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.


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

Posted in feminism, guest post, television | 7 Comments

Excellent juxtapositions make me feel good


The placebo effect is truly fascinating – the top article of this pair describes how it can trigger the release of dopamine in people with Parkinson’s, or opioids in people expecting a painkiller. I hope we can find a way to exploit it that doesn’t involve ripping people off…

Posted in medicine, science, screenshots, silliness | Comments Off

Note to self: keep notes to self private

Two recent conversations sparked by cryptic notes I scribbled on post-its:

At home

Mr E Man: “Cath, what’s an e-Pig?”

Me: “What?”

Mr E Man: “On this post-it, look. ‘e-Pig meeting'”

Me: “OH! That’s my short-hand for epigenetics”

Mr E Man: “Well, that’s disappointing.”

(I now write it as epiG instead of just epig).

At work

Colleague: “Tuesday looks like it’s gonna be interesting”

Me: “Huh?”

Colleague: “Your post-it says ‘Replacement brain – Tuesday'”

Me: “…Replacement brain sample. Arriving on Tuesday. I have to complete the work request details”

Colleague: “That makes more sense.”

In other brain-related slip-ups, I was working on a spreadsheet at the end of the day yesterday and kept mistyping “frontal lobe” as “frontal love”. In my defence, my day had started with a 6am teleconference, and it was 5pm at the time; deciding to go to the pub and finish the spreadsheet on Monday seems to have been a good call.

Posted in communication, fun with language, science, silliness | 3 Comments

Quora: productive procrastination

I’ve recently started to spend some time on the question and answer site Quora, and I’m finding it be quite an effective science communication medium as well as excellent writing practice.

I can’t quite remember how I first came to join the site, a couple of years ago; I have a vague memory of all Twitter users being given automatic membership when Quora first started up, or something like that. I do remember poking around for a few minutes, not finding anything terribly interesting, and not returning for a long time.

However, I did somehow* end up subscribed to a weekly “best-of” email. I clicked through a couple of times, and the content I found there seemed to get more interesting over time. These emails survived the recent purge of my bac’n subscriptions (thank you Beth for introducing me to that term!), and I eventually added an answer to the featured question “What’s something that is common knowledge at your workplace, but would be mind-blowing to the rest of us?“. Before I knew it, I was getting votes, comments, and new followers galore – in other words, internet crack.

Having experimented a bit more over the last few months, I’ve found a pretty good balance of topics and people to follow that keeps my home page interesting and entertaining. I’ve had to tweak things a bit – I unfollowed some questions and some of the associated topics that came with them – but it seems to be a site with a good return on investment for this kind of tinkering.

For me, the primary value of the site is that it gives me experience in answering technical questions from non-experts. Writing for non-experts (in the form of lay abstracts for grants and content for our departmental website) is part of my job, but the little feedback I ever get from the target audience takes months to arrive. While serious Quora questions about the biology of cancer and other scientific subjects get much less traffic than threads about Game of Thrones theories and requests for everyone’s favourite puns, the feedback in the form of votes and comments is pretty much immediate, and I think I’ve already improved my non-technical writing as a result. Importantly for my continued participation, I’ve only encountered one user with a truly negative attitude (funnily enough, on a question I’d accidentally answered anonymously, which is an option for all questions and answers) – all my other interactions on the site have been great so far, including the “suggested edits” and other critiques I’ve received.

The primary advantage of practising for the unsolicited lay-language explanations I write at work by answering people’s specific questions is that I start to see some of the disconnects between my understanding of my field and the general public’s. I’ve seen some questions that twist my perception of a topic on its head, and make me look at it in a very different way – the best examples off the top of my head were the questions Why do all living things have DNA (but rocks don’t?) and “What prevents Herceptin from binding to HER2 receptors in regular, non-cancerous cells?“, but there have been others too. And even when the question is more straightforward, seeing the kinds of questions that people have about topics in my field still helps me write better lay abstracts and website content.

I’ve also asked questions about work-related but non-scientific issues on Quora, and received some very helpful answers (most notably on my question “What’s a good way to add a new page to Wikipedia when you have a Conflict of Interest?”)I’ve answered questions about grant writing, non-traditional academic careers, and all kinds of other topics in and around the scientific career path.

I’ve found that answering very specific Quora questions on any topic also helps me break through writer’s block. This is my excuse for all my answers on the topics of Game of Thrones, Friends, X-Files, puns, jokes, and other silly stuff. Yes, it’s still procrastination – even the sciency bits – but it feels like much more productive procrastination than Facebook.


*realised as I was writing this that it was starting to sound a bit like a cult! I swear it’s not. I don’t get to reach a new level of enlightenment if this post encourages other people to check it out, I promise!

Posted in cancer research, career, communication, evolution, fun with language, grant wrangling, science, television, the media | 6 Comments


I looked at one of my progress tracking graphs for one of my projects right after telling my colleague that Mr E Man had worked on the new Godzilla movie, and what I saw can not be unseen.





Posted in silliness | 8 Comments

Destroying the last shreds of Mr E Man’s anonymity for the sake of a good pun

Me: “Have you seen my bookmark?”

Him: “It’s in your hand”

Me: “…”

Me: “No, not ‘have you seen my book, Mark?’. I meant ‘have you seen my bookmark, Mark?'”

(Mark will continue to be referred to as Mr E Man on this blog, because a) I think it’s funny and b) I like it when he comes with me to meet bloggers and they call him Mr E Man to his face and he gets confused)

Posted in fun with language, silliness | 9 Comments

Where in the world was Cath in November?

Photo quiz time! Can you name the cities in the photos below?

Some of these are easier than others (I’ve tried to put the hardest ones first), so extra points if you can also name the building(s) in the photos!

I’ll send all comments to moderation for a few days, to give everyone a chance to play.

1 – from a train window


2 – ditto, but on a different day


3 – not King’s Landing


4 – if you know the name of this building, you’re one step ahead of me!


5 – featuring Mr E Man and my Dad


6 – taken the day before we started suffering from Golden Dome Fatigue


7 – there were dozens of teenagers dressed as vampires running around, for added atmosphere on this moonlit night


8 – still not King’s Landing, believe it or not. You can tell because a) there are modern vehicles in the shot, and b) King’s Landing is fictional


9 – this was part of the official sight-seeing tour on the first day of the conference that was the reason for this trip


10 – the view from right outside the door of my favourite hotel on the whole trip


11 – one of the most important and influential people in modern history, and some dude on a pedestal


12 – a different part of one of the buildings already pictured


13 – and the view from inside it


14 – two famous sights in one shot


Have fun!

Posted in photos, travel | 14 Comments

Rearranging the desk chairs

Once a fortnight, we have a team meeting in the boardroom of our main research building. It’s a room that’s much in demand, so we often have to wait a few minutes past the hour before we can get in – and this week we then had to tidy up the crackers and crumbs thereof that the group before us had left scattered all over the desks. Fun!

The arrangement of desks and chairs in the room varies quite widely, from a solid block to separate rows to a skinny horseshoe to a chunky horseshoe. However, yesterday was the first time I’d seen this set-up:

New Image

We’re wondering if a PI somewhere in the building just got a grant to study whether you can accurately gauge an academic’s reaction to a presentation by having a team of people study the back of their head… something to do with giving early-career researchers tools to judge whether they should ask a question at a conference or let the bigwigs up front deal with it… any other suggestions?

(I’ll be away for the next three weeks, but there’ll be a “where in the world was Cath this month?” photo challenge when I get back. Our tenant is looking after our house and kitties while we’re away, so I suggest you don’t break in – he’s a big dude. Kthxbai!).

Posted in photos, science, silliness | 1 Comment

Happy Hallowe’en!

From a Teenage Mutant Incompetent Ninja Turtle, and dead-Goose-from-Top-Gun


Yes, that’s a saw blade through my belly – like I said, incompetent ninja. I also had a backpack on under the t-shirt to make a shell, but it didn’t come out in any of the photos


What’s your costume this year?

Posted in photos, silliness | 2 Comments

Untangling the wrangling angle

HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :D

I’ll wait for the 5.5 year retrospective post to see just how much grant writing you *didn’t* get involved in… ;)

Thus spake the prophet Wintle in the year 2012, upon learning that I was starting a new job that would, in my words, “be somewhat similar to my current one, but with much more emphasis on project management and much less on writing grants”.

Well, he was WRONG! Wrong wrongity wrong.

It took 10 months, not 5.5 years.

Due to some changes in my team, I was asked in April to add “PI support” (grant wrangling, plus management of small- and medium-scale projects) for one of our bioinformatics PIs to my existing duties. I’d just literally that very week thought “I feel like I’m finally on top of things in my new role”, so of course I said yes (actually, I’d also thought “and now that I’m finally on top of things, I feel less busy than I think I should be”, so the change was genuinely welcome).

I’ve said before that I feel like a bit like a freak for actually enjoying grant writing (even some members of my current team think this is weird). However, I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed it until I was back in the middle of wrangling my first full application. My supervisor helped me identify part of the reason I like it so much: everyone’s pulling in the same direction, and focusing on the same thing. It can sometimes be hard to get a PI’s or other contributors’ attention on a long-term project, but when there’s a deadline, everyone’s priorities suddenly align. Grant writing also plays to my strengths; I’m better at writing, editing, and proofing than I am at some other aspects of long-term project management (how many errors will you spot in this blog post now that I’ve written that? In my defense, it’s been a long day that started with a 6:30 am teleconference). It helps that I’m working with a PI who’s doing some very cool (and diverse) research, a good writer, appreciative of my contributions, and not averse to having a bit of fun with his science.

Related to the latter point, I am now also the OAG (official acronym generator) for the bioinformatics research group. I seem to have a knack for it, and will share some of my favourites as soon as they’re published or otherwise released into the public domain… hopefully on the CIHR or NIH “funded grants” description page…

Granted (heh), after submitting five full applications between September 15th and (hopefully) tomorrow, the thrill of being back in the grant wrangling saddle has faded a leeetle, but I have a vacation coming up soon to recharge my batteries.

Oh, and the science tamagotchi husbandry effect is once more in play but hey, I’m used to that. And did I mention vacation? Soon?

I have a guest post up on the Research Whisperer site today about grant writing as a career, if you’d like to know more

Posted in blog buddies, career, grant wrangling, science | 3 Comments