'Shameless' star Emmy Rossum
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Pop Culture

The Pride and Power of Emmy Rossum

Where were you when you heard that Emmy Rossum, literally the best thing about the Showtime series Shameless, surprisingly announced on Thursday that the next season of the show will be her last? That’s the question many might be asking months from now when she takes her bittersweet bow on the series.

She won’t be sorely missed simply because, as Fiona Gallagher, she was the backbone of the show for going on nine straight seasons—seven years total—and subsequently shredded all preconceived notions that she was just a pretty face that looked good standing alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in The Day After Tomorrow and as the beautiful obsession of a disfigured musical genius in Phantom of the Opera. It’s because she gave every ounce of artistry she had to present a bold, naked (both literally and emotionally), messy and deeply complicated character who, in the wrong hands, could have easily come off as a caricature—and she did it with integrity.
Not that awards love in any way validates a performance, but Rossum never once received a single nomination from the Golden Globes, Emmys or from her own peers at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Instead, she celebrated every time costar William H. Macy was nominated—twice by the Golden Globes, five times by the Emmys, four times by the SAGs (winning this year)—and enthusiastically helped promote the show season after season on social media.

Rossum admitted in her goodbye letter that, on paper, she had little in common with Fiona, the reluctant yet dutiful matriarch figure and oldest of the six-sibling Gallagher family, because she herself is an only
child. But she does have these same attributes she ascribes to her onscreen alter ego: fierce, vulnerable and brave. These words come to mind as I think about her victorious demand for Showtime to give her equal pay back in 2016 when she was making significantly less than Macy for several consecutive seasons. It must have been difficult, and pride-swallowing, to publicly admit that she had had been financially shortchanged for so many years—and it took being her own advocate to acquire what was long overdue to her.

As Fiona, Rossum made you hate to love her because she often made the same mistakes over and over with the hope that this time it will be different. Her biggest problem was that she loved fiercely and unconditionally—from her delinquent boyfriends to her even more delinquent brothers and sisters. Barely an adult herself, she took on the responsibility of a maternal figure when her parents Monica (Chloe Webb) and Frank (Macy) were off running the streets instead of taking care of their children—and tried her best to scrape out an existence for her family with little more than determination, love and a jar of peanut butter. Every day was a struggle for Fiona, whether it was fighting to pay the mortgage on their house, or taking care of her mentally ill brother Ian (Cameron Monaghan), or teaching her teenage sister Debbie (Emma Kenney) how to be a responsible mom. But Fiona never turned away from a challenge and her obligation to protect her family—at whatever cost.
It took being her own advocate to acquire what was long overdue to her.
But like Rossum, who played double duty as both the star and director of two of the show’s biggest episodes in later seasons, Fiona evolved to recently earn a GED and launch her own businesses. She did it the hard way, the messy way, but she did it nonetheless. The legacy Rossum will leave behind is that of a role model—a success story to which budding female filmmakers and outspoken actresses could aspire. And she’s just 31 years old. She writes that she’s just “moving down the block,” but after this portrayal, she should be catapulting up every director’s casting lists.

To call Rossum’s Fiona memorable would be an understatement. The performance will forever remain a beautiful combination of heartbreaking, compassionate, hilarious, sexy and—despite all odds—joyful. When Rossum finally does leave the dilapidated Gallagher home next year, she will leave behind a gaping hole in the show’s fabric that will be hard to repair. But for the audience who watched her week after week, we are empowered by the fact that the actress, who started on the show at age 24, came, saw, conquered—and won.

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