Shameless Sexualities: The Incompleteness Of Queer Acceptance As Depicted In A Popular Television Show

Faculty Publications
Abigail Reiter
Abigail Reiter, Ph.D.
  •  Abigail Reiter, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke
  • Tyler Flockhart, Viterbo University


On the pilot of Shameless, in 2011, one of the primary characters, Phillip (“Lip”) Gallagher, finds a magazine full of naked men behind his brother, Ian’s, dresser. What follows is a brief period of resistance from Lip, who is not ready to accept that his brother is gay. By the end of the episode, however, Lip has accepted his brother’s sexuality. The rest of the family follows suit. In fact, Ian’s sexuality is portrayed as a non-issue with his siblings and most every other character in the Shameless universe.

This does not mean, however, that representations of gayness in Shameless, nor being a gay character in the show, is without issue. Representations of queer1 people in popular television and film often align with what sexualities scholars refer to as a “post-gay” narrative (see Coleman-Fountain 2014; Russell et al. 2009). Here, social, political, and legal advances over the last decade are used as evidence that homophobia is a thing of the past, and that the United States has achieved what Gay Liberationists set out to accomplish decades earlier: equality. Television shows are rife with such examples. Here, queer television characters are fully integrated into their workplace, families, and schools, with little—aside from the occasional homophobic bully—conflict. The post-gay narrative obscures an important dimension of contemporary queer politics: acceptance is often conditional, situational, and contingent on race, class, and gender privilege (Fields 2001; Martin et al. 2009; Meyer 2015).

Acceptance is also tied to an ability to be a “good gay citizen” who lives a middle-class lifestyle, is gender normative, and is non-threatening to heterosexuality (Duggan 2002; Richardson 2005). To this end, the progress of queer people in the contemporary United States is “incomplete” as their acceptance is tied to gender normativity, a commitment to marriage, and disdain for that which makes queer people stand apart from heterosexuals (Fetner 2016; Seidman 2002). To date, sexualities researchers have considered evidence of this “incompleteness” in the lives of LGBs and their parents. Fields (2001) provides an example of the latter. She suggests that parents “accept” their lesbian, gay, and bisexual children to the extent that they are gender normative and committed to heteronormative ritual (e.g., marriage). Queer people, by contrast, often feel the need to do identity work (Orne 2011, 2013) and emotion work 1 In this paper we use “queer” as an umbrella term to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. (Flockhart 2019) to preserve relationships with family. There has been less research on the ways incompleteness is present in popular media. In this chapter we argue that the television show Shameless reflects and reinforces the incompleteness of contemporary LGBTQ+ Acceptance.