What Shameless Still Gets Wrong About Chicago

Photo: Brian Bowen Smith/SHOWTIME.
Going into season 8, I still think that Shameless is one of television’s finest offerings. The show — about a dysfunctional poor family on Chicago’s Southside — is great analysis of class and how it works against those without a head start. Creatively, Shameless is a whirlwind of emotions that inspire everything from ugly crying to hysterical laughter. I’m more invested in the success of the Gallagher family than any other television brood, and it’s not just because I’m also from the Southside of Chicago. In fact, my roots in the same city as the Gallaghers is what makes me hyper aware that Shameless is far from a perfect show. There are some minor and more serious oversights worth addressing.
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Starting small, one of my biggest pet peeves about the show is the mispronouncing of street names. There are some street names that are even up for debates amongst Chicagoans. For example, some people pronounce Racine with a long ‘a’ and others use a short ‘a.’ But other streets, like Halsted, have been spoken in ways that literally make me cringe. And then there’s the coordinate system. Streets that run east and west on the Southside are numbered. From 8th Street in the South Loop all the way to 138th Street on the far Southside. Referencing a specific block starts with the east-west numbering followed by the north-south street name. For example: “Come meet me on 63rd & Halsted.” I cringe every time I hear a Shameless character reverse this vital order.
In any city, the mispronunciation of street names is one of the dead giveaways that someone is an out of towner, even if it’s just a different part of the city. And in Chicago, a city that is diverse but perversely segregated, that difference is very likely to be a racial one. In fact, it is racial dynamics of the city that Shameless gets so glaringly wrong. The Gallaghers are white, with the exception of Liam (Christian Isaiah), who is inexplicably Black. And for the most part, they only engage with other white people. Eldest sibling and de facto matriarch Fiona (Emmy Rossum) is best friends with V (Shanola Hampton), who is Black. There have been a few scattered guest appearances by Black and Latino characters, but the core group is typically white. For a show set in any working class part of Chicago’s Southside, this is an intentional misrepresentation.
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The Southside is a big place and not a monolith. This is also why Southside pride that the Gallaghers are always going on about isn’t actually a thing. The Southside is a signifier that gives people a general idea of where you’re from, but you have to fill in the gaps with specific details about your neighborhood, and in some cases, your block. The sensationalized gang violence that makes national news, the Obamas' permanent residence, and Chinatown are all different parts of this same locale. But what is certainly true is that the Southside is majority Black. And if you’re not part of the wealthy group of people who can quarantine themselves off on the University of Chicago campus, people of color are all around you. The neighborhood pockets that play home to working class white people, like Canaryville where the Gallaghers are supposed to live, are small. Going to school, the grocery store, and even the local bar would undoubtedly involve interacting with people of color. Shameless would have been more accurate to portray the Gallaghers as the singular white family on a block otherwise inhabited by people of color.
Shameless has gotten really political with season 8. They have introduced systematic education and immigration issues as major plot points. But the real story of gentrification and disenfranchisement in Chicago are heavily biased against people of color. My beloved Shameless would do well not to try to make them white people problems.
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