Did “Shameless” go too far with this lesbian joke?

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I love a good lesbian joke—emphasis on the “good.” You have to be able to laugh at yourself, but only if it something’s funny, and things are quite often funny when they are true. Like this exchange between Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner from an episode of Hulu’s Difficult People:

Julie: I mean, nothing is permanent.

Billy: Except, you know, parenthood.

Julie: Well, not the show Parenthood, that’s over.

Billy: Every lesbian I’m friends with on Facebook loved that show.

Julie: I know, it was so important to them to let all their friends know when they cried.

Billy: Yeah, how did lesbians let us know they were crying before Facebook?

Julie: Smoke signals.

One show that has been consistently funny and well-written while challenging the kinds of things premium cable can televise is Shameless. A series that is inherently queer with a major gay character, Ian Gallagher, and several other LGBT characters that have been a part of the show’s six seasons (including Ian’s boyfriend Mickey, his mother Monica, her female lovers, the Alibi’s lesbian bartender, bisexual Svetlana), Shameless has been revolutionary in its depiction of lower class Americans and the way they see the world, a noticeably different view than the middle-to-high-class characters are are privy to on most networks.

Last season, they introduced a new lesbian couple (Lisa and Lisa) that moved into the downtrodden South Side neighborhood where the Gallagher family resides, and from the beginning, they were a pain in the ass. The Lisas were part of the new gentrification taking over the area, buying up cheap houses and bulldozing them down to put in a yoga studio and a coffee shop. Considering queer people have been a part of gentrification and early adopters of neighborhoods that eventually become “gayborhoods” and later, desirable areas that the rest of the surrounding city deems up and coming, the storyline was ripe with humor.

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“They’re moving in down the street,” Carl Gallagher said of the Lisas last season. “Frank says they’re going to screw up the new neighborhood. More cops, flowers, paint their houses, shit like that.” With that, he launches “Operation Dykes Be Gone,” which was a plan to take back their neighborhood. And to be honest, I wasn’t all that offended by that at the time (and they weren’t successful). Their goal wasn’t to harm the Lisas but to scare them off. The lesbians didn’t waver.

But on this week’s Season 6 premiere (written by show creator John Wells), things got taken a little further when Kevin (played by Sarah Shahi’s real life husband, Steve Howey) is approached by the Lisas to ask a neighbor, Jonas, to keep the noise down that is coming from his house. They’ve called the cops and are going around a petition, banging on doors and requesting signatures. (Weirdly, the show replaced one Lisa for another, and Lily Holleman is no longer part of the pair.)

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Kevin attempts to keep the piece by approaching Jonas, who is working loudly on a motorcycle in his backyard.

Kevin: Bike’s a little loud. Can you tone it down a bit? People in the neighborhood are starting to complain.

Jonas: Oh yeah? What people? The lesbians?

Kevin: Did you take the muffler off?

Jonas: Well, let me tell you something, Kev, these dykes are not gonna tell Yanis Gregorian Papadiamantopoulos what to do, OK? They’re always complaining. Always complaining about my yard, my fence, my house, my dogs barking. They’re calling the cops. These rich lesbo bitches always up in everybody’s business!

Kevin: Jonas! What does their sexual orientation have to do with you taking the muffler off the bike?

Jonas: Kev, my pitbulls can tell when a vagina hasn’t had a cock in it, OK? It’s why they bark.

Kevin: Look, I know they’re a pain in the ass, but we have to figure out a way to get along.

Jonas: Twenty-six years I’ve been in this house. Twenty-six years. I fucked my first girl in that house. My mom died on the toilet in that house. Dead! Never any complaints from anybody. Ever! They call the cops one more time, I’m gonna go over there, I’m gonna rape the fuck the dyke out of them until they are begging for more Jonas. All women beg for more Jonas.

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As much as I love Shameless and its unabashed boundary-pushing and realistic portrayal of all kinds of people, especially those we don’t ever see on television. (“This is the ghetto!” Kevin tells the Lisas. “There are noises in the ghetto!”) The Lisas are finding out what it’s like to live in a depressed area of the city, and who lives there. And while they are genuinely annoying, the vernacular Jonas used was advocating for rape and violence, and in a scene that was supposed to be somewhat comical. Even with Kevin serving as the (strangely enough) more sophisticated foil to Jonas in this scene, the dialogue went too far and is hopefully not foreshadowing of what’s to come for the Lisas.

In this coming Sunday’s episode, “#Abortionrules,” the situation continues to escalate, there are some more homophobic insults flung the Lisas way, and Kevin continues to try and mediate and encourage Jonas to stop with the bashing so they can come to a truce. In true Shameless form, no one is a hero, everyone has their faults, and neither the Lisas nor Jonas come out looking like winners. But it’s worth noting that the gay-themed epithets are not nearly as violent, likely because it was written by a woman, Nancy Pimental.

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There are certainly people who think and speak like Jonas in the world; people who will be upset with something someone is doing and use something about them like their sexuality or their race or their religion to make them more vulnerable or susceptible to negativity. But is it doing anyone any justice to utilize their hate speech for comic effect? In the same way that Svetlana uses the term “big scary colored man” despite having slept with Veronica and a train passenger calling Debbie “retarded” in this Sunday’s episode, Jonas is a symbol of the kind of mentality that many Americans still have, and the inherited bigotry that permeates their lives. 

The world of Shameless is one that mirrors the real world closely, and while it’s unacceptable for someone to threaten to “rape the dyke out of someone,” it’s also being used to demonstrate the way in which we now see these things through a different lens; one that tells us all “this is wrong.” Yes, it offended me, and it pushed the limits of what is acceptable. But while it’s not acceptable in real life, it is, apparently, OK for television.

Would a woman have written that line? Probably not. It could be an unfair assumption that women would not see that kind of dialogue as beneficial or humorous. There are other ways to prove that point, especially if that point is Jonas is another angry straight white guy who thinks having a penis gives him privilege over women, especially ones who aren’t interested in his masculinity. At any rate, point taken.

I want to give Shameless enough credit that Jonas won’t be following through on his threats; that it’s not setting us up for some kind of horrific sexual assault on the Lisas, and that if they leave the neighborhood, it’s not because of promises or acts of sexual violence. But the sad fact is that queer women are targeted because of their sexual identities, and corrective rape is an all-too-real scenario for lesbians around the world, especially in South Africa where the body of teenager Motshidisi Pascalina was found after she was brutally raped and murdered just before Christmas. In India, parents are using corrective rape to “cure their homosexual daughters.” It’s also been reported as an issue in Jamaica and Peru

And while it might not feel close enough to viewers of American television like Shameless, there’s a connection to be made because we exist in a culture of rape; a culture where it’s still “funny” to make jokes about raping women and forcing lesbians into having sex with men. As Mic reports, “According to peer-reviewed research, mere exposure to rape jokes actually increases the self-reported likelihood of raping someone. Moreover, these jokes make the person on the receiving end more likely to blame the victim, fail to take rape seriously and support lower sentences for rapists. Research also finds that this trend is only magnified for men who already display sexist beliefs.” That’s too real to ignore, and while Shameless isn’t the only show joking about rape, it is part of the continuing problem. (Rape was a brief theme in Season 5, with a storyline following Debbie as she was accused of date raping an older boy, also played for humor more than any kind of comment on rape culture.)

Even though I love Shameless and it’s, well, shamelessness, I can’t condone its rape jokes, no matter how terrible the lesbians are or their douche of a neighbor is supposed to be; even if he gets his in the end. (I’m an optimist.)

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