Why Last Night’s Shameless Sex Scene Is So Disappointing

Photo: Courtesy of Chuck Hodes/SHOWTIME.
Here at Refinery29, you could say we’re pretty dedicated to seeing plus-size women included (well and complexly) in pop culture; that is the whole point of the 67% Project. But, sometimes, television gives plus-size men the same short-stick they usually hand over to fuller-figured ladies. On Sunday night’s Shameless, the Showtime series ran into that story-telling ditch with “Where’s My Meth.” Amid all the actual meth selling, cocaine scheming, and infidelity, Shameless found time to add in a confusing amount of unnecessary fat-shaming. For a show that succeeds so well thanks to black humor and a general middle finger to P.C. culture, the addition of “chubs” simply feels mean and disappointing.
From the first mention of Bear Back, a punny gay club Trevor (Elliot Fletcher) frequents, it’s clear this storyline isn’t going to be handled with anything resembling care. Trevor tells Ian Gallagher (Cameron Monaghan) when he’s sad he goes to Bear Back, and Ian incredulously screeches, “The chub bar? You’re into chubs? How did I not know this about you?” Trevor says they should go that evening so Ian can get “enlightened.” The middle Gallagher child shoots back, “Or get smothered.” So, we’re about one minute into talking about plus-size people, and there’s already a “joke” about larger bodies being so big they can stop smaller people from breathing. Ha!
Now it’s easy to say I’m being a kill-joy who doesn’t gets jokes, yet, if that was where the fat-shaming on Shameless ended, I wouldn’t have much to say. The show we’re talking about is called “Shameless,” so we should all be expecting some shame-free, politically incorrect speech. But, one fat-shaming “joke” isn’t where the ends. At Bear Back, Ian criticizes the clientele, asking why this is Trevor’s type. “They like to please. They’re tender,” Trevor says, emphasizing he’s only interested in bigger men sometimes — like when the guy he “really” loves deserts him to flee to Mexico with an escaped convict ex. Anyone who’s seen Shameless season 7 can tell you Ian is that guy who did the deserting.
Trevor’s entire outlook on larger men proves he only sees them as self-gratifying objects, as opposed to fully fleshed out people with inner lives. After experiencing something like Ian’s Mexico fiasco, Trevor explains, “I would come here, find a chub to worship me.” This hypothetical encounter exists amid many privilege imbalances, as Trevor is speaking as a trans man, but, also as someone who is conventionally attractive with a more traditionally-accepted frame. Trevor knows these facts about himself and is using them to manipulate plus-size men into inflating his ego until someone more to his standards comes to their senses.
But, here’s the thing, plus-size people the world over aren’t here to “worship” more slender people when they’re feeling sad. It’s not their job to be tender, or available, or pleasing, when conventionally attractive people need someone to be nice to them. And, it’s not like they’re “lucky” to score a thinner person, or just waiting around for one to bless them with sexual interest. Perpetuating such an idea seems bizarrely dated for a series that usually seems light years ahead of its peers. If you told me an old episode of How I Met Your Mother fell into that kind of shaming trap I would believe you — not one of Showtime's most consistently thought-provoking dramedies. As per an unexpectedly relevant conversation I had with a guy friend this weekend, “A woman can still be a size 16 and a total 10.” The same can, and should, be said for a guy.
The subsequent sex scene between Ian and his unnamed Bear Bar pick-up similarly turns the plus-size man into an object. The guy gives Ian oral sex, which quite literally only focuses on the Gallagher son’s pleasure. Once that’s done, Ian tries to leave, since he’s obviously not interested in his latest conquest, but the man has Ian lie down next to him. Finally, in the arms of a big, burly man, Ian is able to cry for his dead mom Monica Gallagher (Chloe Webb). Since Ian is done using the unnamed man for orgasms, it’s time to use him for emotional support. Still, no one has asked what that guys wants or cares about, since he’s just supposed to “worship” someone like Ian, right?
Shameless then lands the last crack against plus-size men when Ian and his sister Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum) have a hot tub-set debrief about the former’s hookup with a “chub,” which Ian believed would alleviate his grief. It didn't work. “I guess I’m the family freak for not wanting to forget about her,” he says in a moment of honesty about the late Monica. Fiona counters, “I think you’re a freak because you cried in a fat dude’s arms.” Again, this would be a classic off-color Shameless joke on its own, yet, when put in context with all of the other fat shaming hanging over “Where’s My Meth,” this all just feels cruel.
Interestingly, Shameless’ handling of LGBTQ “chubby-chasing” is wildy different from how the series handled Trevor’s introduction as a trans man. When an uneducated Ian says inadvertently offensive things about Trevor’s gender identity, the activist calls out his new love interest on his nonsense and threatens to never speak to him again. “Don’t do me any favors,” Trevor says.
Now, a little over a year later, Trevor and Ian are both acting like they’re doing plus-size guys a favor by gracing them with their penises and emotional neediness. That's something we can all agree is shameless.
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