Media since antiquity has used disability quite sparingly, almost always relegating the character to a stereotypical trope. It wasn’t until the 20th century that “a growing awareness took place in American society of the ethical problems presented by shunting aside a considerable segment of the population as unworthy of attention or consideration.” (Nelson). Since that revelation it has been explored from many perspectives and portrayed in all genres. Just about a week ago I wrapped up binge watching 6 seasons of the TV show Shameless on Netflix. I thought what better use of that time then to use it as something constructive and channel it into an essay. I watched the American version of the originally British series, which airs on Showtime. The series is quite unconventional and irreverent, pushing the boundaries and providing social commentary that would be off-limits for most mainstream channels. The show isn’t necessarily focused on disability, but quite a few storylines intersect with both physical and mental disability.
This show conveys a very realistic portrayal of how bipolar disorder affects family. Right at the start of the show the Gallagher family noticeably lacks parental figures. This is due to Monika running away years prior to the pilot, leaving the family during a mental breakdown. This affects the kids of various ages in different ways, those who spent more time with the Monika felt worse about her absence. In particular the eldest children and their father Frank, who descends into alcoholism, were hit the hardest. It was jarring to see the kids have to learn to survive on their own, and the burden of parenting that was shifted onto the eldest daughter, Fiona. Although the situation isn’t that far fetched, using mental illness as an excuse to throw the family into dire straits gives those afflicted with the disorder a bad rap.
Eventually, Monika comes into the picture sporadically and allows the viewer to analyze the character’s portrayal of mental illness. There is a stark juxtaposition between the characters in manic and depressive states throughout the show, illustrating the lifelong struggle those with bipolar disorder contend with. Monika can go from being the life of the party to sleeping for days in the span of an episode or 2. It shows how the family reacts to the disorder, when she is manic they are relieved but have the looming thought of what will happen when she inevitably becomes depressed again. In later seasons it is hinted at and then revealed that one of the Gallagher teens, Ian, also has bipolar disorder. It was very smart of the writers to include the dynamic of how bipolar disorder can be passed down through generations. It adds a touch of reality in a super over the top show that one of the children of the large family would end up getting it. Also, since Ian is a main character the disorder was depicted in other ways not explored during Monika’s brief appearances. This includes how the disorder affects sex and how the medication alters Ian’s perception. The show would utilize point of view from Ian, revealing the sedated and “dulled” effects the meds have on Ian’s vision and hearing. This provides clarity as to why he dislikes the medications and why he would avoid taking it. One time he ended up in the psych ward as a result of his actions off his meds in a manic state. Shameless provides social commentary when later in the show he gets fired from his job as an EMT when it is discovered he had been institutionalized for his disorder, illustrating how hard it is for those with mental illness to integrate into society due to bureaucratic barriers.
Physical disability is also depicted in Shameless. Yonis, a supporting character, becomes paralyzed following a motorcycle accident and it transforms him into a pitiable and belligerent character. He was so uninspired that the writers must’ve not seen any use for him anymore as they burned him to death the episode after he gets paralyzed. It is sad that they choose to take that route with what could’ve been a very interesting character.
As humans there are certain defining characteristics that can identify you as a person. Somebody can’t just run you over with a car and make you change races. However, that accident might result in you losing your ability to think. This is precisely what occurred to Karen Jackson in Shameless, when Mandy Milkovich ran her over with her car. Karen suffered frontal lobe damage and as a result could not form new memories. This fundamental change in identity that can occur so easily is scary, and makes disability a fascinating and dynamic topic. Unfortunately, this show often uses ableism when characters, like Karen, become disabled. Ableism is the belief that disability is something that could, and should, be overcome (Hehir). When Karen becomes disabled she is pretty one-dimensional and is sent away to a healing center and not heard from again. Even though there is virtually no way to heal from traumatic brain damage, the Jackson family still goes to the lengths of sending her across the country to heal her.
A recent study of thousands of television and film depictions, however, found that the portrayals of people with intellectual disabilities (ID) were predominantly discouraging and inaccurate; most characters were still being depicted as one-dimensional, uncomplicated, piteous victims (Dolski). I agree with this as oftentimes, I feel like they used disability as an excuse to kill off or send away characters. This is really a shame as I think taking care of Karen would’ve been an interesting plot point to explore.
Where Shameless excels in depicting mental illness, it falls short in how they depict physical disability. Unfortunately, the same care was not taken in crafting characters with physical disability and they often felt undeveloped and marginalized within the show. If Shameless had done a better job in this respect they would’ve really run the gambit with disability. Nevertheless, Shameless explores a lot of things that other shows wouldn’t touch, and for that I think it deserves some respect in how they portrayed disability.
Rating: 2.75 / 5 Stars (For lackluster portrayal of physical disability)
By Patrick Bicking, a Sophomore at The Ohio State University majoring in Finance