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?