Shameless, with all of its faults, remains one of my all-time favorite shows. In part because this shows helps me explore the realities of south-side Chicago; partly because it serves as an open space to explore masculine narratives of queerness; and in part because the lead character is a female empowered by the very things designed to drag her down.
Needless to say it is addicting in its mysterious spontaneity. Every episode brings with it a fresh possibility for new experiences to be lived out on our screens. Season 7 takes on this similar trend in embracing bisexuality, and specifically the relationship between bisexuality and black masculinity.
The study of masculinity explores how gendered norms limit individuals who defy masculine principles. In particular, the masculinity of Black men is characterized as hyper-masculine, animistic, and unintelligent. Of all categories of Masculinity, Black men tend to suffer more from depression, are incarcerated at higher rates, and are statistically among the least educated demographic in the United States.
Individuals who express themselves at the crux of “Black” and “masculine” are often punished for embracing any form of femininity. Typically, Black sitcom characters are limited to “thug” characters that are valued on their ability to dominate, navigate, or evade violent contexts.
Shameless, however, introduces a character that challenges stereotyped notions of black masculinity. In Season 7, Ian meets a South-side firefighter named Caleb. Over the course of a few episodes, the audience watches as a beautiful narrative of two masculine – Black and White – men of differing education, age groups, and world views. It does not take much for the audience to find comfort in Ian’s new romance, but this is all destroyed when it is revealed that Caleb was also sleeping with women and the he identifies as bisexual.
You could almost expect what came next: Ian breaks up with Caleb because he is unable to cope with the trauma of a man defying his version of queerness and masculinity. There are many faults to Caleb’s cheating – the lying, the lack of disclosure, and the comfort in these lies – but Ian sees “woman” before all and chooses to reject the already fragile construction of queerness for black males. They break up and the audience is forced to deal with the heartbreak of television characters. Moreover, the audience is left to deal with the brutality of this form of discrimination in the black and queer communities.
This narrative is seen all too often in the queer community. Though many outside the community do not know, those who identify as bisexual often deal with bi-phobia, or a fear of those who express attraction to people of the same and different genders, often experience similar outcomes. For this, I commend Shameless for providing a space through which audiences can experience and digest the reality of bisexuality in the Black community.
Jenn St Sume