Tuned In

On Anna Gunn, the Skyler-Hating Sexists, and the Billion-Megaphone Era

The misogynist criticism of Breaking Bad's female lead is both a real problem and an example of how the most obnoxious shouters get to define the discussion.

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Ursula Coyote/AMC

I’m back from vacation. As always, in my job, that means a stack of mail to open, e-mails to answers, and p.r. pitches to respond to. It also means, more and more these days, a week’s backlog of fleeting-but-intense social-media controversies on which Everyone Must Have an Opinion.

Like much of the aforementioned mail, I’ll gladly skip most of them. Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke: have fun, you crazy kids. Ben Affleck: you may cash that Batman check with my blessing. (Seriously: was it an actual controversy last week that someone cast a movie star to play a superhero?)

But one thing I did want to blog about is Anna Gunn’s New York Times op-ed about the misogynist tone of many Breaking Bad viewers who hate her character, Skyler White, and by extension sometimes Gunn herself. Number one, because she’s absolutely right about a real, disturbing, and repeated phenomenon in TV drama. And number two, because the phenomenon is nonetheless also an example of how, in the era of the billion megaphones, the most obnoxious shouters and simplistic complaints end up defining the discussion.

Gunn’s op-ed first: Skyler–unaware of her husband’s drug dealing, then disapproving, then a reluctant accomplice–has, as she says, “become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women.” Many detractors (and this does not mean everyone critical of the show or of Skyler) attack her in misogynistic gendered terms, as a “shrew,” a “harpy,” a bummer, and a bitch who benefits from Walter’s crime yet judges him for it. (This, though the “benefits” include fear of prison, fear for her children, and being shackled to a man who uses both fears to keep her in his business and his bed.) There’s an “I Hate Skyler White” Facebook page, and much worse.

Skyler, as Gunn writes, has company in such antihero-drama wives as Carmela Soprano and Betty Draper (as well as, if you broaden the category, The Walking Dead’s Lori, Boardwalk Empire’s Margaret, Homeland’s Jessica Brody, and others). Disliking these characters or finding them morally shady does not make anyone a sexist. Part of what makes a Breaking Bad or Sopranos brilliant is that they interrogate the idea of complicity and enabling crime, in a way that nods to the small moral compromises everyone makes in life. In its way, treating Skyler as a saintly martyr would deny the strength of her character (and Gunn’s outstanding performance) as much as writing her off as a buzzkill bitch.

But there’s an added dimension to some of the hateration that is a much-repeated pattern: the resentment of the wife (or wife figure) who keeps the antihero down, who holds the atavistic fantasies of the show in check, who distracts from the visceral action and gets in the way of the general ass-kicking. In The Sopranos, for instance, the sexist jabs at Carmela overlapped with some fans’ desire that the show be all whackings, all the time, with no diversions into the “boring,” “soap opera” marriage-and-family stuff. (All those terms being not necessarily sexist in themselves, but also not entirely separable from sexism–i.e., the idea that stories about relationships are lady things.)

It’s disturbing, much like the troglodyte comments that Girls draws over Lena Dunham’s physical appearance. But it also (as Willa Paskin writes today in Slate) is not the sum total of criticism of any of these shows, or a sudden regression in society. It’s a sad reaction but not a new one: what’s new(er) is that there are so many more platforms.

A common refrain in these pop-culture (and for that matter non-pop-culture) controversies today is that, while the issue at hand may not be a new one, it’s become bigger and louder and more pronounced. Were there as many negative comments about Carmela Soprano back in 2002? Of course not–in terms of sheer volume, there weren’t as many positive or neutral comments about her either before Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr, or about anything. But I was writing about The Sopranos since its first season, and I remember well the anti-Carmela grumbling around fantastic marriage-centered episodes like “Whitecaps.”

“Did Sex and the City get as much attention as Girls for _____?” “Did people complain as much when NYPD Blue ______?” Answer: no, probably not, but that’s pretty much true by definition. I would not be surprised if, say, on a sheer words-created basis there was more comment and argument over Affleck-as-Batman than there was over, I don’t know, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. But that should not be confused with its actually being a bigger deal.

I realize this is in danger of becoming more “social media is ruining our culture” kvetching–but that’s actually the opposite of my experience of social media. Which is part of my point. I’ve been on Twitter for over four years, Facebook about the same, I’ve blogged going on eight years now. In pretty much every sense all of these media have only made my life and my work better: they create communities, enrich discussion, give me good ideas (and a sounding board for my lousy ideas)–and they just make the business of writing and thinking about all this stuff more fruitful and fun. Most of the people I engage with about TV on Twitter, on my blog, and so on are thoughtful and decent and a good time to be (virtually) around.

But it’s also easy, when you spend a lot of time in quick-reacting, ever-opining social environments, to think that that virtual chorus is the whole world. It’s like having sudden clairvoyance–the disorienting superpower rush of suddenly having the world’s thoughts opened up to you. It’s easy to believe that because you can hear more hate that there is more hate. And just as in the physical world, it’s all too easy to focus on one jerk who poisons your faith in humanity over 99 folks who affirm it.

There’s an Internet meme that’s come up in response to this: “Don’t Read the Comments,” which admittedly is pretty solid and tempting advice when it comes to the unmoderated swamps of many political comments sections. Entirely ignoring comments, though, would mean letting real ugliness go un-responded to, and Gunn’s op-ed was a strong reminder that sometimes someone’s gotta speak up.

Just remember that “I Hate Skyler White” is not the world. Anyone up for starting a “I Have Complicated, Mixed Feelings Toward Skyler White” Facebook page?

23 comments
WhatsWrongWithYou
WhatsWrongWithYou

I'm on the 3rd season, and Skyler is a bitch here. She had no right to throw him out of the house. And I don't understand what he did that was so terrible, as people seem to keep bringing up. Meth shouldn't be illegal, whoever wants to take it can take it, and the only people he killed were lousy degenerates anyway. Maybe that changes later in the show, but up till he did nothing wrong.  

barbarianflanker
barbarianflanker

Things like this where people become so extremely outspoken toward their hatred of a character, or even the actor portraying them are one negative associated with the social media rich world we now live in. I am the writer of a blog that emphasizes the way in which advancing technology has impacted the film and television industries, and I have written before about the benefits social media can have on these industries. However where I feel that social media is mainly a good thing for television and film by allowing fans to connect over their favorite shows as well as sometimes influence the resurrection of a beloved favorite like Joss Whedon's Firefly, sometimes there can be negatives. Social media has provided people an mostly anonymous place where they can rant and rave and be as dissrespectful and loud about this as they want, and of course some people will take advangatge of this and make the whole process less fun for those who are simply trying to continue and expand their love for a show.

Ian Moore. 

ianamoore.wordpress.com

barbarianflanker@gmail.com

Mr.Wallingford
Mr.Wallingford

What I can't understand is why so many people get so heated over a damned TV show. It's a great show, but still...it's only TV, it's entertainment. 

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

I'm always puzzled as to why people hate characters, as if those characters are starring in a reality show. As if those characters, those actors, make up that stuff on the fly. I can't remember exactly, but it might have been on one of Alan Sepinwall's video feeds from (oh, what the hell is that thing called where you guys go every summer?) - and I can't remember who said it, but in defending a character, one of the actors did say, "You know this is not a documentary, right?"

vrcplou
vrcplou

I see the old/new Skyler in terms of how the character has changed as Walt and the dynamics of their marriage have changed. I think "old" Skyler was kind of pushy but that was the way the marital dynamic was at the time. Walt had no spine, really, and Skyler got to navigate the marriage. Haven't we all seen this dynamic in married friends? I know I have - it's almost more a parent/child relationship than a partnership of equals. The "new" Skyler has had to come to terms with the "new" Walt; a man who has taken the reins of his life for better or worse and she's along for the ride until she decides to get out. That's going to be a bumpy ride and I personally have enjoyed it. So there's an old/new Walt, an old/new Skyler, an old/new marriage. And now there's probably an old/new Hank and Marie.

All that said, I do think there are people that have problems with complicated women and entertainment still has a tendency to categorize female characters in the Madonna/Wh*re paradigm. but I would also agree that not reading comments or at least not taking those comments are representative of greater humanity is a good tip for one's mental health.

jrhhh
jrhhh

This why me and my sister hate skyler. Is she was mad and ignoring Walter for not wanting to do the chemo for his cancer. Walter was scared of dying through that pain which chemo would make worse. I have first hand knowledge of seeing people worse with chemo and not making it alive. Walter did not want to leave his family with debt and not survive. Walter has to go through this it was his decision to make. Then what does Skyler do she acts like a baby and ignores Walter. Skyler gets mad at Walter for going to places for long hours and not telling her. Yes Walter was doing bad but Skyler does not know that. I mean Walter is possibly dying and your not going tell how you feel and explain yourself. Then Skyler cheats on Walter with guy who is breaking the law by not paying his taxes. So cheating on your husband is not a big deal. Skyler seemed like a hypocrite. I do not hate her for trying do the right thing or being a woman. I think people reaction to person personalities are different among people.

CormacMichael
CormacMichael

@Chicago_John I saw this a few days ago - totally agree. I've had that conversation with a lot of Breaking Bad fans.

TylerKnightxxx
TylerKnightxxx

@TIME The character is flat-out unsympathetic, a bigger antagonist to the main character than death, & presents an unwinnable double bind

DallasMarcone
DallasMarcone

I despise Skyler White, but anyone who says Anna Gun aint a great actress for making you feel that much hate for a character is on the crack pipe.

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

James, I'm with you on Twitter, Facebook, et al being on balance good things. Having said that, though, can I just kvetch about LiveFyre suddenly doing that thing where it includes random, context-free tweets about the article in the comments? It seemed to not be doing that for a few happy months, but now that "feature" seems to be back again. Feh.

I'm glad that every TV critic I read has lately been grappling with the hating-Skyler phenomenon. But I noticed that two superb woman critics, Mo Ryan and Willa Paskin, seem to have directly conflicting takes on the arc of her character:

Mo thinks she was written poorly at the start and much prefers the more recent version of Skyler: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maureen-ryan/anna-gunn-breaking-bad-skyler-white_b_3810989.html

While Paskin prefers old, "naggy" Skyler:  http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/08/26/anna_gunn_s_new_york_times_op_ed_about_hatred_for_breaking_bad_s_skyler.html

Not that either criticism is invalid, or that everybody should be on the same Skyler page! But this still dismays me: Skyler just seems never to be able to win, even with the most thoughtful critics. As for me, I love both naive, loving 1st-season Skyler and fully aware, grimly conniving 5th-season Skyler. I don't understand why different parts of (what I consider to be) Skyler's well-written and fantastically acted character arc should be severed from the rest of it and dismissed that way. In the course of purportedly defending Skyler, both Ryan and Paskin seem to be dinging the character/the writers for Skyler not being their preferred incarnation of her throughout the series (never mind the character's circumstances and what she does or doesn't know at any given time). Ay yi yi, poor Skyler. A projection screen for every viewer, now shouldering the burden of being a "good" female character in an antihero show (whatever that means to whoever is watching), and damned from just about every angle.   

I had similar issues with Alan Sepinwall's review of "Buried," in which he purports to both explain and speak out against the Skyler hate: http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/review-breaking-bad-buried-geocaching-out

I don't understand why Sepinwall locates the (ahem) root of the Skyler hate in the "birthday handj*b" scene in the pilot. Because men are/Walter White is of course always entitled to fully attentive handj*bs? QED? Really?! And after several readings of the post, I'm still not quite sure: Does Sepinwall himself think that's a fundamentally damning/damaging scene for Skyler, or is he arguing that the dudes who just want Walt to be Scarface would think so?

James, I like what you said on Twitter about not seeing how that sweet, funny scene---in which Walter, too, is tired and distracted!---somehow makes Skyler "History's Greatest Handj*b Monster." I'm mystified as to how the scene could be thought to legitimately create what Sepinwall calls a "dark early image" of Skyler.

(With all due respect, I find Sepinwall to be not quite the sensitive critic of the way women are depicted on TV he seems to think he is. I remember his writing about Enlightened and how he was so relieved when he realized [I paraphrase], "Oh, I'm supposed to find Amy totally obnoxious and cringeworthy! I'm supposed to hate how she confronts Krista in the final episode! So it's okay that I do hate her in this situation!"  I was, like, "Nnnooo, I'm fairly sure that Mike White and Laura Dern would hope that although you may start with that emotion, that's not the emotion you end with. Krista certainly hasn't always behaved like a spotless angel to Amy, and Amy has some legitimate [and less-legitimate!] reasons to respond to Krista as she does. It's complicated, like real life, real people, and real emotions!")


anon76
anon76

A little off topic James, but there is nothing obvious on Tuned In that identifies it as a blog these days.  Not sure if that is intentional on your or Time's part, but it has led to some amusing comments recently regarding the lack of polish on a "Publication from Time".

WhatsWrongWithYou
WhatsWrongWithYou

And I don't hold it against her that she cheated, she's well within her rights to do that too. 

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@TheHoobie I think Sepinwall was identifying the HJ scene as a reason Skyler-haters have given for hating her. As I said on Twitter, I'm honestly surprised anyone thinks that scene shows her in a negative light. Walt's just turned 50; it just seemed like a funny illustration of boring, perfunctory married sex. (I would guess that Walt likewise is not a tiger in the sack at that juncture in his life, and that in turn plays off the final scene, which shows his libido having been stoked by his meth adventure in the desert.)

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@anon76 It's more of a format/organization decision by TIME and time.com than my decision, but it's pretty much been this way since Tuned In became a blog-within-TIME's-Entertainment-section a year or two ago. Since then, the main identifiers of it have been, essentially, the Tuned In logo and the shoddiness of my work. In any case, there's still a separate standalone link to Tuned In at: http://entertainment.time.com/category/tuned-in/

TigerKAMIKAZE
TigerKAMIKAZE

@mariananbk @erickcc eso habla del nivel del "personaje". Es como Jodorowsky, usa actores tan culeros que los odias, pero ese era el punto.

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

@jponiewozik Oh, I just realized I misquoted you! I think you wrote, "Handj*b History's Greatest Monster," not "History's Greatest Handj*b Monster." A subtle but important difference! (Far be it from me to misquote someone on such an important topic!)

johnradke
johnradke

@tauriqmoosa The attitudes you describe here seems consistent with transphobia, too - viewing other humans as objects to be judged