WCP: Who is Shameless This Election Season? One TV Show’s Challenging Depiction of the Working Poor

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This election season has brought a renewed focus on the white working class that has manifested in books that engage this typically neglected demographic. This week, Georgetown professor Pamela Fox explores a TV show that offers equally rich and entertaining insights about the lives and culture of the working poor. In doing so, Shameless unravels some of the harshest stereotypes that pundits rely on to explain the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican Party.

At the same time, the Gallaghers frequently take on mind-numbing, demeaning, and occasionally dangerous paid work when they can get it (or stand it): removing toxic waste; working construction; operating an unlicensed daycare center in their home; waitressing; erotic dancing (Ian, at a gay club); selling office supplies; bartending. Lip, somewhat in denial about his Ivy League-level IQ, takes a highly checkered path to college but does eventually work as a TA at the University of Chicago. Daddy Frank, however, also trains his children to engage in illegal money-making schemes such as stealing and selling drugs, falsely claiming disability benefits, cheating on welfare claims… the list is breathtaking. (Last season, he panhandled on the streets by claiming that his half-Black step-son, Liam, was an “African orphan.”) Yet only Carl serves as Frank’s true protégé.

The others mostly express disgust about his unparalleled narcissism and exploits. They bemoan their “Gallagher genes” as much as they tout the “Gallagher way.” Frank has some of the cleverest lines, but the joke is usually on him. Fiona, particularly, keeps trying to create a stable home through conventional means and eventually throws her father out. Even within this single family unit, divisions splinter any tidy portrait of “the” urban poor. The Milkoviches down the street serve as the bleakest version of that demographic, complete with a brutally violent, sexually abusive father. Their situation never gets played for laughs; if anything, it demarcates a line that should never be crossed in this neighborhood’s value system. Even within these few South Side blocks, then, class identity across family and community appears fragile, rather than cohesive.

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The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-16 academic year, John Russo, and Georgetown University English professor, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors.