Before Breaking Bad came to an end this fall, Anna Gunn wrote an incisive New York Times op-ed about the fans–especially men–who had developed a consuming hate for Skyler White, her character on Breaking Bad. Though Skyler was, after all, married to a lying, murdering drug dealer, she was the one fans turned on as a shrew and a buzzkill–a common fate among the wives and female associates of TV antiheroes going back to Carmela Soprano. Now it’s Maggie Siff’s Tara on Sons of Anarchy having her turn in that cultural barrel, and she talked to Entertainment Weekly about the experience. It’s worth listening to, and reading, before the show’s sixth season finale:
[T]hese shows are always set up so we follow a protagonist and the story is very intricately built around caring for them in some way. And so anybody who runs counter to that is going to run into the problem of people turning on them. But I also think there are pretty deep gender cultural issues that have to do with a certain kind of fantasy of male and female roles, and a certain kind of fantasy around this anti-hero — the man who does terrible, terrible things but who we root for anyway because it’s an enactment of an adolescent male fantasy that people take great pleasure in seeing played out. And people who run counter encounter a lot of hostility. I think it’s the hostility that’s the most disturbing thing — the amount of vehemence or anger or righteousness that people can feel when they say, “She should be shot. She should be killed.”
You only have to see so much of this vitriol, so many times, on so many shows, before you see the sexism at work. And it’s sickening. Skyler and Carmela made some ugly moral compromises. So has Tara: this season, attempting an elaborate fake-pregnancy lie and scheming to escape Charming with Jax’s children. But 1) the audience easily gives more license to the ugly things the men of SAMCRO do, and 2) little bit of an extenuating circumstance, wouldn’t you think, for a mom trying to get her kids away from a murderous criminal organization?
I posted about this Tara-hate phenomenon on Twitter earlier this season, though, and got some defenses of that viewpoint not just from men but from women, so I think there are factors here that are not sexism, strictly, though they’re entangled in it. SOA is a story about people who love and fight for family and wrestle with the right thing, but they’re also, by and large, violent criminals. You can watch a show like this–like Breaking Bad, like The Sopranos–and be fascinated by the characters without approving of them. But not everyone is going to do that. For some viewers, the question will be: “Every week I root for Jax to do something awesome and fix his problems. If I am not against anyone who gets in his way, why am I even watching this show?”
I should stress here that there’s a difference between some fans’ attitudes toward Tara and the show’s attitude itself. Kurt Sutter doesn’t always strike a perfect balance between cheerleading SAMCRO and questioning its actions, but his show generally makes its women strong and multifaceted. Tara is good and bad, like most of the characters on this show, but SOA has a sympathy for her that I think some fans just don’t pick up on. The end of a recent episode, in which Tara realizes that her escape scheme has failed and she has nowhere to go, was for my money one of the most emotionally wrenching moments of the whole season.
That’s not going to stop some fans, though–in what is becoming a very, very tiring and depressing story–from signing up with Team Jax and making Tara the enemy. You can try to bring people a morally complex biker story, but some of them are simply not going to go along for the ride.