot of lesbian characters, there’ve been a lot of lesbian/bisexual …extras? Like angry lesbians who want Ian to spend his life in jail or angry lesbians sent to rough up conservative assholes outside a polling place on Voting Day. (Full disclosure: I was also very entertained by that scene!) Or The Lisas, who the uptight and upwardly mobile gentrifiers. I’ve actually liked that they’ve accurately rendered LGBTQ people as part of normal city life — that’s surprisingly rare on TV. What’s your take?
Valerie: I just wish there were more…positive random LGBTQ people? Like a couple of lesbians return Liam home when he’s off on his own for a few days? Carl invites some buddies over for a party and two of them happen to be girls who are dating each other? Anything?
Riese: That is a … very good point.
Valerie: Like Nessa and Mel were great and a perfect example of what you said – aside from everything I wanted them to be, they just happened to be a f/f couple in Fiona’s building, which I appreciated. Even though Mel was also an Angry Lesbian. And like, I don’t want to get angry about it and prove them right but also not all lesbians are so angry ALL the time, yaknow?
Riese: So finally — who is your least favorite Shameless queer woman?
Valerie: I guess Karen?? But if we’re counting people we knew were queer, I think Debbie?? Am I a bad person? No wait, Monica. Final answer. Your turn.
Riese: I think I’ll have to pick Monica too. And who is your favorite?
Valerie: I almost said Nessa because, again, BLINDED, but I love V so much overall that it has to be her. You?
Riese: Well, I love V too. But I’d really like Svetlana to throw a glass of vodka at me in a crowded bar, you know? And then marry me? Speaking of great people leaving the show, how do you feel about Emmy Rossum’s departure? Do you think you’ll keep watching?
Valerie: I feel like they should have ended the show!!!!! Aside from Emmy Rossum being such a phenomenal actor that I truly believes elevates and has helped shaped the other Gallagher kids, Fiona Gallagher is the heart of this show even when it’s beating erratically, or just plain broken. I don’t feel great about the way her story wrapped up in the broader sense — that a man swooped in and gave her $100k and now all her problems are solved and her family doesn’t need her anymore so she can fly off into the sunset. She didn’t even say goodbye to Liam!
Riese: Yeah that was really clumsy, rushed writing — I was relieved in some way, because the season felt like it was building to her death, honestly. Rossum’s choice to leave wasn’t made until only two episodes had time to be re-written, which’s some of why it felt so sudden and bizarre, but The AV Club’s review of it was pretty spot on. She didn’t even say goodbye to Liam, for crying out loud!!!
Valerie: That said, I do think the season finale acted well as a series finale and I did enjoy the episode overall, so while I was very on the fence about whether I would keep watching out of long-time loyalty (I still watch Greys, after all…) I think this is a good place to bow out.
Riese: I do feel like they set up in the finale for Debbie to be the new matriarch of the household. I’m kinda hoping she’ll have a steady girlfriend eventually, like played by Clea Duvall? I think that’s the best lesbian scenario I can hope for at this point. What would be your lesbian dream for Shameless?
Valerie: I mean I wish Nessa had come back and swept Fiona off her feet and they moved to, like, Portland together. But in the more realistic sense, if Kelly and Debbie are really an impossibility (like you said earlier… Kelly being straight is kind of a “c’mon!” for me), I also hope Debbie becomes the new lesbian Fiona of the family. (And that people stop saying things about her like “Debbie still thinks she’s gay.) And I’ll just say it now: I will for sure start watching again if Clea Duvall comes on the show.