It’s been a while since I last watched an episode of Shameless. The show premiered in 2011, but I didn’t start watching until 2013. I binged the first two seasons, fell head-over-heels in love with Fiona Gallagher and her brood of siblings and praised the series at every turn for its portrayal of working-class people trying to get by.
There are few subjects Shameless doesn’t cover. It deals with sex, drugs, abandonment, alcoholism, racism, mixed families, sexuality and mental health. And to be frank, it deals with these issues in such a nuanced way that blew me away in every episode I watched. The show is addictive, but it can also painful to watch.
I didn’t stop watching Shameless because it was poorly written or uninteresting. I stopped watching because it was too hard to get through a certain plot.
Watching Ian struggle with mental illness hit me hard
As Ian Gallagher (Cameron Monaghan) began to deal more heavily with his bipolar disorder, I got nervous. Although I don’t have bipolar disorder, I have family members who do. The mood disorder’s portrayal in media is often pretty negative. Likewise, treatment for bipolar is treated as something bad or that makes people weak. Positive representation is rare but incredibly important.
I cringed initially at Ian’s hypersexualization as a young gay man. Much of the plot concerning his sexuality had already been mired in stereotypes that seemed harmful to casual viewers. I raged at his family members and his boyfriend for being so aggressive about pushing Ian into treatment that he didn’t seem ready to receive; beyond that, I took issue with the characters so readily comparing him to his mother, Monica, who’d been repeatedly framed as a horrible mother and a bad person.
At the time, it felt like Shameless was focusing too much on how Ian’s family reacted to his increasingly erratic behavior, rather than Ian himself. It felt like his agency had been taken away, and the idea of that was distressing. Nervous about what that might mean for the future of his character (and the show), I bailed.
Now, I’m wondering if I was too quick to judge.
Shameless‘ portrayal of mental illness is necessary and good
After I stopped watching, I kept tabs on Shameless via the internet (mainly through friends who talk about the show on Tumblr and Twitter). It’s been literal years since I last watched the show, but recent discussion surrounding its portrayal of Ian’s bipolar disorder has me wanting to watch again. I just don’t know if I’m ready.
Shameless has been repeatedly praised for its honest portrayal of Ian’s bipolar disorder. It apparently explores his symptoms both on and off medication, portrays him advocating for himself in the workplace and working against systemic discrimination against people with mental illness, and digs deep into his relationship with himself and with his loved ones as he learns to navigate what his diagnosis means.
That’s light-years ahead of where I thought Shameless was headed when Ian’s manic behavior first became a focal point. I can’t help but wonder what else I’m missing out on by no longer watching the show.
We need more media that explores the nuances of mental illness
For people who live with bipolar every day, characters like Ian Gallagher are incredibly important. Conversations about mental health are too often focused on how “bad” people living with mental illness are. Show me a headline about a mass shooting, and I’ll show you five more about how the perpetrator is mentally ill. Hell, even the president has been “diagnosed” with mental illness as a means of explaining his repeatedly abhorrent behavior.
When we focus solely on how mental illness is damaging, we lose a very important thread: People with mental illness are people, and we deserve to be treated as such. Shameless is telling an important story.
I won’t be watching this season, but that doesn’t mean I won’t eventually catch up. The best art is the kind that pushes boundaries and takes us out of our comfort zones, but sometimes, ingesting that is just plain hard.