When I rank my favorite members of the Gallagher family, Debbie (Emma Kenney) is often competing with her older sister Fiona (Emmy Rossum) for the bottom spot. The 16-year-old is a walking cocktail of teenaged cluelessness and arrogance. I’ve spent an unnecessary amount of time trying to figure out how I would handle a kid like her if I were a parent, and I still don’t have a sufficient answer. As vexing as she can be, though, Debbie’s character evolution over the course of nine seasons might just be the realest testament to the impact of generational poverty, a constant theme of Shameless. All of her major moments — from running a renegade daycare to making a proactive decision to get pregnant while still in high school — draw viewers' attention to bigger issues facing poor women. With last night’s season premiere, Debbie is taking on equal pay. And while her general abrasiveness makes her a bit of a killjoy, she is still fighting the good feminist fight. That counts for something.
After giving birth to her daughter, Debbie was stumped about how to provide for her. Underaged and without a high school diploma, she first tried to work things out the Gallagher way: stealing and conning. Neither turned out to be sustainable options, and in season 8, Debbie picked up the welding trade. Despite the fact the she’s already lost three toes in an accident and has a slight limp, things are going as well as they can. She’s working in her field and making $15 an hour, which is fine until she finds out that the men she works with get paid $18 an hour. Her foreman is very blunt about the fact that she’s being paid less because she’s a woman and takes longer bathroom breaks. If this sounds like a ridiculous justification, it’s because it is. I know it, you know it, and Debbie knows it.
Refusing to accept $3 less per hour than her male counterparts, Debbie gets smart. She constructs an adult sized diaper from Frannie’s smaller ones so that she doesn’t have to take a single trip to the portable toilet during her shift. She makes sure her boss knows it, and clocks the time her male co-workers have spent in the can, too. It seems like a juvenile antic to thumb her nose at her boss; another shining example of how stubbornly petty Debbie can be. I find myself pleading with Debbie to keep her head down, save up, and not make waves until she can figure out something better for herself and Frannie. But much to my surprise, her plan works. The foreman reluctantly agrees to bump her pay and suddenly I was forced to rethink all of my biases against her.
Since Debbie’s victory in the Shameless premiere, I’ve asked myself why it’s been so easy to write her off. Debbie’s adolescent ignorance, combined with that Gallagher grit, have put her in some unnecessarily precarious situations. In season 4, she became obsessively jealous after a guy she liked rejected her. I cringed watching her humiliate herself. She insisted on having a baby in season 5, and I wanted someone to rush in and stop her. When she started stealing from stores and other moms to make money in season 7, I thought she was being reckless, not resourceful. When it comes to Debbie, more often than not I am screaming at my screen, MAKE BETTER DECISIONS! I’ve certainly never accepted her as the onscreen feminist shero that I can count on.
But to demand that Debbie be cool, calm, collected in order to advocate for herself is itself problematic. We expect perfection from women — or, at the very least, for them to make us feel comfortable — before we’re willing to hear them out. Debbie is not warm. She is rarely put together and certainly can’t be described as pleasant. She is a teen mom. She has made decisions about her body that we typically demand that girls her age be able to make, despite what their families think. It is survival, not stupidity, that has drawn her to some of her most unsavory decisions. Perhaps Debbie been the feminist (killjoy) character we’ve needed all along, and my own internalized sexism made it harder for me to realize.