By Andrew D. Thrasher
Shameless. Such an apt title. Running eleven seasons spanning over ten years, Shameless has captured aptly the habitus of American poverty. It is marked by systemic poverty and the struggle to survive. It is marked by manipulation of the system, the brokenness of love, and the habitual dispositions of sin. Shameless captures the habitus of sin in enlightening ways. It highlights, through vulgar and cringe-worthy moments, ways of living that reflect the shamefulness of sin as it follows the life of the Gallagher family. It is precisely in the cringe that we see the shamefulness of shamelessness. It is in the cringe that we can observe how sin functions in the habitus of fallen love and systemic poverty. And yet, we also see this shame and sin in the absence of God and the irrelevance of religion. So, what can Shameless tell us about religion? How can it teach us something about something Christian without any real reference to God? It is in the absence of God that we find something religious in Shameless.
Systemic Poverty and Shameless
Pierre Bourdieu has articulated that habitus is a set of dispositions that shape and are shaped by practices. Bourdieu’s theory of practice grounds belief in the habitual dispositions and practices that implicitly articulate something religious insofar as it organizes our ways of life. This habitus is not only about social organization and about how our dispositions shape the possibilities of our social circles. It is not only sociological but also cultural and economic. Hence, the economic and social field in which Shameless functions is in urban white trash. The Gallagher’s represent a certain economic capital and social field that shapes the conditions of their lives. Their lives are marked by systemic conditions geared towards their oppression.
A common thread throughout Shameless is not merely the challenges of poverty. It is also marked by tactics of subverting the rich. Michel de Certeau articulates that tactics work alongside and against the strategies of modernity. If the strategies of the rich are geared towards ripping off the poor, gentrification of neighborhoods, and building economic wealth, the tactics of poverty seek to become like the rich. But the tactics of poverty are both challenged by the systemic structures that keep them from becoming the rich, and are marked by a certain dis-advantage. And it is in this dis-advantage that they take advantage. They manipulate the system to their advantage in ways that benefit the impoverished.
Frank Gallagher is a notable image of this manipulation of the system. Frank is disgraceful. He is a drunkard who manipulates others and the system for his own benefit. He is a weasel and rangy dog. His bark is wimpy, and yet he has a charisma and great ability to manipulate others. Take for instance his speaking up for the Gay community and becoming a spokesman for them. Shortly after he is given great luxury, he plays both sides, and falls back into poverty. But not before he alienated himself and invoked their hatred. In Season Seven, Frank manages to found a homeless shelter and frequently jips others of money and makes a buck—taking advantage not only of the system and philanthropists, but also of the other homeless in his house. When Debbie becomes pregnant, Frank takes her to fill out paperwork for free money. Knowing the system, Frank initiates each of his children into the ways of scum—the Gallagher way. But how Frank represents what it means to be a Gallagher is not the same way as the other Gallaghers. It is with Fiona and Lip that we can begin to see not the manipulation of the system, but the fallen habitus of love.
The Fallen Habitus of Love
If we look at the love life of Fiona and Lip, we can find certain enlightening characteristics of the dispositions of fallen love. Fiona’s long standing love affair with Jimmy-Steve serves to highlight both the passion of love and lust and the recognition of the need for growth. Fiona’s love life is marked by her belief that she is not worthy of a good man. It is in relationships with the broken that Fiona finds more passionate love. In Season Four, Jimmy-Steve disappears and Fiona starts to date Mike. Upon meeting his brother, she quickly falls into her habitual patterns for danger and charged intimacy. While Season Four was a whirlwind of emotions, Fiona came out of it knowing more of herself—and yet her patterns and dispositions are still present. Shortly after marrying Gus, Jimmy-Steve returns and their passion is quickly consummated. Taking it further, in Fiona’s ghosting Gus for Sean we see patterns of fallen love. Fiona’s pattern of fallen love is marked by passion, lust, and brokenness. And she is trapped within it. She believes she does not deserve better, and sure enough, her patterns lead her to destroy existing relationships. If the biblical image of restoration is marked by peace, self-sacrifice, reconciliation, and flourishing, we see glimpses of this throughout the show. But we also see the trap of bondage her patterns of love tie her to—self destructive passion. No matter how much Fiona tries to defy and stand above Frank and Monica (her mother), she is certainly a Gallagher.
Likewise, Lip’s love-life signifies fallen love but in different ways. Lip is certainly a lady’s man, and attracts women like flies to light. But his relationships are damaged by his loves. Between the first season to the sixth, Lip develops an intimate love for Karen and Helene. And both of these relationships are destroyed. Karen was a jealous psychopath and nymphomaniac. Helene was a professional academic who slept with her students, searching after the angst she desires in young men. Lip fell for both Karen and Helene in deep and damaging ways. Karen’s brain damage, and Helene’s disgrace ended both relationships—both times by women who had fallen in love with Lip, and whom Lip only saw as women to have fun with. Lip’s fallen love is marked by the dual poles of unattachment and overattachment. Who loves Lip, Lip does not love and merely desires the physical enjoyment of their bodies. Who Lip loves are marred by fallen loves themselves. Both are nymphomaniacs. One hated her Father and the other hated her husband. Their loves are marked by broken relationships with men who ideally are supposed to love and support them. And yet, their sexual escapades with Lip highlight what Lip falls for. Lip falls for, like his sister, brokenness.
The habitus of the Gallaghers’ love is marked by a certain brokenness. They are attracted to danger and are ruled by their passions. There is little self-control, and there is the trap of desire for brokenness precisely because they believe they are unlovable, especially for Fiona. If Lip’s loves broke his ability to love, it set a pattern and disposition to love broken women. If Fiona’s loves are passionate, these passions often destroy relationships with good men. The Gallagher’s dispositions of fallen love mark a certain element of sin, but to call it sin would seemingly be a misnomer. And yet it is deeply marred by the patterns of sin.
The Habitus of Sin
Sin in Christianity is often seen as doing something that does not honor God. While this is accurate, it is not the whole story. Sin leads to death, brokenness, and further bondage to sin. Sin is intimately relational, and as we saw with the fallen habitus of love in Fiona and Lip’s love-lives, it is marked by certain patterns that both trap us and damage us. Sin is a condition of patterns and dispositions to and by which we are bound and trapped. Because of this bondage to sin, we will continue to sin and fall deeper and deeper into the patterns and traps that tie us down. Sin is a mire that we sink deeper and deeper into because the more we continue the patterns of sin, the more we become entrenched within them, unable to escape them. These patterns damage our relationships, make it hard to love in healthy ways, and they warp our minds into believing we are doing something that will help us. The patterns of sin become habits that bind us and damage us further and further. But how can we escape these patterns of sin?
One of the most striking things within Shameless is Fiona’s growing awareness of her own identity and purpose in life. For much of the early seasons, Fiona takes upon herself the care of her siblings in the absence of a drunken father and the abandonment of a bipolar mother. Fiona’s identity is that of a helper and caretaker, holding the family together against striking odds that seek to tear the family apart. Even when she begins to let her siblings go their own ways, she works in the background to push them to be self-sufficient without her as she discovers a purpose and seeks to build wealth out of her poverty. Fiona’s love life is also marked by growth. When Jimmy-Steve returns, she tells him that he is not conducive to her growth and future. To say no to her long-term fling and lover is a striking sign of true awareness and growth. Further, in the sleazy actions of Frank on the day of Fiona’s wedding to Sean, she makes a decision not to marry a liar and drug addict. Her commitment to others had been torn apart too many times for her to trust and love in healthy ways, leading her to tinder.
Fiona’s bondage to sin and fallen love is something that highlights the complexity of the human heart. The human heart desires intentional love and commitment from those we bond with. But Fiona’s heart has been broken so many times that her heart is marred by the patterns of sin. And yet, there are glimpses of what she does not want to be. She comes to these in her awareness of her failures, of who she is, and strives to grow from her experiences. But the patterns of sin still bind her. The human escape through sex, drugs, and money are only fleeting gods. They do not sustain the human heart. Drugs lead down a spiral of self-destruction. Sex with no emotional intimacy leads to a damaged heart and overattachment when there is intimacy. Money helps us survive and better our lives, but it does not sustain our hearts. Money does not change the patterns of sin. It only makes more things available to us for us to sin in new ways.
The Absence of God and Irrelevance of Religion
If we talk of Shameless as a show that depicts religion, we would be sadly disappointed. What we see of religion in Shameless is a crutch to help with grieving, the fallenness and hypocrisy of American Christianity, the sexual abuse of the catholic faith, and authentic expressions portraying the irrelevance of religion to everyday life. But it is precisely in the absence of God that we can see so clearly the problem of the human condition. Sin is apparent in Shameless, especially if you know what to look for. Paul’s descriptions of a life characterized by the old self/Adam in Colossians and Ephesians, and that of a life lived by the flesh in Galatians, characterizes a sinful life as ruled by the passions and lust, as immoral and impure, as marked by drunkenness and anger. By contrast, Paul highlights how the way of love is marked by consideration and service for others, loving the unlovable, and is marked by moral uprightness and the endurance through suffering. Shameless certainly does not typify the latter. But it certainly typifies the former. We can learn from Shameless what sin is, what it looks like, its patterns and habitual dispositions.
Shameless is an important educational resource not only of what everyday life is like for the urban poor. It also teaches us accurately of the dispositions and sensibilities of the habitus of the impoverished—its ways of functioning, surviving, and thinking. Shameless depicts the manipulation of the system and taking advantage of others as something worthy. It is in this fallen logic and disposition that we find something antithetical to the Christian life. Sin is praised in our culture. It is not taken seriously because it is not seen as a problem to be overcome. Shameless depicts sin in ways that glorifies it in its cringe-worthiness. But in our laughter at the cringe of Shameless, we also implicitly see what is so shameful about it. We recognize in Shameless what shame is. And yet, we do not take it seriously. It offers important lessons of the habitus of sin and points to ways of living that both glorify it as well as highlight its brokenness. In the absence of God, what we find is the glorification of sin and shame. With the irrelevance of religion, why would non-Christians care about what Christians offer or have to say, or any religion for that matter? Clearly it is irrelevant. Such are the presuppositions learned in the silences and depictions of religion in the everyday life of Shameless.
Andrew D. Thrasher is a Post-Graduate Researcher at the University of Birmingham and an adjunct instructor of Religious Studies at George Mason University and Tidewater Community College. He has several publications in the works on popular culture and theology, and is published on Dr. Strange in Theology and the Marvel Universe and in a festschrift on Raimon Panikkar. He resides in Virginia.