thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

I Don’t Like Skyler White. And That’s Okay.

In class, feminism, gender, misogyny, Television, TV villains, violence on September 2, 2013 at 1:00 am

Sarah S.

Alright, “don’t like” might be a bit strong but I definitely feel conflicted about her. Shortly before this whole conversation blew up about Breaking Bad‘s Skyler I tweeted the question: do people find Skyler White sympathetic? I wondered if others felt confused about her waffling, her semi-dubious claiming of the high ground, her own forays into unethical and even criminal activity. Were her reactions to these circumstances believable? Does the plot justify the battling loyalty, loathing, and fear she heaps upon Walt (her chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-dealer husband)?

In case you missed it, a lot of people hate Skyler, and I mean HATE, given the number of Facebook pages and websites dedicated to loathing her. In a response, JOS of feministing.com blames sexism for society’s inability to accept a complex female character. The actress who plays Skyler, Anna Gunn, even wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled “I Have a Character Issue.” She describes getting death threats because of how people feel about the character she portrays. Similarly to JOS, Gunn argues that Skyler “has become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women.” This description makes it sound as if dislike for Skyler stems purely from misogyny but is Skyler really so uncompromised as Gunn and others make her sound?

***mild spoilers***

From the start of the series, we recognize Skyler and Walter White as two people profoundly disappointed by life. Dr. Walter White bungled his chance to be part of a successful company (or academia) and teaches high school chemistry to a bunch of millennial clichés. Skyler gave up her career to be a homemaker and mother to the White’s son, Walt Jr. (who rejects his father’s name, preferring to be called Flynn). Jr./Flynn is a pretty standard teenager, with a truly lovely heart under his 16-year old skin; he also has cerebral palsy, another bum hand of cards dealt to the White family. The Whites are lower-middle class and just when life seems settled they get surprise pregnant. Barely getting by, nearing middle age, and a baby on the way? What’s one more little thing like cancer?

Walt’s cancer diagnosis sends him on a predictable bit of soul-searching. What’s unpredictable about his response is his decision to begin cooking and dealing the best meth the world’s ever seen. Ostensibly, Walt wants to provide for his family after he’s gone. Yet he also uses his turn to criminality as a way to exorcise his demons of emasculation. That Walt feels emasculated in a profound, sincere way seems indisputable. Even his wife encourages their teenage son to idolize his uber-macho, DEA agent uncle, Hank, over his father. But Walt’s performance of masculinity as cruelty, criminality, manipulation, and violence highlights the dark side of the “breadwinner” ideal.

But Skyler’s hands aren’t entirely clean here. She too feels that Walt is unmanly, something of a failure, a hapless disappointment. When Walt, feeling newly virile due to his criminal successes (and impending mortality), commences making frequent, robust love to Skyler, she responds with surprise and pleasure. But when the lovemaking turns to fucking (there’s no more appropriate word for it), Skyler stops enjoying it and pushes back. I propose that this dynamic works as a metaphor for Skyler’s cycling relationship with Walt in the series: disappointed resignation, excitement and loyalty, fear and loathing. And just as throughout the series Walt spirals into and out of various personae and behaviors, so too does Skyler. Thus, she’s not really a “strong, unsubmissive, ill-treated woman” as Gunn would have us believe. Rather, she’s a highly complex and flawed human being, one capable of being, at times, weak or submissive, but one also capable of dishing out some ill-treatment herself.

Do I see sexism in the particular vitriol heaped upon Skyler over all the show’s other characters? Undoubtedly. But that doesn’t change the fact that as a thinking feminist currently obsessed with Breaking Bad that I feel conflicted about her. I feel deeply conflicted about her. And that’s okay. Because I feel conflicted about Walt. And Hank and Marie and Jesse and Mike and even Gus. Even Walt, Jr. and baby Holly seem destined for years of intense therapy. Breaking Bad is a show filled with deeply flawed people who live, breathe, develop, regress, commit acts of beauty, and make profound mistakes. Hating them is stupid but if all we did was “like” them, well, we wouldn’t be watching at all, would we?

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  1. Sarah, I just started watching Breaking Bad … I think you assessment of Skyler is so interesting! It seems like you are saying (maybe?) that Skyler is a kind of anti-hero? And maybe we’re not used to women occupying those kinds of roles? Part of the attacks against her/Gunn then maybe have to do with the character defying gendered expectations because Skyler is complex/inhabits an ethical grey area/is not necessarily good or bad?

  2. That’s an interesting question, P. I think of an anti-hero as someone who lacks traditional heroic qualities but that the audience roots for and relates to him or her nevertheless. Early on in the series Walt, Jesse, and Skyler all fit that mold. Ultimately, though, I think the show eschews heroes, anti- or otherwise, and that includes Skyler as well. So she’s not more complex or grey than the rest of the characters, I think she’s equally complex. The sexism, then, lies in hating her more than the others. Another explanation, which I don’t think inherently lies in sexism per se, is that on a core level the show is fascinated by masculinity and emasculation (particularly for white, middle class males). Because the show’s so interested in exploring this topic, I think that the women tend to come off as less developed and/or as culpable (villains?) in the male characters’ perception of their own emasculation. So some of the audiences’ dislike of Skyler (and perhaps Marie or other women) could be seen as misogynistic on those grounds but I also think it’s more complicated than that. In other words, a show’s exploration of masculinity and feelings of emasculation is not inherently sexist any more than a “woman’s” narrative is inherently feminist.

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