What does – and what should — the coming out process look like on TV?
Is it a requirement to depict tearful handwringing? Do characters have to put on misery pageants to court audience acceptance? And, if they perform their agony convincingly enough, then can they win a golden ticket to complex stories and true humanity?
Luckily, more television programs are realizing that harrowing coming out plotlines don’t have to be the apex of LGBTQ characters’ usefulness. But the shows that give coming out a casual, “no big deal” treatment don’t necessarily mirror all viewers’ experiences, either. They fail to acknowledge complicating factors in the lives of many LGBTQ people: factors that make lying low until “it gets better” seem downright impossible.
Showtime’s Shameless has confronted this omission head-on, leading audiences through a winding, protracted, and ultimately triumphant coming out story from one of the most subversive queer characters on television.
Inspired by the long-running British series of the same name, comedy-drama Shameless is a rare beast for American TV in terms of tone and content. At the show’s center is the Gallagher family, feebly helmed by alcoholic patriarch Frank (William H. Macy), living a hand-to-mouth existence on the South Side of Chicago. Shameless doesn’t pull punches when it comes to examining the far-reaching effects of multi-generational poverty, addiction, and mental illness. It also avoids condescension and pity. Shameless traffics heavily in gray areas with its deeply flawed, but usually not all-good or all-bad, characters. And whenever viewers are tempted to moralize, difficult truths emerge to muddy the waters.
Mickey Milkovich (rivetingly played by Noel Fisher) first made his mark in an unexpected Season 1 sexual encounter with teenage Gallagher son Ian (Cameron Monaghan). Ian, established as gay early in the series, receives tacit support from the handful of family members and friends to whom he comes out. Mickey, by contrast, is a profoundly closeted neighborhood thug: a belligerent, grubby kid with the words “FUCK U-UP” tattooed on his knuckles … who also happens to be an exuberant bottom. However, instead of writing off this hook-up as another one-time moment of comedic outrageousness, Shameless has made Mickey’s arc a surprisingly sensitive one, examining the impact of poverty and family violence on the character’s life.
Mickey has been raised in a household ruled by terror. The Milkovich brood is overseen by tyrannical father Terry, who is often out of sight (thanks to frequent incarceration), but never far out of mind. Mickey’s appearance is disheveled: at times visibly dirty. His speech is littered with wisecracks and put-downs. He’s cagey and mean and picks fights. All of these at-once repugnant qualities are undercut by viewers’ slow, sobering realization: This is how an abused child survives. Because, as we discover in both subtle clues and scenes of explicit brutality, Terry’s hairpin trigger rage is calibrated to fire at any mention of homosexuality.
It’s clear that Mickey’s sexuality is a liability in his home and neighborhood. He is too scared to even identify his feelings, routinely physically attacking anyone who labels him “gay”. He is unable to act on emotional connections with men, bristling at signs of affection from Ian. (“Kiss me and I’ll cut your fucking tongue out,” he tells Ian in Season 1. And, in Season 2: “You’re nothing but a warm mouth to me”). Mickey’s internalized homophobia is especially writ large in the scenes where he lashes out against other gay men. This season’s “The Legend of Bonnie and Carl” depicts Mickey robbing a married man, and threatening to expose the man’s same-sex attractions. “His fault for living a lie,” Mickey shrugs.
If viewers are tempted to question whether Mickey’s deep self-loathing and sense of dread are baseless, his father’s actions quickly dispel this notion. A critical moment for our understanding of Mickey’s fear comes in the middle of Season 3, when Terry catches Mickey and Ian having sex in the Milkovich family home. Terry savagely beats and pistol-whips his son, then enlists a female prostitute to “fuck the faggot outta [Mickey]” at gunpoint – forcing Ian to watch. It is corrective rape by proxy: plain and simple. And it’s a challenge to the audience’s sentimentality. What heroics are we demanding from Mickey? Should he sacrifice his life for the sake of ‘honesty’? For the sake of love?
This is weighty stuff. But it isn’t all that makes Mickey Milkovich a remarkable character. Shameless’ biggest coup with his storyline has been, in fact, showing us Mickey’s “survival-in-spite-of”: in spite of abuse; in spite of sexual assault; in spite of his lack of healthy relationship models; in spite of growing up in a family where he has only heard people like him spoken of with mockery and hatred. For all the character’s faults, it’s undeniable that he has accomplished something significant just by staying alive in the face of cruel circumstance.
Mickey’s struggle to survive reached a crescendo in the show’s March 30 episode. Painted into a corner by the convergence of typically Shameless-operatic circumstances, Mickey announced, before a crowd of drunken bar patrons and his recently-paroled father, “I’m fuckin’ gay.”
A melee ensued, of course. When the dust settled, it was clear that Mickey had finally freed himself from his father’s stranglehold, illuminating possibilities for the character that he hadn’t previously even allowed himself to imagine. (In this week’s season finale, for example, we got to see a freshly unguarded Mickey looking more comfortable in his newfound self-actualization as he rallied intervention for Ian’s incipient bipolar disorder). And what’s more? The moment underscored the courage Mickey –- chided as a “pussy” by other characters – has had through the entire series.
This, all of this, is what coming out looks like.
In tiny increments since his first encounter with Ian, and at clear risk to his own safety, Mickey has pushed himself further and further past his fear.
We are reminded of the time Mickey, returning from a stint in juvenile detention, greeted Ian with a deceptively terse, “Missed ya.”
Of Mickey and Ian’s first kiss, hurried and nervous, long after they began meeting for sex.
Of the futile, single-word plea – “Don’t” – when Ian told him he was enlisting in the Army.
Of Mickey’s hesitant response to a stranger who asked, of his relationship with Ian, “Did you guys just meet last night, or are you together?”
Finally, after a pause: “Together.”
This, all of this, is what coming out looks like. And this is what Mickey Milkovich’s relevance truly hinges on: not only an acknowledgment of the suffering and self-denial that is still a reality in the lives of many LGBTQ people; but the validation that coming out is not irrelevant or passé or an all-or-nothing game. No matter how small and unwhole these acts of disclosure may seem, they are still brave.