The Gallagher family asks the audience to question a lot of their own belief and particularly expectations for family structures. Throughout the series, both the family and the audience grapple with issues of narcotic overdoses, juvenile detention sentencing, and marital infidelity. So much so, that a weird combination of these practices would lead to the birth of the youngest Gallagher son – Liam. But is Liam’s character truly valued?
Liam is a healthy, charismatic, young boy; he is kind and thoughtful and often left victim to his genetic attachment to his siblings. The uniqueness of this character lies in an awkward fact — unlike the rest of the Gallaghers, he is Black. And no, not the mulatto-toned, “one-drop rule”, descendent of interracial reproduction that the “traditional” sitcoms so-often celebrate. Liam is, by the language of intra-racial colorization standards, a “dark-skinned” child.
For the majority of the plot his race goes relatively under-written. He becomes the center of much needed comedic relief amidst violent and/or sexually tense scenes. Occasionally there are hints at potential marital infidelity on the part of his mother, Monica, during a drug-cation a few years back, but largely, Blackness is objectified to fill (typically large gaps) in scripts. This goes unnoticed until the 2011 broadcast of “Nana Had an Affair”, where we discover that Frank shares full paternal DNA.
Now I am no expert of biology, but I am fairly well-versed in the art of tokenization in the modern situational comedy. It is no secret that the black body in cinema has only been used in place of tropes much larger than the actor/actress themselves. But what strikes me about this episode is that, in a dramedy so “clearly” devoted to diversifying casts, these writers fall so easily into the trend of tokenizing the black man. What is worse is that following this episode the lineage of Liam’s bloodline is largely forgotten. He is just “the Black kid”.
Truthfully, the presence of a Black child in a predominantly cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, cast should bring some comfort. After all, this is some step forward with diversification. And if we really think about it, the character spends the majority of the show too young to form sentences, so we cannot fully criticize the writing. What disappoints me the most is the failed opportunity to question the false sense of purity that “Whiteness celebrates”. Instead of justifying the existence of a random incidence with a single episode, writers had an opportunity to push real boundaries of Whiteness outside the middle-class, blue-collar sense of comfort. Next time, have people question their sense of impossibility or discomfort with the family, or the realities of lower-middle class household. Next time, push the radical notions you claim to challenge. Next time make the kid a character.
In the first of many examples, “Shameless” displays a missed opportunity for quality plot development under the guise of “diversification. Some might argue that tokenization is slowly fading out of our sitcoms, but until then let us write clear characters rather than convenient cast members.
-Jenn St Sume