Mickey and Ian - communication, sex, and relationship styles, post 11x07
Here’s my take on how Ian and Mickey relate to sexuality and relationship styles, thinking mainly about 11x07, but also looking more broadly at the series and including HoS. If you’re not interested in incorporating 11x07 in your version of canon, ignore this! I enjoyed 11x07 but I understand people have different ways of seeing Ian and Mickey’s relationship. I’m also doing the classic meta thing of taking seriously exaggerated/comic/contradictory elements in the show because that’s how I roll.
Super long post under cut.
I’ve been reading Sexuality: A Graphic Guide by Meg-John Barker and Jules Scheele which is where a lot of the following ideas and terminology come from. I’ve also been looking at Meg-John Barker’s free relationship zine on their website rewritingtherules.com. I highly recommend their work, including the podcast they have with Justin Hancock, The Meg-John and Justin podcast (although MJ has left now and it’s called Culture, Sex, Relationships, but you can check out the backlog!)
They think about sex and relationship styles using various models including monogamy/polyamory, allosexuality/asexuality, romance/aromance etc. They look at these different facets of sexuality/relationship styles as complicated continua rather than binaries which shift over time. They also write about sexuality on an action/identity spectrum, communication strategies around relationships styles, and the windows into relationships. Here, I’m looking at all of these things thinking about Ian and Mickey’s relationship and as individuals within the relationship.
The monogamy/polyamory continuum
I’ve seen a bit of debate about how to label Mickey and Ian’s relationship on the monogamy/polyamory spectrum and I think it’s a pretty complex question especially considering those labels mean different things to different people and that relationships shift a lot over time. While labels like these can be useful, they can also be rigid and restrictive in their own ways.
Some terms that come close-ish to what they say they’ve decided in 11x07 are monoamorous and polysexual, considering they aren’t at all interested in romantic connections outside of each other but are up for sex (in a broad sense) with other people. But these terms don’t account for the agreement that they’re only exploring sex with other people when they’re together.
As people have pointed out, some of the boundary setting around exactly how they’re involving other people in the relationship is left off-screen, and also they’re not necessarily going to form identities around how they act in one episode. I’ve also seen people suggest reading their relationship style as monagamish and/or that what they do with other people is part of kink/play. I think these make sense in different ways and that in 11x07 Ian and Mickey definitely focus more on what they do (action) rather than who they are (identity) in regards to monogamy/polyamory.
In 11x01, Ian’s focus is more on identity. He sets up a binary choice between being monagamous or not in their relationship. 11x07 indicates they’ve moved through off-screen discussion into a much more personalised arrangement with more focus on actions allowing for flexibility over time. In 11x07, we see them agree on rules: sex in a broad sense is allowed outside of the primary partnership, love isn’t. They keep negotiations ongoing (e.g. in the bedroom, in the furniture store), and there is an indication that these rules could change over time.
I’d love to read/explore more about the ways in which this approach has changed over the course of the whole show. At the start of their relationship, definitely prior to s4, they have much more implicit rules about who they can have sex with, and those implicit rules become problematic in s5, when they realise they’re not completely on the same page regarding them. They bring up clashing ideas around the rules when Mickey’s leaving prison in s10 too. In s11, their relationship becomes more intentional, with these rules stated aloud rather than assumed.
The action/identity continuum in regards to gay sexuality
On a slight tangent, I think there’s a comparison to be made here to how they relate to sexuality (specifically gender of attraction) and the idea of gay identity, which seems to develop in the other direction. For Mickey especially, for a long time having sex with men was something he did rather than something he was, and that’s gradually somewhat shifted over the course of the show. There’s so much more that can be explored here, for instance, about how the action-based approach is much more acceptable within the hyper-masculine environment he was raised. Terry also approaches it this way when talking about prison sex, for example. According to this very oppressive social script, having sex with men in certain circumstances can be OK but claiming that as part of who you are is absolutely not.
But I also want to stress, I don’t think either approach to gay sexuality, looking at it through actions or through identity, is inherently better or worse. These different lenses on sexuality also intersect with class and levels of education. As explored in Sexuality: A Graphic Guide, the identity approach is also relatively a very modern way of seeing sexuality (late 20th century). Gender of attraction is also only one facet of sexuality (which includes amount of sex you want, type of sex, sexual roles etc.) but its now often regarded as the only or most important facet of sexuality. The identity-based approach is much more acceptable within the more aspirational/middle class settings they interact with in s10 and s11. In these seasons, Mickey and to a lesser extent Ian aren’t completely willing to accept it wholesale. I like how, for example, even well after “coming out”, Mickey often still approaches sexuality through actions rather than identity, e.g. his response to the woman at the flower shop asking if he’s a homosexual: “He is, I just like having another man’s dick up my ass.”
However, I also think it’s cool/interesting how Ian and Mickey both move towards and embrace various parts of mainstream gay identity in s11 too, and a large part of that involves combatting the sexism, femmephobia, and hypermasculinity with which they were raised, e.g. of course, singing and dancing to Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande in the bathroom.
You could also look at the different ideas about the origins of their gay sexuality in HoS through this lens. Mickey goes for a psychological/behavioural approach (based in like early 20th century sexological theories); Ian goes for a born-this-way, biological/genetic approach (popularised in the 1980s as part of gay pride movements).
Mickey’s approach is very old school (definitely a way of thinking that reflects his upbringing), which assumes straight is the norm from which gay deviates, to do with Freudian theory/the idea of homosexuality as pathology. He doesn’t, for example, seek to use the same model (Fiona’s bad relationship history) to explain why Lip is straight. Ian’s approach (”not because I was born this way?”) reflects his investment in the intractability of sexuality related to his strict opposition to conversion therapy models and the idea of being gay as a choice. It also reflects the way he reacts negatively/disbelievingly to Debbie’s more flexible sexuality (in s8?). While obviously it’s fucked up/impossible to force people to change their sexuality and it’s perfectly reasonable for him to define the origins of his own sexuality however he wants, this approach risks excluding more fluid experiences of sexuality.
Again, Mickey’s approach is more behavioural/action oriented and Ian’s is more identity oriented. They both seem pretty willing to shift their ideas around this though (especially Mickey, who potentially is just regurgitating old stuff he’s heard without thinking). The concluding thought is that Ian is gay because he likes Mickey’s d, lol.
Individual differences on sex and relationship continua
I really like the detail that Ian doesn't want to have sex and be friends with anyone else aside from Mickey. In 11x07, he doesn't want to make friends with the guys in the locker room although he's down for repeat sexual experiences which suggests he thinks he forms romantic attachment through a combination of both sex and friendship. It seems like it's important to him in his negotiation with Mickey that they don't form romantic attachments outside of their own relationship.
This relates back to the 87% thing in HoS where Ian says he tends to get at least slightly attached to everyone he has sex with and Mickey has 87% of his heart. Mickey doesn’t like the 87% thing at all but I reckon it outlines a really interesting difference between the two characters in regards to relationship styles. It indicates that Ian is comfortable with a slightly less mononormative way of doing nurturance/care than Mickey, while Mickey seems to initiate more of the polysexuality than Ian in 11x07. (Although of course, we don’t see how Ian would react if Mickey were to tell him he’s got 87% of his heart! -- but this is a very difficult to imagine scenario).
Sex is a big part of their relationship for both of them. Both Ian and Mickey seem pretty allosexual (e.g. they feel sexual attraction for other people generally), but Mickey is possibly even more so than Ian. Mickey also maybe falls on the aromantic/grayromantic spectrum (once again, the labels can be really useful but I don’t want to be too prescriptive/rigid). Ian seems to be more alloromantic, with a capacity to experience romantic attraction to a whole bunch of people. For him, sex and romance seem to be more interconnected in all cases although he can definitely separate the two (especially when thinking about transactional sex etc).
But I think it's more complex than that. For instance, Mickey reserves certain sexual acts for just between him and Ian and its clear that they have both intimacy and exploration in their sex life. From the outset, Ian and Mickey’s relationship involves exploration and excitement with sex, and provides a freedom to explore their sexualities in regards to sexual roles and kink. It’s clear that Mickey values the safe space Ian specifically gives him in this regard from very early on in their relationship. There’s a parallel here with the bathroom Gaga/Grande scene where Ian’s instinct isn’t to tease or make fun of Mickey but support him embracing more stereotypical gay behaviours and/or more fluid gender roles to the ones he’s grown up with outside of sex too.
Also it might be useful to complicate the idea of romance itself which is a really difficult idea to pin down and which seems to mean different things for both of them. I love the stress on friendship in 11x07. Friendship and also family connection play such key parts in their relationship with one another and the way in which they are attached, arguably even more so than traditional models romance. Both HoS and the Hopper painting discussion are interesting to think about in regards to the ways Ian and Mickey think about the concept of romance differently and the ways it intersects with or differs from their ideas around friendship/family. I like how Mickey’s willing to see getting a coffee together as romantic in a positive way for instance after Ian explains that it’s about togetherness in hard times. While maybe Mickey sees Ian’s suggestion of having a bath together as awkward/weird because he views it more as trying to live up to a social script of what is “romantic”.
Communication strategies around relationship styles
In s11, Ian and Mickey’s relationship is very entwined, and, in comparison to Tami and Lip, for instance, they disclose a lot to each other. Ian asks that they tell each other everything, and although Mickey is more resistant to that initially, he becomes much more forthcoming with his feelings in s11 (around Terry, around moving to the West Side, around becoming a parent).
While I appreciate Ian’s role in initiating more communication between the two of them, I felt sorry for Mickey in their initial discussion in 11x01 in re “monogamous or not”. The turning over the paper method is a pretty binary way to open up a discussion about a very charged and complicated thing.
They do seem to complement each other in this regard though with Ian generally more keen to initiate conversation but also getting more trapped into binaries, narratives of normativity and should-stories. While Mickey totally still projects an image that is informed by local expectations around masculinity and white supremacy, he’s also a rule-breaker in many ways and doesn’t have the same desire to conform to what society perceives to be “normal” (thanks HoS), especially behind closed doors and within his relationship with Ian (“liking what I like don’t make me a bitch”).
@fiona-fififi had a really good point in the tags a while back about how Mickey’s investment in their wedding and its success might have spurred Ian on further to embrace more normative ways of doing relationships. This is super interesting, and also makes me think just about how being married itself prompts Ian to think about taking a more active role in pushing the relationship further up the relationship escalator and in pushing for more communication around these steps in general.
There’s also something to be said about pressurising each other in 11x07, especially when they jokingly(?) threaten each other with sex with other men if both of them aren’t around. I doubt they were making these suggestions seriously but it definitely doesn’t strike me as the most consensual method of communication. But there’s parallels here with generally using sex as a bargaining chip earlier on in the season. Ian seems to do that after having exhausted his attempts at trying to have conversations around money/monogamy etc, as a tried and tested way of getting Mickey to engage with him. And it definitely reflects using sex with each other and sex/relationships with other people (e.g. s3 Angie/Ned, s10 Byron/Cole) as modes of communication in earlier seasons. It kind of makes sense that they still have these habits in s11 even if they are no longer the primary mode of communication.
Ian and Mickey relied so much on implicit communication in the early seasons and they have highly developed nonverbal ways of communicating. I don’t want to say that either verbal or nonverbal ways of communicating are inherently better than the other. They seem to understand each other on a deep level, which is really cool, but people have pointed out can make them think they don’t need to verbally communicate when they do, because they assume that they’ll understand one another and be on the same page. It’s super interesting to see them maintain that deep connection and continue to use nonverbal cues while also adopting more explicit and intentional communication styles in s10 and s11.
The windows of their relationship
The fandom is always bringing up how Ian and Mickey leave the doors open when they bang, lol, and also making fun of how much Ian overshares. I think this is v fair but it also strikes me as pretty healthy that he wants people to see into his and Mickey’s relationship, especially in his discussions with Lip. But Ian’s got plenty of people around him who can see and help when things get tough.
In s11, it’s great to see Mickey get closer to the Gallagher family and see various members defending him or taking his side in arguments, but he definitely does have less of an on-screen support system than Ian. (I wish that they had developed his and Sandy’s relationship in s11). I think the aftermath of the City Hall incident in s10 really reveals this particular imbalance in their relationship. On one level, Mickey moves in with Byron as a reaction to being hurt and even maybe a strategy of revenge/manipulation, on another, he doesn’t really have anywhere to go aside from the Gallagher house when/if he needs to get away from Ian. Also, the way he retreats back to the Gallagher house when he can’t deal with the Westside is an interesting development of this in s11.
Ian’s need to share stuff about their relationship is kind of exciting considering his history of being unforthcoming about his relationships (and his history of being in a lot of secret relationships), as well as how difficult he found it to talk about Mickey while Mickey was away. But there is a different problem with ongoing talk around privacy and boundaries here too (Mickey doesn’t want Ian to chat about how he’s not into rimming!). Although to be fair, Mickey also chats about a lot of explicit sex stuff with strangers.
Although they do ultimately decide against pursuing the pretty inorganic way of making friends in 11x07, Ian’s desire to make gay friends who he can talk to about relationship stuff makes sense in terms of the way he has been pushing for a more intentional relationship with more communication and more explicit discussion and compromise this season (and last season too). It also intersects with an idea of him/both of them going further to embrace gay sexuality as an identity.
It’s interesting that Mickey’s the one to initiate this decision through ribbing Ian about his relationship with Lip. Why’s Mickey doing that? Is it just to be a little shit or is he also trying (subconsciously?) to activate Ian in some direction? (And also, maybe there’s a parallel there to getting their apartment in the west side, where Mickey’s the one inadvertently introducing Ian to the idea by pushing for them to go play in the pool).
There’s a lot here which is just scratching the surface of thinking about Ian and Mickey’s relationship in the context of these different sexuality and relationship continua. For e.g. it would be really interesting to think more about this stuff in terms of shifting sex roles and kink exploration. Of course it’s all up for interpretation and I am sure I am highlighting areas that I’m personally interested in and inadvertently projecting myself/my own preferences and styles into this discussion. Very down for disagreements and discussions if other people are interested and manage to read all of this, lol.