I’m beginning to suspect that Shame functions like some sort of Rorschach test. I’ve read three completely different takes on it other that my own. One of them makes pretty good sense to me, another I can see if I squint, and the third made me question whether the writer and I had seen the same film. Is it because it includes so little dialogue? Because the characters’ backstories are almost entirely unknown? Because sex and nudity take up so much screen time? What does it say about a movie when several viewers can walk away after seeing it, each with an utterly distinct idea of what it was about? Curiouser and curiouser.
I like the US adaptation of Shameless. I really do. I dare say I like it even more than the original, UK version (except for Steve: Justin Chambers is fine, but James McAvoy was perfect). I’m happy it’s recently returned for a 2nd season and I have high hopes for its future. I like capable, long-suffering Fiona with her barely-hidden vulnerability. I like ‘Lip with his perfect SAT scores, dry sense of humor, and creativity criminality. I like Ian with his adulterous Muslim boyfriend, sweet face, military aspirations, and hard-on for the neighborhood delinquent. I love Debbie, who is somehow both depressingly old for her age and achingly young. I like Kevin and Veronica, especially Kevin, and want them to be my next-door neighbors. I don’t really like Frank, that’s pretty much impossible to do, but I find him extremely accurate and enjoyable in a laugh-so-you-don’t-cry, did-he-really-just-do-that kind of way. The plot-lines are generally fun and sometimes clever and almost always heartfelt.
There’s just one thing that bothers me, and unfortunately, it bothers me a lot. I’d like to know who decided that Sheila, an otherwise sweet lady dressed like a 50’s housewife who’s good with kids and imprisoned by anxiety, should also be a rapist? And that her cynical, sarcastic, over-sexualized adolescent daughter should be one too? I know it was supposed to be funny when the former handcuffed Frank to her bed and did kinky things to him despite his loud and unmistakable protests. When the later videotaped herself having sex with him while he was drugged nearly to the point of unconsciousness, but not so out of it that he didn’t object repeatedly. To state the obvious, it wasn’t. What it was was the epitome of a trend I just don’t understand, in which men being raped is a punchline.
It’s not just that these jokes are in extremely poor taste and irredeemably offensive; I also honestly don’t get where the humor is supposed to come from. Is it the role reversal? The perceived-humiliation of a man being sexually overpowered by a woman? The supposed impossibility of the scenario? The mere concept of a sexually aggressive woman? The unexpectedness, that shock of the unanticipated, two things that don’t belong together (women as sexual predators? Men as victims? Men who don’t want sex? Women who do?). In a world where the rape of men and boys is hardly confined to the realms of fiction, this kind of humor is a mystery to me, and not one I can easily set aside while I enjoy the rest of the show. So Shameless writers, take note: Frank screaming “stop” and being ignored isn’t just unfunny, though it certainly is that; it’s also downright nauseating. Lose it or lose me.
I think if it were possible for someone to snap their fingers and cure all the post-traumatic stress in this world, things would get much, much better. That sounds obvious, but I don’t just mean in the obvious ways. First of all, I think many more people would be affected than just those with PTSD diagnoses, or even just those who fit all the criteria for such diagnoses. I would be willing to bet that most of the world’s population, if not all of it, would experience some kind of relief. After all, take all the people who’ve witnessed or been victims of violence, be it multinational war or a neighborhood gang conflict, domestic abuse or state-sponsored terrorism, civil war, child abuse or assaults related to the trafficking of drugs, weapons or other illegal products. Take those who’ve been threatened with violence. Take all those who’ve survived sexual assault, attempted or completed rape, or childhood sexual abuse. Who’ve experienced natural disasters: fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, heatwaves, floods. Take most of the people who’ve been incarcerated in jails, prisons or refugee camps, or who have addictions or eating disorders, as trauma has been shown to be nearly universal in those groups. Take nearly everyone who’s ever been in a car accident. Take everyone who has ever feared for their life or their bodily integrity, who has ever felt unsafe to their very core. Granted, those groups overlap greatly, but even accounting for that, lucky is the individual who has never experienced trauma.
Working with that understanding, the next question becomes, how does all that trauma affect us as groups, nations, and societies? How has it influenced the way that we relate to each other, those we know, those we hold dear, and those we’ve never even met? People who study the affects of trauma on individuals have noted that it can create a survivor’s mentality. Empathy and morality are left behind as extraneous and even hindrances to protecting the self. A basic assumption of every-man-for-himself takes hold. This state of mind can be extremely effective in crisis situations, which is why, evolutionarily, it exists. The problems come after the emergency is over, when individuals remain in that mode of self-protection and survival at all costs.
Knowing this and given the prevalence of trauma across the world, I would go so far as to venture to suggest that we have built entire systems, governments and institutions on this mindset. I have to wonder if the arguably-pathological lack of empathy visible in everything from an individual’s scorn for the homeless to an international body’s protection of pharmaceutical profits over human lives can be traced back to this survivor’s mentality. Perhaps this is naïve of me. Perhaps the only other explanations I can see, greed, indifference and outright meanness of epic proportions, are really what’s going on. I prefer a more optimistic view of human nature, one that says we hurt others because we have been hurt, not because we are sadists. If for no other reason, I prefer this understanding because it allows for the possibility of something different. The potential for change. Looking back over the sheer quantity of trauma we as human beings have suffered and continue to suffer and impose on each other, the probability of healing looks far-fetched at best. But at least the possibility exists.
A history of the world according to the lost, the silenced, the forgotten, the oppressed: women, Muslims, Jews, people of color, LGBT folks, the colonized and the impoverished. Stories that may or may not be factually correct but are nonetheless true. History told as it was lived: fluid, messy, complicated, and often cruel.