Shameless: A Semiotics Approach

“We love television because television brings us into a world in which television does not exist.”- Barbara Ehrenreich


My name is Madison Stevens, and I am a senior student at Towson University. I am currently enrolled in the course Media Criticism, taught by Dr. Sandy Nichols. In this course, we discuss as a class the role in which Media has within our lives, and just how influential the media we consume can be. Throughout this semester, we have examined media texts and the messages in which they convey. Learning about topics such as semiotics, structuralism, narrative criticism, and genre criticism, our class continues to further analyze popular media texts.

So… what is media criticism?  Media criticism is defined as the…

“Systematic and critical process used to understand media texts as meaningful sociocultural symbolic forms and forces”

In short, you can think of media criticism as the study of media texts in order to understand how their messages shape, form, and overall affect the society in which we live in. Whether it be the movies we watch, or the television shows we become addicted to, the media we consume plays a huge part in our everyday lives. It has the chance to form and/or change our views on a gender, a race, or even a social class. Through these media texts, we are shown ideological codes such as patriarchy, capitalism, materialism, etc. Since media effects both the individual (micro-level) and the society we live in (macro-level), it is important to recognize how important media criticism really can grow to become.

Although we all might not admit it, we learn certain ideals from the media in which we consume. Television, for example, has grown to become one of the most influential media texts to date. The TV we consume is not only a source of entertainment, but is also:

      • An “industry” motivated by profit 
      • An “appliance” we take for granted 
      • A “flow” of constant images and sounds

Through this course, we have learned several ways that one can analyze a media text, whether it be a movie, or a television show. Through semiotics, one will identify and analyze the signs embedded within these texts, in order to better understand their meaning. Defined as “a discipline for interpreting and analyzing texts”, Semioticians use these recognized signs to dig deeper into medias “social construction of reality”.

Now that we have discussed the importance of media criticism and how semioticians analyze media texts, I would like to introduce to you a semiotic analysis of the hit television show Shameless using Fisk’s three levels: Reality, Representation, and Ideology




First airing in January of 2011, Shameless features a lower-class family living in the south side of Chicago. Based off of the UK version of the series, the family of seven struggles with poverty and their own personal issues.

Main character Fiona Gallagher stars in the series as the care-taker of the household. The eldest daughter of Frank, she is seen as an hardworking and attractive female by all those who know her. Fiona although selfless, feels the need to always have a man by her side. And because of this, often finds herself in messy and dysfunctional relationships. In terms of costume, she is highly sexualized and is seen in tight-fitting, low cut apparel for the most part. In addition, she is also seen wearing little makeup with messy hair, showing that although we should view her as “sexy” and “feminine”, she is still lower class, making her frumpy.

Frank Gallagher, a raging alcoholic and drug-user , is the father of the six children. However, he is seen time and time again manipulating and lying to those in which he comes in contact with to get what he wants. Whether it be stealing money from Fiona, or using his youngest son Liam to bribe others, he is sure to always cause trouble. Frank is seen wearing ripped up, stain covered clothing. With his shaggy hair and bloodshot eyes, Franks appearance is a tell-tale sign of the type of person he is.

“Lip” Gallagher is the second oldest son of Franks, and has a knack for learning. Although in the beginning of the series he is seen to be diligent in his studies, he slowly grows to become self-destructive and irrational. Popular with the girls his age, Lip is the “bad boy” character in the show, and although he dresses frumpy from time to time, he is much more kept together than his father, Frank. With slicked back messy hair and big blue eyes, Lip gets away with just about anything.

The third youngest, Ian, comes out to his family early on within the season. Maintaining a relationship with long-term boyfriend Mickey, he develops an interest in enlisting in the army. Soon after enlisting, he is diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, in which he deals with throughout the shows entirety.  He is usually seen with a shaved face, tight fitting jeans and crispy white tee.

Debbie, the youngest daughter of Frank, is a pre-teen aged girl living in a house full of chaos. Although she is surrounded by the poor choices her family members make, she is seen to be the most put together out of the family, and has a good head on her shoulders at such a young age. Red-headed and oversized, Debbie’s weight is often commented upon within the show. Although she is younger, she starts to begin wearing more low-cut shirts similar to Fiona later on in the season, showing that even younger girls are sexualized within media texts.

Carl, is the second-youngest son of Frank, who starts off early in his fathers footsteps. Associating himself with the wrong crowd, Carl starts selling drugs in an attempt to provide for his family. Carl surrounds himself with a group of much older black men, and because of this, starts to dress in large, oversized clothing and puts “cornrows” into his hair.

Last but not least, the couple next door, “V” and Kevin. Best friends of Fiona, the couple owns and manages the local bar. An interracial couple, the two for the most part have a very healthy, and happy relationship, much different than the majority of those shown within the series. V, the other adult female character, is also highly sexualized, where as Kevin is always in loose fitting and baggy clothes.



Through technical codes, Shameless provides its viewers with various signs and messages they intend to send out. Shot like a typical television sitcom, the camera angles provide wide-angle shots of the families daily lives. We as viewers are meant to feel as if we are looking into someones actual household, we are taking apart of whats called the “social construction of reality”. In addition to the camera angles, the natural lighting used in this show also adds to “realness” of the way in which this show is shot. Because this family lives in a low socio-economic environment, it would not make sense for them to be shot in glamorous, unconventional viewpoints with high-quality lighting.

The music within the series, such as the theme song played in the intro titled ‘The Luck You Got’, is performed by local, unknown artists. Artist and singer of the series theme song, Josh Malerman, says that “The song seems like it’s about a very small thing: Despite the madness of life, be happy about the good things that squeeze through,” Malerman said. “With a drunk dad and the kids running the house, it makes sense. (The song’s) rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s still bright and optimistic, which is like the main character, Fiona”. (Ellis, 2011) Just like several other technical codes, the music is a preview to the feel of the sitcom.

In terms of the conventional representational codes such as conflict, character, and setting, they all go hand in hand. Overall the characters within the show are seen in constant conflict with one another. Because of this, these codes show us by that living in a lower-class setting such as this, one is more likely to act hostile and engage in conflict. Because this show displays the harsh reality many living in poor areas deal with, we are given more realistic characters. Given more depth than other television program cast members, Shameless shows its viewers the struggles its characters go through, not just the glamorous moments within their lives



Patriarchy, the idea in which a male figure dominates and holds power over a woman. Seen throughout all media texts, patriarchy is a common theme within many television shows we view today. Although Shameless provides its viewers with a strong female lead, there are plenty of patriarchal ideals weaved within this program. Although Fiona is seen to be determined and hard-working, she is highly sexualized and is in the constant need of a male romantic partner. Displayed wearing low-cut and tight fitting clothing, Fiona is seen to be very promiscuous. She cheats on multiple boyfriends, and involves herself with a married man, and because of this, we view lesser of her. The various men she dates throughout the series always provide for her, and without them, she becomes depressed and therefore crawls back to them. Although Shameless stars a female lead, we still see the idea of patriarchy within the show itself, through its over sexualization of female characters, both young and old, and their dependence on male figures for happiness.

However, in terms of Race and Class, Shameless breaks boundaries. Time and time again, we see lower-class characters represented by african-american characters, especially in places such as the south-side of Chicago. However, Shameless displays a caucasian family living in immense poverty, struggling to live day by day. For the most part, as a society, we would much rather view an upper-class family live their easy and glamorous lives than view a hard-hitting show such as Shameless in which depicts more accurate representations of the world we live in. Showing a 7 member caucasian family living under one small roof shows us that race plays no factor when it comes to poverty. Anyone and everyone can live in poverty, regardless of race.

Thank you for reading!


sources used:

  • Media Criticism course notes
  • Ellis, L. (2011). Shameless TV Show Taps Local Bands Song For Theme. Retrieved October 12, 2016.



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