Race and Pop Culture in American Film

 

 

“Dad’s outside passed out in the front yard again” Debbie chided nonchalantly. “Oh my God!” Fiona sighed, “Doesn’t he know that he can just crawl through the doggie door if the door is locked? Fucking alcoholic…”.

The Television Series Shameless is a special one. Traditionally, most Television shows that feature white families follow the American dream mentality.  The family works together and through a series of events, always seem to be progressing towards bigger and better things. High school graduations, College degrees, job opportunities, steady relationships…These are some of the common accomplishments we seen within American Television where a white family is featured. From American film, the white family is known to be a close knit, middle class family with the nice house and the white picket fence. Their struggles that they encounter in each episode seem to be “3rd world problems” or problems that are somewhat ephemeral. The Television Series known as Shameless tears down this common conception. A newer, more devilish and perhaps more realistic picture of the white, urban family is painted.

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Shameless is about a broken family in a poor, urban area in the Southside of Chicago. The shows is a drama as well as a comedy. While the show is littered with graphic violence and sexual promiscuity, these scenes often exist to paint a picture of the grittiness of life in the streets of Chicago. While the Television Series started airing back in 2011, it has since become extremely popular due to the featuring of its first 6 seasons on Netflix. Since the series has become available on Netflix it has quickly become one of the more popularly streamed television shows, and for good reason. This show is different. More than anything we see an unfamiliar family dynamic that is usually not portrayed in the media. The Gallagher is unlike almost any family that has been portrayed in American Television, and that in itself is an accomplishment. But more than being different, Shameless brings to light many of the unspoken situations that many Americans experience, especially in poorer, urban areas. To the modern middle class socialite, Shameless is an escape from the hum drum 9-5 struggle, showing the lives of those whom they probably only make contact with on the bus via nervous eye contact.

 

The Gallagher’s residence stands close to a railroad. The house is a dilapidated shack of sorts in the Southside of Chicago. Surrounded by a torn and tattered chain link fence which encloses a front yard littered with old toys and beer bottles, the scene is for lack of better terms, ghetto. The family is poor. The father is an alcoholic and the mother is a drug addict who is constantly gone from the house. One of the kids sells drugs to make money to pay rent. Let me remind you that this is a white family. In the past, media has been a bit stereotypical in the way that they display families according to their ethnic background.

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White families are often portrayed as being wealthier, and black families are often portrayed as being poor. Shameless goes against this narrative. Throughout the series, the audience is brought into every corner of the Gallagher household. Within the Gallagher house, each family member has different struggles that they face throughout the show. Many of these struggles go back to the fact that the Gallaghers are strapped for cash. Ian Gallagher becomes a stripper at a gay night club, Carl deals dope at the age of 14, Frank tries to collect government checks by staging injuries, and Fiona really just tries to find any honest way to make a dollar or two while acting as the matriarch of the bustling Gallagher household.

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In media studies, there has always been the discourse between whether the media affects the culture, or the culture affects the media. In the scope of income across different demographics, this is an interesting topic. As has been said before, black families in the media have more often been shown as financially unstable in comparison to white families. Is this because there is a higher percentage of financially strapped black families within the black community? Is this a true statistic? Or is this simply a narrative that is encouraged through the media. If it is, Shameless definitely goes against the flow of stereotypical portrayals of white families, as well as black families.

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The neighborhood that the Gallaghers live in is quite poor, as well as urban. Stereotypically, the media usually shows minorities of color in poor, urban areas. In Shameless we see that a huge majorities of the people within the Gallaghers neighborhood are actually white. In this case, we see an example of the intersectionality of race, income, and culture which effects the Gallaghers.

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Another subtle yet powerful idea that Shameless brings up is the role that heritage plays in the generational financial struggles that effect families across different demographics. Specifically, for the Gallaghers, Frank Gallagher, who is the father of the whole Gallagher family, brings up brief memories and anecdotes from his childhood. Many of these memories include physical abuse from his father, alcoholism at a young age, and rampant sexual deviancy. Much of the time he ties this back to his Irish heritage. In my mind, this is an example of using racial culture to influence one’s behavior. We have all heard stereotypes about Irish people being thrown around. They are commonly associated with wild, brash behavior, alcoholism, and a religious affinity for having large amounts of children due to their Catholic background. While Frank Gallagher definitely lines up with this list of stereotypes, we see some of the negative outcomes this has for him, and for other in the show. From my experience, there are many movies and television shows that center around the idea of showing the strife and struggles that societally affect a black man in a black community. Shameless seems to take a different scope, focusing on the various societal struggles that poor white communities face, especially in urban areas.

Method

Within Shameless, I am interested in looking at the different ways in which sexuality, gender, race, and class are portrayed. More specifically, I am interested in looking at ways in which Shameless goes against the normative views that many of us often see portrayed in American Television in terms of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

 

Positionally

I am David Gapp. I am a 22 year old, heterosexual male studying Journalism at the University of Minnesota. I was born and raised in Minnesota and have lived in Minnesota my whole life. I grew up in a southern suburb of Minneapolis called Burnsville. While growing up in Burnsville, I attended Trinity School at River Ridge. At Trinity I was taught in a classical curriculum setting. Philosophy, the humanities, and the study of the Latin language were a few of the regimens I experienced during high school that changed the way that I thought. While I can say that the studying was difficult, it was good for me and it expanded my perspective.

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As a student in Journalism, perspective is an especially important aspect of communication. Not only writing from different perspectives, but also taking others experiences into account when I am gaining information is part of what makes a Journalist a professional. As a student in Journalism, I take pride in trying to understand people from all demographics and backgrounds, no matter how different they may be from mine. I understand that much of who I am today comes down to where I was raised, who raised me, when I was raised, what I was taught, and why I was taught certain things. Us humans are so malleable in the way that we form who we are and it is often easy for us to forget that. It is especially important to keep this in mind when we encounter others who have experiences and thus ideas that are different from our own.

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I chose the television show Shameless for a variety of reasons. First of all, the direct narrative of the story is exceptionally interesting. Essentially a family is trying to function while the parents of the family are simply biological and have little to no responsibilities involving the wellbeing of their offspring. Secondly while watching the Television show myself, I realized just how non-stereotypical the portrayals of a wide variety of characters across different demographics actually were. When I find a media outlet that puts out original content that is interesting and well put together, I will become an audience member. Shameless is no exception to this. Finally, the amount of potential conversations involving the intersectionality or race, gender, sex, and class in this show are enormous.

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