Why Do Women Love Toxic Gay TV Relationships?


I notice a pattern here

I notice a pattern here

There’s something about the way women swoon over gay relationships on television.  Shameless has drawn a great deal of romantic attention for Mickey and Ian’s tumultuous affair.  Whole Tumblrs are devoted to their moments together.  I cannot help but wonder why I, and so many other women, are drawn to what is objectively a damaged and abusive love-affair constructed from internalized homophobia and slowly loosening repression.  I have to wonder if observance of tortured gay relationships provides a means of satisfying a deeper desire for male tenderness while only proximally experiencing the abuses of that relationship.  It makes me think back to the last Showtime-based gay relationship that ever got this dark: Queer as Folk’s Brian Kinney and Justin Taylor.

Left: Star Trek Slash, Right: FAKE (Cop RomCom Shounen-ai (Boy's Love)

Left: Star Trek Slash, Right: FAKE (Cop RomCom Shounen-ai (Boy’s Love)

First, there’s the why: why are gay television romances so much more romantically compelling to some women than heterosexual ones? Queer as Folk’s relationship drama attracted a hefty contingent of female fans. Prior to the acceptance of gay romance on television, women were writing gay slash fanfiction for online newsgroups and Star Trek snail mailing lists, operating as a genderbending subgroup of a Mary-Sue genre, living out romances as Spock or Captain Kirk. The Japanese popularized it in visual narrative form before many others did, with a wide array of published volumes all about gay romance complete with all of the visual markers meant to service a romantically inclined audience: shiny eyes, warm embraces, o-faces and splorched jism. Yet, most of these media don’t attract the attention of the gay men they replicate, probably because most heterosexual women know as much about gay life and culture as they do about jock itch and strategic ball adjustment. These media allowed women to create gay men with a female inner voice.

It comes back to that bastardly sexism business, where in reality men make the rules about how men act and tenderness is a big no-no lest it be considered womanly (and thus, weak and wrong and shameful). The world of gay becomes a shangri-la of romantic potential for women. There, men are still able to be hypermasculine, chiseled, and sexy, without the traditional power structures and cliches of male-female relationships. As a bonus, sexual non-conformity allows them to exhibit more “traditionally feminine¹” traits like tenderness and longing, lovemaking after it has been earned (usually after someone’s icy heart has melted and they’ve admitted their atypical and confusing sexual proclivity), and real no-holds-barred yearning. All of this is representative of fantasies about an unattainable romantic ideal, but one where the dreamer gets to cherry pick which moments to experience (invariably blocking the heartache but absorbing the glow of the good).

Keep in mind that gay men in general don’t eat up this stuff as much as hetero women do; it doesn’t necessarily reflect gay life, and gay men have found it objectifying.

(And they have every right to, because I have more than once considered the prospects of a street rat and carrot boy sandwich.)

Meet the originals: tortured Brian, loving Justin

Meet the originals: tortured Brian, loving Justin

So what does this have to do with gay characters on television? While these stories may not be primarily written or driven by women, those same tropes were hallmarks of the Brian/Justin relationship on Queer as Folk: a long non-courtship, a mean-spirited but tender (and super hot) lover, an honest wide-eyed boy with his heart on his sleeve, tiny romantic breadcrumbs stringing the lover along as the ice melts. Imagine Brian as a prototype, a hyper masculine aloofness compounded by slow-growing tenderness that exists mainly in subtlety. A lot of us fought for Brian and Justin to move towards an emotionally open relationship. We were hooked every time Brian almost bought Justin a rose or watched silently while watching him heal after Justin was beaten. Years of Brian dipping his toe in the pool and shaking it off every time the fear of monogamy set in created a lot of anger and resentment in Justin. But in us, it created something much worse: addiction. Objectively, Justin’s love for Brian wasn’t romantic so much as it was compulsive and damaging. Randy Harrison (Justin) himself wasn’t a fan of their relationship, stating often in interviews that Brian was abusive and Justin should have left. We should have too, but we didn’t because we’re suckers.

The fact that Justin didn’t leave is a little surprising for that character because he didn’t get to see all of the tiny romantic gestures, the looks in Brian’s eyes, and tortured subtleties in Brian’s character; we did. Justin wasn’t fed the breadcrumbs, we were. We became a proxy for their relationship. Brian’s little tidbits were our love food. His shows of tenderness were our opportunity to watch hardened masculinity melt into something kinder and sweeter. Male tenderness becomes heroin, and we’re willing to sit through any number of tortures that Justin endures on our behalf just so we can get another fix. “It’s okay,” we say, “He really loves him.” Our little moment of apologism for what is a cold and selfish man.

Let’s not make believe that “the melting heart” is both fantasy and horrid reality for millions of women. It’s one of those well known bullshit dating tropes that say the less affection a man shows, the more a woman wants, and the more she becomes attached to him. It’s also well known because it is often true. A lot of us can say that we’ve experienced unrequited loves, or relationships with guys who could get away with anything, guys we had to tear ourselves away from. Many of us have experienced the kind of insecurity that lets someone walk all over us. It isn’t entirely our faults though: we’re brought up with the idea that we need to seek validation from men to have a place in society. For us to be heroes, we need to rescue men from themselves. These gay relationships are the closest safe equivalent, a taste of danger from dating a bad boy.

The first time Mickey ever appears to show concern for Ian

The first time Mickey ever appears to show concern for Ian S1E09

Shameless takes that dynamic to a higher level by compounding the Brian prototype with the “Armoured Closet Gay” trope. Mickey Milkovich’s life is a polar opposite to decent-on-paper Brian Kinney. Brian’s got self-possessed gay pride, a booming career, and a generally stable life of unstable exploits. Mickey’s got some seriously internalized homophobia, a known history of brutality and violence, a career of crime and mouth worse than the drunkest marines. At first, he was a thuggish kid from the only south-side family worse than the Gallaghers. He looked like he just stepped out of a scene from Gummo. His coming signaled danger, especially while flanked by his siblings. The bruises on his face are indistinguishable from filth. But once we saw him tearing his clothes off after discovering his mid-beatdown erection, he started to look… hotter.

That smile, those socks

That smile, those socks

Like with Brian, we started to see what Ian may not have: smiles, second thoughts, looks, and subtle indications that Mickey began to care. This season we watched Mickey crumbling over him, drunkenly professing his love for fucking carrot tops, asking bathroom sex partners to bounce against his ass emptily. We saw what Ian couldn’t see.  Breadcrumbs.

But as Mickey’s heart slow-cooked in Showtime’s big gay crock pot, he proved time and time again that he was and is a deeply brutal fucker. Shameless’s Gallaghers have always played with morality, but usually only altered the basic tenets; the ice cream truck pot shop retained a (reduced) age policy, their antics were Robin Hood-esque, and their ability to take was matched with a potential for giving that made them lovable and forgivable. The Milkoviches live in the real dark territory of routine child abuse, rape, beatings and serious prison time. Mickey was raped (by his father through Svetlana as a proxy), and is forced to deal with an outcome he never consented to. It makes Mickey’s transgressions forgivable to us.

“You’re nothing but a warm mouth to me,” he says. And later, he punches Ian in the stomach and kicks him in the mouth. When Mickey Milkovich says “He’s a fucking dead man” in reference to Kevin, you believe it. Mickey scares the shit out of me. There is no doubt in my mind that, without Ian’s intervention, Kevin would have a bullet in his head.


This picture is drugs

And then there’s Ian, who sucks it up and takes it just to stay with Mickey, who puts up with:

  • being verbally abused
  • being demeaning to kiss (at first)
  • having his sexuality constantly berated hypocritically
  • being dismissed
  • almost killing Frank
  • being potentially cheated on with “Angie”
  • being hit and bloodied for wanting love
  • being fucked and then left behind so Mickey could get married

It sent Ian into the military on a lie, likely caused the destructive behaviors that got him kicked out, and was the cause of what would have been a frightfully hard drug problem. Remember, Ian was asking for party favors. In gaydrugtopia, that means meth. Mickey rescued him from his downward spiral into prostitution, but was also the cause of it. Unrequited love is a motherfucker but it’s the thing that keeps us going, the anticipation that some day the love will come back that eventually drives us crazy.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve been there, and it’s a dark place.

We sat through a lot of abuse to get to this season, where we finally saw some growth to feed the romantic void Shameless was carefully digging out of our guts.  We absolved Mickey of his aloofness because he realized Ian’s value and said they were together.  We forgave his shame because he realized he could kiss Ian openly.  We forgave Mickey’s dismissal because he finally came out of the closet to his family, and took the beating for it.  And then we climaxed.

So, pardon me while we take a break from cherry picking the lovey sexy parts and be observant of other aspects of this relationship while we answer a few questions:

Would we react to this relationship’s growth the same way were Ian a woman, were she routinely abused, then beaten, and then sent to the limits of her psyche, and then eventually loved, even if the causes of her lover’s psychoses were internalized hate and familial abuse?

Why do we love them despite never wanting to be the recipient of abuse? Is it that the male/male violence allows female viewers to safely take ourselves out of the equation during the bad parts? Is it that women are removed from the harsh realities of internalized homophobia mixed with patriarchal male psyche and constant emotional repression that causes Mickey to exist?

Why do we gloss over the fact that Mickey routinely makes misogynistic comments and slurs, particularly towards Svetlana, yet we root for his happily ever after without a second thought? Did we ever, at all, consider Svetlana’s aggression as a means of her dealing with an unwanted child, impoverished conditions, victimization from human trafficking, and the knowledge that she’s mere moments away from being in the street with an infant in a country that is not her own?

I honestly don’t have the answer, just the awareness that these realizations go unnoticed under a cloud of fuck smoke. We’re busy washing in the potential of their love, clouded by our own romantic idealization, feverishly feasting on the breadcrumbs, ignoring the path of destruction as we lead to major love climaxes like Mickey’s come out. Does it remind you, at all, of Brian’s QAF season 5 “I love you?”

(Ok, the path of destruction was literal there, it was right after an explosion.)

I cannot blame you, dear reader, if you never considered these perspectives. I feel you. My heart sings for their relationship now that Mickey is freely gay. I’ve got the bug too, and I’ve secretly been crushing on his scummy ass since he spit out the corner of a ding dong at Kash. I spent most of last night looking at the same twenty-thirty Gallavich gifs that have been reblogged ad infinitum on Tumblr. I don’t even like Tumblr. Have you seen my Tumblr? It’s atrocious. But Tumblr is amazing for gifs and ships. And even though, as an adult, I remain a non-shipper², Gallavich remains my singular guilty TV pairing pleasure precisely because it can make you put on blinders and forget all the bad stuff.

Right now, fans of Mickey and Ian are enjoying the afterglow of a romance orgasm, but the next soon-to-be widely anticipated breakthrough is potentially ahead, if the show wants to squeeze a lot of mileage out of Mickey’s “I love you.” At some point, Ian is going to have doubts and he’s going to need to hear it even though he knows it.  It can’t take too much longer; Mickey’s practically ice cream soup, melted almost to completion.  He loves Ian, in the same “too butch to say so” way that Brian loves Justin.  It is so romantically compelling.  Just remember, that on TV, that kind of bottled-up love leads to scars, madness, and ratings. But in real life, that kind of love leads to decades of dependency, depression, absent self-worth, and misery. So much for romance.


Cover from Straight To Hell Magazine: The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts

Cover from Straight To Hell Magazine: The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts

One thing I have to note is the purity of Mickey’s thuggish gay. It looks like he stepped straight out of a Boyd McDonald sex mag story. Noel Fisher plays the epitome of back-alley rough trade; a hardened, tobacco-scented fuck pig. He’ll call you a “faggot” in the same sentence as telling you to come pound him, and that’s a very real aspect of low-class gay culture that even Logo would be too sheepish to put in their programming. That is a fucking well done for Noel Fisher as far as acting goes, and a big hurrah for the writers for keeping true to the seedy and scummy ambiance of the show. They created this beautiful complication, and a thousand limp-wrist episodes of Glee about gay bullies couldn’t come close to the rawness of what Shameless has.

Cameron Monaghan, too. He manages to be rough but with an undercurrent of sensitivity that just melts you. Having watched ten minutes of Glee, I’m rather glad he’s been billed as the Anti-Kurt Hummel, because Kurt types (effete, delicate, fashionable, sassy) have been dominating gay characterizations on television for far too long. Monaghan’s had a perfect balance of butch and broken from the start. And let us not discount him on the Babylon set wearing a pair of man panties and grooving his everything at us. IF YOU TELL ME YOU WOULDN’T BURN YOUR FACE ON THAT FIRECROTCH, YOU’RE LYING.

The only reason this show brings me to write this many words while I’m supposed to be writing lesson things is because of the amazing quality of the writing, and the truly stellar performances out of both of these beautiful men.


¹ I say traditionally feminine only because they are treated as feminine, not because they actually are. In a world without such obsession with faux machismo, most men would be portrayed as wanting to cuddle and crying openly because most men would be allowed to do so without shame in real life.

² The general understanding of shipper being one that has an emotional investment to a relationship in a fandom on a level comparable to having a real life crush.

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13 thoughts on “Why Do Women Love Toxic Gay TV Relationships?

    As a gay male, I’ve found the development of IanxMickey this season to be maddening. The way Mickey treated Ian was inhuman behavior, and the years it took me to stay away from people like him were the closest I came to insanity. Even if Mickey changes from hereon out, that doesn’t change the fact that he broke not only Ian’s heart but his entire psyche. My opinion is unpopular, so thank you for helping me feel more comfortable in disliking IanxMickey.

    • Welcome. Although I am unabashedly a Mickey/Ian fangirl, I have come to understand that I’m coming from a unique place of (oddly enough) privilege in fangirling this pairing, and I acknowledge that gay men may feel significantly different watching a relationship in which they could honestly place themselves. I would feel the same as you were Ian a woman. That’s ultimately the conclusion I came to while writing this.

  2. When I first saw the title for this post I was like “I totally don’t think about it like that, but I guess I’ll read anyway, because I’m a fan of exploring opinions other than my own.” This piece, however, was pretty eye-opening. I’m a straight female who is totally an Ian/Mickey fangirl, but has also been in the type of toxic relationship (thankfully minus the physical abuse aspect) that you’re describing. I think it’s part of the reason I get so infuriated when people seem to excuse all of Mickey’s behavior with “but his lfamily situation,” while offering no leniency to Ian regarding his behavior despite the fact that Ian has his own issues that should be his primary concern. Mostly I just wanted to say that this post really resonated with me and, while I probably won’t stop loving their pairing, I’m glad that you’ve forced me to contemplate how sex and gender and probably a million other factors contribute to my reaction/feelings/thoughts about their relationship.

  3. Really interesting read, and something I had never considered. Up until this season of Shameless I was very leery of the Ian/Mickey relationship, but now I find myself fully on board. But if Ian was a female character I would find their relationship totally unacceptable, and irresponsible to show on tv.

  4. Pingback: Shameless and Fear of Sunday Nights | I Like Weird Stuff

  5. I haven’t watched Shameless, probably never will. But I do have a question. Have you ever watched QAF? I mean, really watched it? Because if you did, you’d realize you’re totally off-base with your comments.

    • I have. Watched it religiously during airtime, have the DVDs, watched them less than a year ago. There’s a reason why Brian and Justin didn’t end up together. It was because Justin loved Brian because Brian treated him like dirt, and stopped wanting him when Brian started treating him like gold. Justin is damaged goods and would continue to be if he stayed in that relationship.

  6. Kurt Hummel has grown into much more than what you describe, but sadly he has also become the absued half od an abusive relationship. Needless to say, the mostly straight female fams adore it (especially his cheating, abusive partner).

    Agree with everything else here. I was a big fan of QaF but hate how the writers romanticized what was an abusive/unequal relationship. I loved that Justin ultimately developed enough self-esteem to see it and leave, at the end. A lot of other fans, many of whom female, felt just like me and stopped watching the show well before it ended.

  7. Wow. This is fantastic. You have provided a very thoughtful essay on something that’s been puzzling me the last few months.

    I came to QAF late, as in Jan 2014, and when I went googling for people to discuss the show with, I was somewhat baffled to learn that most of the show’s fans were straight women. Even more baffled to learn that there were thousands of these “fangirls” writing a variation of gay porn, some incredibly perceptive and accurate, many physically impossible. Even more baffled still to learn that this was just the tip of the iceberg and that “slash” fiction around shows without gay characters (Harry Potter) was huge, that male pregnancy (“mpreg”) was a sub-genre and that these were not written by experimenting teenage girls but (often) by talented and accomplished middle aged women.

    So yeah. WTF, right?

    Your essay makes a lot of sense to me (as much as it could to a man, I guess) and I see where you’re coming from with it. Thanks for the explanation.

  8. I loved this, in one side because I never thought about it and I’m an avid fan of both shows. Though I disagree with some things you mentioned about QAF while relating it to Shameless, I still thing you make pretty valid arguments. When you mentioned if Ian was a girl we’d hate their relationship(you’re completely right) I want to take Alex and Piper from OITNB as example. I don’t know if you’ve watched it, but they’re a very destructive relationship. And I hate them. I think they’re dysfunctional and terrible (I’m a gay woman myself) so to see a lesbian relationship portrayed like that bothers me. And yet I LOVE Ian and Mickey. Even when Mickey beat the shit out of him when Ian was begging for love, I’m still happy Mickey can be happy with him now.
    BUT I think that it’s mostly because of the show. The way it is written and just the entire ambiance allows me to look over all the abuse, because I think Ian and Mickey are both like that. They like fighting(not condoning the beat ups at all though). I’m saying this mainly because, one of the most important moments between them for me is when Mickey beats the old guy(Ned I think) Ian was dating and then they both run away from the police (gif: http://37.media.tumblr.com/6a5497118a1c719f3453eb50b643ee41/tumblr_n61uoiORIZ1qiqdp4o7_r1_250.gif ). That’s when I kind of understood their dynamic better, and that’s why I love them even more. They’re both messy and like getting into fights and just simply love trouble and chaos, which is an element most Gallaghers have (Fiona cheating on a rich and stable boyfriend with his brother, Lip and his entire life pretty much, Carl, and Frank.) So that’s why I think Shameless’ IanxMickey and QAF’s BrianxJustin are different somehow. I watched QAF a long long time ago so maybe I don’t remember some stuff, but the ambiance of both shows is completely different.
    I loved this regardless, made me think a lot and reflect haha thank you for sharing this with us!

    • Thanks for commenting. You’re quite right about Piper and Alex. They are an awful and mistrusting duo. Alex is especially tricky, and Piper is so stuck in her own victimization that she absolutely pisses me off. Granted, they are not the best example of lesbian representation on television, but complicated relationships make good TV! I’m about to start posting about OINTB, too.

      There is definitely a class aspect to the two relationships that might be relevant. Poverty tends to move the moral center over; things that are criminal in Brian and Justin’s world are survival skills in Mickey and Ian’s, which is why stuff like running from the cops is so amusing for them. Both relationships come from marginalized peoples, who deal with the mainstream world in different subversive ways. Sometimes the things that make these two relationships different also make them alike.

      Thanks for enjoying it, though. No lies, I’m still a die-hard Gallavich, even though I maintain this article’s arguments in another compartmentalized piece of my brain. I actually had a dream about Noel Fisher last night, LOL. Thanks again for commenting. :)

  9. I love this! I am a straight white female and I have loved these terribly toxic, abusive gay relationships starting in my early teens. I love writing these kinds of relationships and have always been a little concerned that I am into something like that. I agree that if Ian were a woman I would be appalled.

    I’m not sure if it really, personally, has anything to do with being able to watch men become more affectionate and tender because its a gay relationship though. My boyfriend is plenty like that with me so I don’t think I’m craving that kind of proxy for that reason. I think what I really love is the denial and that slow build up. I think for me its partly because the whole thing is secret (in some respect) for such a long time and then just now is really being out in the open. We’re sitting here marinating in this and it’s getting cooked now. I wonder if some of the draw is the secret, forbidden nature of a lot of gay relationships. At least from what I’ve read and watched, or at least what I like, is that those relationships are something you aren’t supposed to have. It’s the apple for Eve if you will.

    Another thought that is somewhat related: I’ve always been into the boy being the broken, damage kind. The girl is his saving grace (or other boy) and it is addicting to watch that dynamic. I don’t know, I’m just really glad to find someone posted what I’ve always been wondering about.


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