Spoiler Warning: This article discusses events in Shameless leading up to the Season 7 finale.
“Kiss me and I’ll cut your fucking tongue out,” is what Mickey Milkovich (Noel Fisher) says to Ian Gallagher (Cameron Monaghan) after their first sexual encounter in season 1, episode 7 of Shameless, which reveals that Mickey is gay. It is this line that he says after Ian tries to kiss him that epitomizes who Mickey is, at least in the beginning of the series.
Mickey lives on the rough streets of southside Chicago and is first depicted as a hardened thug with a nasty mouth who likes to steal from the store where Ian works. He seems to have no qualms about using his fists, as he is frequently shown fighting various different people throughout the series. So of course, I automatically assumed he would be the typical bully character, meant to be a thorn in the sweet Ian Gallagher’s side. Imagine my surprise when he was revealed to be, in fact, gay and attracted to Ian.
In a lot of shows I’ve watched, male characters who are in the closet tend to be tough bullies because they are self conscious about being gay and feel the need to overcompensate (take David Karofsky from Glee, for example). The thing about Mickey that’s fascinating is that his “tough guy” persona is not a result of a desperate attempt to cover up the fact that he’s gay; it’s just who he is. He was born into a family of criminals. His father, who’s in and out of prison, is verbally, physically and even sexually abusive to Mickey’s little sister Mandy. Mickey is brutal because of the brutal circumstances in which he grew up. He had to be that way to survive and, as a result, doesn’t know any other way to be.
And so, in the first few seasons, Mickey’s understanding of his own sexual orientation is conflicted at best. In fact, it’s not so much that he knows he’s gay and is in the closet as he’s just unable to grasp the possibility that he might be gay. For him, having sex with Ian is simply something that feels good. It’s not meant to be anything more or less. For example, when Ian attempts to shame Mickey for being a bottom, he replies, “Liking what I like don’t make me a bitch.” He is even shown asking Ian to use a sex toy on him, one which Ian has never heard of. It’s not about being gay; it’s just about doing what he likes. Thus, when he tells Ian not to kiss him or he’ll “cut [his] fucking tongue out,” he’s not just saying that to keep up appearances. Kissing implies something more than just sex, and his relationship with Ian is purely sexual because he is not gay, no matter what he does behind closed doors.
It becomes clear as the show goes on why Mickey thinks this way. In one scene in season 3, after his father catches Ian and him together, Mickey’s father brutally beats them both and hires a female prostitute to rape “the fag out of” him. It is a heartbreaking scene that harkens back to a scene in season 2 where Ian tells Mickey they have nothing to be ashamed of, and Mickey responds with “what fucking world do you live in?” Mickey isn’t just saying that to say it. The world Ian lives in is one of acceptance from his family. The world Mickey lives in is dangerous and not at all accepting.
So watching Mickey slowly fall and realize that he’s falling in love with Ian is extremely gratifying as it also forces Mickey to realize that he might actually be gay. In season 3, episode 2, Mickey returns from one of his stints in juvenile detention and immediately finds Ian. They have sex and then afterwards Mickey casually says “missed ya,” much to Ian’s surprise. Pairing this scene with Ian’s season 1 visit to Mickey while he is in juvie, in which Ian says “I miss you” and Mickey tells him he’ll rip his tongue out if he says that again, it is clear, as Mickey is now the one saying he misses Ian, that he is developing feelings for Ian, no matter how much he tries to play it off as strictly sexual.
Shameless is littered with these parallels, such as when Ian develops a sexual relationship with an older man named Ned. Mickey frustratingly proclaims that he doesn’t know what Ian sees in Ned, to which Ian replies that Ned isn’t afraid to kiss him. Mickey doesn’t respond to this with anger or a smart mouthed quip, but instead just stares. A couple of scenes later, he sneaks off and surprises Ian with a kiss. It is a quick peck, but it is probably one of their sweetest moments on the show that made me squeal with excitement. When you look back to season 1 with Mickey telling Ian he’ll cut his tongue out if he kisses him, and then two seasons later when Mickey is the one to initiate their first kiss, the contrast shows the growth he has had in accepting himself. Additionally, Mickey realizes in this moment that he needs to step up in order to keep Ian, and he does just that. He’s finally showing feelings in regards to Ian that he has not displayed before, and he’s finally willing to act on these feelings.
These alterations aren’t just in his behavior, but in his appearance, too. In the earlier seasons, Mickey often had dirt on his face, a lot of bruises, and unkempt hair. Fast forward a few seasons, and he dresses more nicely and looks cleaner. It’s almost as if being with Ian is making him feel good, and so he wants to look good as well. It’s these small changes that the show does that makes Mickey’s development so joyous to watch.
It’s because of this that after four seasons, when Mickey comes out as gay in front of everyone, including his homophobic father, so he won’t lose Ian, it is extremely rewarding. The show had been steadily developing Mickey’s character up to that point. Now that he is clearly in love with Ian, Mickey has to accept the fact that he’s gay, and he does so in his own lovely Mickey way by saying “I just want everybody here to know, I’m fucking gay” to the entire room. In the next season, when Mickey is the most supportive, comforting and loyal boyfriend to Ian whilst Ian goes through his bipolar disorder diagnosis, it feels earned. There are small moments such as Mickey calling himself Ian’s boyfriend that make me look back to season 1 and smile at how far his character has come.
Seasons 6 and 7 of Shameless featured very little of Mickey Milkovich, and it is my sincerest hope that in season 8 they bring back my favorite “piece of southside trash,” as Ian once called him, for good. Shameless is just not the same without him.