Hating Skyler White: reflection on gender roles in pop culture (guest post by Jane O’Hara)

There are some TV characters that people love to hate. What’s the harm, you might say, when you know that they aren’t real people? But can these attitudes provide us with a mirror for some of the ugly ideas still pervasive in society about how women should act?

 

Anna Gunn as Skyler and Bryan Cranston as Walter White, season five. Photograph: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Being a bit behind the times, I have finally got around to watching the very last episode of the extremely popular series Breaking Bad! (**Spoiler alert, maybe don’t read unless you have at least reached Season 5 – though I don’t give away too many major plotlines).

Not being a huge TV fan, I almost never get sucked into watching these multi-season epic shows (24 was an exception, back when I was studying for my Masters. Jack Bauer rocks). Consequently, I often find myself out of the loop when conversations turn to the latest “in” show, whether it’s Game of Thrones or Mad Men. But, armed with the wondrous invention of TV streaming, when sick at home for a few days recently I had the ideal time and means to dip into popular culture, and chose Breaking Bad for my ‘fix’. I quickly got stuck into the compelling storylines and characters.

I didn’t have a strong opinion on Walter White’s wife, Skyler, in the beginning, as she was sort of a background character; Walt was at the centre of the action. Although Skyler’s innocent ignorance of the situation made me feel sorry for her, it was enjoyable to watch the building of suspense toward that moment when she would eventually find out what her husband was mixed up in, and how he had changed from the person she thought she knew. It made for excellent drama!

There were times when I cringed, or shook my metaphorical fist at the screen when she was being manipulated by Walt – which was often. But, as soon as even a fraction of what Walt was doing clicked into place for her, from the point when he let it slip that he had a second cellphone as he was drifting off under anaesthesia, we really got to see what Skyler was made of – and she was not going to be a submissive doormat. I found her to be a strong, believable character, so I delved into some commentary online, to get a sense of other takes on the dynamic between Skyler and Walt. In my searching I came across this recent (2013) editorial piece in NYT, written by the actress who portrayed Skyler, Anna Gunn, describing her utter bewilderment at the amount of hatred directed toward her character. I was shocked to learn that Skyler was on the receiving end of such dedicated vitriol and poison-spitting, notably on two Facebook pages entitled “I Hate Skyler White” and the other, less gentle “F*** Skyler White”. The type of posts on these pages were in line with plenty of other spew that you’d encounter on online forums, where people seem to forget (or don’t care) that what they write can be publicly viewed. Most of the posts and comments are really not worth reprinting, but typically called Skyler a bitch, on the basis that she had an extra-marital affair, and for being opposed to Walt’s new criminal career choices. (Even more ridiculously, some comments indicated blurred lines between Skyler the character, and Anna Gunn herself, at least one even threatening to kill the actress – which understandably caused Gunn to fear for her safety.)

Side note: I tweeted Anna Gunn’s editorial, along with the question, “Why do #strongwomen characters receive so much hatred?”, and a random person replied “She’s not a strong woman. She’s a bitch”. Ohhh, a bitch, I see. Why didn’t I think of that?

Typical “meme” posted on such Facebook pages as mentioned above.

So my question, then, is this: was there a reason behind all this Skyler-hating? The negative comments and judgement of Skyler intensified after airing of the episodes where she found out that Walt was a meth cook and dealer, and were focused on her reaction to this knowledge and the way she subsequently related to him.

Was it simply that she was not fulfilling her traditional role as a wife and mother – should she have just shut up and supported Walt no matter what? I find this position hard to understand, as it seemed that Skyler’s first priority was to protect herself and her children, instincts that I feel are more fundamentally human than abiding by your marriage vows despite facing a threatening situation. She didn’t sign up to be the wife of a drug peddler, with all the accompanying risks! She also received criticism for later adjusting her antagonistic position and accepting Walt’s behaviour by agreeing to launder the money and hide the truth from her sister. But, come on – this also seemed like something a real live person might do. Maybe she was burying her head in the sand, but it never looked to me like greed, rather reluctant complicity in the absence of a better situation.

It also made me wonder if it was just too easy, too obvious, to hate Walt, and therefore this feeling was transferred to his wife. Conversely, did viewers feel that Walt deserved our loyalty from day one, as the protagonist? Walt started as a man who did bad things with honourable intentions, but ended up as a psychopath who did horrendous things for his own selfish gain. The genius of the writing was that because this progression was so gradual, it was easy to forget. As Anna Gunn alluded in her editorial, we were primed to empathise with Walt’s original predicament, and Skyler was set up as his opposing foil all the way through. For me though, Walt’s actions provoked my increasing fear and disgust. I then found myself empathising with Skyler and even cheering her on when she uttered zinger lines like “I f***ed Ted” in Season 3, or in Season 5 where she tells Walt she’s biding her time, waiting. Walt: “What are you waiting for?” Skyler: “For the cancer to come back.” Attacking her (as some online commenters did, quite savagely) because of these behaviours toward her husband doesn’t make sense, when you take into account all the pressure she was under and how her situation had become a nightmare. Cheating on Walt seemed to be the only way she could take back some power. Waiting for him to die from his illness was the only way out that she could foresee, for herself and the kids; it would also allow her to keep the truth from Walt Junior (aka Flynn), and let him continue believing that his father was a good man.

Despite what I see as this misplaced hatred, I appreciate that this character and the way she has been perceived has prompted a discussion about how society expects women to behave. We need to remain aware that as long there are double standards of judgement for men and women, we won’t reach equality among the sexes. Skyler was a strong, compelling character with many facets to her personality. This is contrary to the one-dimensional female characters we’re regularly exposed to on TV and in movies, who typically play one of the following roles: the Femme Fatale who relies on her looks and sex appeal to get through life, the ball-breaking career woman, or the nagging wife/mother. Some of these elements can also be seen in Skyler, but her character is more complex than any one stereotype. She evolved from ordinary, slightly bored housewife, to being frantically worried about her dying husband, to a woman who is angry about being betrayed and deceived, to a sharp-minded co-conspirator in survival mode. Most importantly, she became a nuanced character in her own right, and more than just an accessory to Walt’s plotlines. In my opinion we need to see more such multi-layered female characters appearing on screen from now on, to go beyond the stereotypes of women we’ve been stuck with in the past. This responsibility largely rests with the writers and producers of TV shows and movies – who are predominantly male. Let’s hope they will listen to our pleas and create more active, autonomous roles for women.

What do you think – did you love Skyler or hate her – or have mixed feelings? Does this type of reaction toward a female character betray a misogynistic undercurrent in our society? I’d love to hear any comments.

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Jane O’Hara has a PhD in Molecular Biology, and works as a postdoc at the University of British Columbia. She occasionally writes as a guest blogger about scientific topics, and has recently added themes of feminism and pop culture into the mix. Follow her on Twitter @Curious_JaneO

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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7 Responses to Hating Skyler White: reflection on gender roles in pop culture (guest post by Jane O’Hara)

  1. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Thanks Jane!

    I have to admit that I didn’t like Skyler White’s character in the first couple of seasons of Breaking Bad (which we recently binge-watched from the beginning, starting with our long flight to Germany in November and ending just a couple of weeks ago). The writing was so clever, and – as you say – Walt’s transformation was so gradual, that I was really rooting for him for way longer than I should have been, and in the beginning she was set up as an obstacle to his success. (Even in season five, I found myself still rooting for Walt, and had to remind myself of the rising body count…).

    But then she revealed a completely different side of herself when she became involved in his schemes, and I’ve loved her ever since. Yes, even when Walt was deliberately setting her up as the “bad cop” in their parenting relationship, for example when she took away Junior’s sweet new car. I think this is another reason a lot of people don’t like her – even though this was a choice many (most?) mothers would have made, you can’t help but empathize a little with the kid getting his shiny new toy taken away. Maybe the online hate reflects the immaturity of internet communication in general?

  2. chall says:

    Nice writing and good points!

    I didn’t like Skylar in the first season, or to be fair – wasn’t impressed with how the writers treated the character since she was just a side character… then when BB got its second and third season they clearly realised they could move her into the story more. I think the analysis is pretty spot on, both that she is the one to dislike because “she’s not rooting for ‘our hero’ Walt” and of course, that she “doesn’t stand by her man” one dimensional and being a true supporter as female characters are usually prone to have to do.

    I ended up thinking “what would I do/feel”, especially when she started being aware that something was going on…. i mean, it’s very easy to say “i would never do anything criminal” but I do think that the show portrayes (sp?) that it’s not balck and white as much as a gradual slide into grey and then it’s easier to go all black than to clean up your act. All the lies end up making it messy and then you lok at your little baby and get conflicted?

    As for the hate towards her. It’s pretty clear that you don’t see the same groups against “male characters who are standing up for themselves”…. not that there are that many characters as Skylar out there tho (go figure). Wish i could say something about Cersei (sp), Olivia Pope (scandal) and some of the other female characters in popular shows since maybe that would be a good comparison but I’m not sure about that, especially not now in the morning.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Cersei Lannister is definitely an interesting comparison. I think she doesn’t inspire quite so much hate for a number of reasons:

      - she’s one of many very complex, morally ambiguous female characters in GoT;
      - she’s almost too easy to hate, in a way – too obvious- ;
      [**spoiler alerts**] I think the fictional, fantasy setting makes a difference, too – you don’t look at Cersei and think of yourself and the women in your own life so much. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t reading GoT and thinking “hmmm, what would I do if I had an illegitimate son with my twin brother and then decided to kill off my boorish husband, who happened to be the king, so I could place said illegitimate son on the throne, but then I found out that my son’s a psychopath, but I wanted to keep him in power and I also had to protect him because his Uncle was working with a mysterious sorceress who can kill people with shadows, and meanwhile the rightful queen had obtained some dragons?” It makes “hmm, what would I do if I found out my husband was using his chemistry skills to run a meth lab?” seem very plausible indeed :D

      • chall says:

        You got a big point there Cath! (although, if my husband was king and everyone and their uncle was trying to go for the throne myself I think I’d be busy trying to make more allies, and wine – don’t forget the wine :) ) Overall, I didn’t want to compare any female characters of GoT simply because that’s one part where I’m not overly impressed with Martin and also because of that “imagniative world” which makes the comparisons much harder.

        Guess Weeds, Scandal, Breaking Bad are better comparisons? I’ve wondered about “Rizzoli and Isles” (two strong women) with quirks – although that is different of course. All in all, I have a hard time finding another huge show like BB with a strong female lead like Skylar (and side Marie). Suggestions?

  3. Aoife Bennett-Curry says:

    The reaction to Skyler is so interesting. I am also not a t.v. nor series watcher. My husband and I decided to try to watch this together as we spend a lot of time apart and we though ti would be a nice way to inject another ‘shared’ experience into our lives.

    About half way through the series, I googled Skyler and when saw all the hate directed towards her charter I was also surprised. I was even more surprised when I told my husband about it and he said “rightly so, she is a bitch”.

    Now, though his response irritated me slightly, it made me think too. My husband is in no way afraid of powerful, independent or strong women. Quite the opposite. He has dealt with the challenge of the almost permanent absence of his wife since marriage with pride and admiration. He is supportive of my aggressive ambition in trying to get a PhD and manage a busy career. He has put up with taunts from friends about the lack of babies and responded to them with a cool nonchalance. So, why did he think Skyler was a bitch? It wasn’t because she is ‘strong’. When I asked him he referred to the infidelity. One could accept this justification and assume that men hate her because she cheated. Men hate to lose sexual exclusivity to their women. Normal, right?

    I think it is a bit more complex than this. Skyler is perceived as a bitch because she is at once a strong character, and a weak one. She straddles the fence between traditional housewife homemaker and intelligent independent thinker/doer. Her bizarre insistence on keeping Walts image clean for the ‘sake’ of her kids does not resonate with progressive modern societies that embrace woman power, and her half hearted way of doing it (standing by him but not allowing him sleep with her, saying she wants him to die, losing her family over him but not really being with him either, allowing herself to deteriorate in public with the booze and swimming pool incident) does not it sit well with traditional types such as the Latin American ones which I study. She doesn’t quite ‘fit’ with anything. So, she is easy to hate.

    Let’s not forget either, that at the beginning of the series when Walt is in the hospital busy constructing his first big lie (the concussion), when he tells Skyler to “crawl out of his ass”, we are led to believe by her reaction that this is the first time he has ever stuck up to her. I didn’t particularly like her overbearing character at the beginning, and I can promise you that most men certainly won’t have liked it either. Walt was a wimp, a coward. He epitomises what none of us want to be. He let his friends profit from his ideas because he was too chicken to face the fact that the object of his affection had chosen his business partner, he took a job that was below him, and then he let Skyler dominate him for the rest of his life. I think that it is easy to forget all the other things, and just focus on Skylers domineering personality. Making a man a wimp makes a woman a bitch. This is not new at all.

    But what about Marie? People can love Marie, because she stood by her man with love and affection no matter how incredibly rude her husband was to her. We accept that because Hank says she is his everything to people when she is not there, and he buys her flowers when he has been a total asshole – he loves her really and that’s all that counts. Crock of shit. Why is noone hating Marie for manifesting all of life’s disappointments in kleptomania, instead of getting a bit more of what she wanted out of life? Skyler wanted to be a housewife until she could no longer be that because of Walts actions. She may not have dealt with the situation well, but in fairness the situation was a bit left field! Marie on the other hand, had voluntarily settled into a life of loneliness, she chose to live that way.

    But I digress, Marie is another blog for Jane. I could go on for ages, but I have to get on with being a bitch.

    I can’t believe I watched a whole series, and that now I am participating in blogging about it! :-D

    • chall says:

      Thanks for pointing out the per-first season Skylar-Walt dynamic that I didn’t think about as much. sure sounds like he wasn’t the most assertive man.

      As for Marie, I think part of the “can’t hate her as much” is that she can’t have children, which makes her more of a “likable sad person” and that her relationship with Hank has gone through a lot due to that?! I might be wrong, but it was one thing that stood out to me when her character went down hill with the seasons…. she wanted something that she couldn’t be?

  4. Curious_JaneO says:

    Thanks for the comments, Cath, Chall and Aoife!

    There was obviously a lot more to discuss about Skyler and the show’s other main female character, Marie, than I attempted to do in this blog. All were interesting points that you’ve brought up, not least of which was the part about women protecting their children from the image of a ‘bad’ father, echoing Aoife’s comment, and which another friend told me was ingrained in the Latin American culture in which she grew up. I did mention this somewhat as a positive thing, or a rationale for Skyler’s covering up of Walt’s activities, but realise now that this action could be viewed in the opposite way, i.e. that it could be oppressive for the women and children in these situations.

    Somebody else in an offline comment mentioned they were disappointed with the lack of treatment or exploration Skyler’s dichotomous behaviour recieved; specifically, her scheming to get Ted off the hook for his tax fraud, where she played into the dumb blonde stereotype (me, oh I’m just a silly secretary woman, can’t trust me to do anything right, type thing) which although it showed her outstanding brains and cunning, didn’t serve her well from a feminist perspective. I had to admit that this one passed me by, (and I even admired her for it) precisely because it plays into one of those female stereotypes that we are so used to seeing on the screen. If anything, this has taught me to pay attention more closely to what I watch, and not blindly take it in – although sometimes this requires for more concentration than one would want while watching TV for pleasure!