The Emotional Double-Edged Sword of Upward Mobility in America
Now in its fifth season, Showtime’s Shameless continues to be one of the best dramas on television, the only show that understands what it’s like to be shit poor in America, and personally, the show with which I relate the most.
My perspective into the show is largely through the eyes of Phillip “Lip” Gallagher, and while I am nothing like him personally (I never sold drugs, I never got laid like he did in high school or college, and I never shot up store windows with a machine gun, although I did blow up mailboxes with pipe bombs), some of his experiences in college have hit incredibly close to home, not least of which was a small detail in last week’s episode that mirrored one of my own: The need to rent a post-office box because he could no longer trust his family at his permanent address to keep his paperwork in order, which cost him a financial aid award and threatened his ability to continue on in college. His family, more or less, approached that revelation with apathy.
I know the feeling.
We also share similar family dynamics: His absentee mother has a mental disorder (as did mine!); he has a gay, depressive brother (my Dad was gay, my sister was depressed); he has a drug-addicted father (hey! me too!), a drug-dealer little brother (mine started selling meth at 12, Carl starting selling heroin at 14), a co-dependent half-sister (mom!) and — if my family is any indication — Debbie Gallagher doesn’t have a shot in hell of making it out of high school without getting pregnant (a storyline that’s already in the making!).
But Lip got out. Or at least he’s trying to get out, and if you’ve read any statistics on upward mobility in America, you know that the odds of someone from an impoverished background and a broken family graduating college and eventually joining the middle class is about as likely as winning the lottery. (And if Lip blows it, I might be too heartbroken to continue watching the show.)
But here’s the double-edged sword when it comes to upward mobility, and a theme for which Shameless is already laying the groundwork: You can’t go back. Not in a true sense, anyway. When Lip told his financial aid officer in last night’s episode that he was going to college for the greater good of his family, it was a lie. He just doesn’t realize it yet.
Because as much as Lip will always be defined, in some way, by where he comes from, he will nevertheless continue to drift away from it as he meets a different socioeconomic class of people. He won’t drift away out of snobbery (although, that’s what he’ll be accused of); he’ll drift out of a sense of self preservation. A couple of episodes ago, when Lip returned from college and some buddies across the street asked him to get high with them and chill, he didn’t decline because he thought he was better than they are. It’s because it’s not who he is anymore, and while he may feel pangs of nostalgia for his past, he will invariably wander away from his neighborhood, from his friends, and even from his family.
At some point, he will no longer be able to relate with them. His sister might even say to him one day, “I don’t know how to talk to you anymore.” Their shared history will no longer be enough. He probably will, however, use his middle-class income to help prop up his family from time to time. Maybe he’ll buy Carl a new set of teeth when meth rots his out. Maybe he’ll buy his sister a new pair of glasses. Maybe he’ll drop $300 here, or $500 there to bail family members out of jail, or out of a financial pickle.
But what he’ll learn after seven or eight or 10 years of this is that it won’t matter. For those from an impoverished background, their way of life is hardwired. It’s hard-coded into their DNA. Every advancement is met with a setback of equal force. Giving them money, bailing them out, will feel like trying to plug a gash in a sinking ship with $20 bills. Lip’s relationship with his family will eventually strain at the edges because of this frustration, even though Lip could at one time completely identify with that feeling of helplessness.
He will, however, continue trying to plug that hole out of a sense of loyalty, out of a sense of guilt, out of a sense of obligation. But one day, Lip might have a child, and when that day arrives, Lip may realize that shielding his children from his past may become a bigger priority to him than that sense of obligation. He may decide that he wants to give his children a chance at a normal life, that he doesn’t want them in an environment where alcohol and drug abuse and mental disease and suicide is not just part of a shared history, but an existing part of the environment. He may decide that he doesn’t want his brother or his father to relay stories from his past to his son, who doesn’t see his father, Lip, the way that his family still does: As a troubled teenager trying to escape from a family that thinks he’s too good for them.
But he won’t be able to explain that to Frank, who will probably be dead. Or Fiona, who will probably be on her third husband and still working at a diner. Or Ian, who will be in-and-out of rehab as often as he is in-and-out of a relationship with Mickey. Or Debbie, who will have three kids before she’s 25, and who may end up being a thoughtful, lovely woman who put herself through community college and works as an administrator, but who still won’t understand. Who will be hurt if you even attempt to explain it. Because Fiona helped Debbie raise those children too, and their sense of kinship still exists because they are still struggling together.
So, Lip will probably take the coward’s way out. He’ll just stop talking to his family because he’ll never know how to truly explain to them why it is that they can’t be involved in his children’s lives. Because that sense of solidarity, the spirit that brought them together as kids to fight against evictions, and child protective services, and hunger, will no longer exist for Lip. Because he used that energy to get out. Because those aren’t the battles he’s fighting anymore, and because he never wants his children to have to fight those battles. Honestly, he doesn’t even want his children to know those battles exist. He will want to keep them in a bubble, completely unaware of just how spoiled they are.
That’s what will probably happen to Lip, because that’s what happened to me. My son is seven and a half years old now. I haven’t spoken to a member of my family in more than seven years. They have no idea why. If they are reading this, maybe they’ll understand why. Maybe they’ll understand how rotten I feel about it, and that it’s not because I feel like I’m better than they are. Maybe they’ll also understand that it’s not because I don’t care about them; it’s because I care about the future of my children more.
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