Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn made waves in the television universe last week when she wrote into the New York Times to criticize audience backlash against her character, Skyler White, and herself as an actress. Titled “I Have A Character Issue,” the actress notes that message board attacks on her character have gotten so personal that she’s often feared for her life. Reflecting on the hate, Gunn argues that Skyler acts a “flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, non-submissive, ill-treated women.” Gunn writes, “Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she [has] become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.”
In the essay, Gunn harkens back to other TV wives who elicited the same hatred — famously The Sopranos’ Carmela and Mad Men’s Betty Draper — and while being an interesting excavation into our longstanding views on female characters, Gunn misses the mark — and the point. Gunn paints Skyler White purely as a victim of her husband, and there’s no denying that. She’s been emotionally manipulated, lied to and raped for seasons now, and any transgressions on her part don’t hold a candle to her husband’s. She had an affair on him, but the last time I checked she hasn’t poisoned any kids or killed anyone.
Although Gunn talks about Skyler as being a “multi-layered” antagonist for Walt, those layers are precisely what make her so interesting. She might be abused, but she’s not a victim, and like Carmela and Betty Draper before her, Skyler White isn’t particularly likeable either. From the get go, creator-producer Vince Gilligan characterizes her as unsympathetic to what Walt is going through, and she’s presented as an obstacle for him. According to Gunn, Gilligan wrote her as a “woman with a backbone of steel who would stand up to whatever came her way, who wouldn’t just collapse in the corner or wring her hands in despair.” This can make her annoying, but occasionally she’s awesome — and just as paradoxically thrilling as Walt.
However, that doesn’t make her some sort of hero. Far from it. In many ways, Skyler is morally compromised along with her husband — from helping him launder him money to enabling a hardened criminal. Nothing about Gunn’s performance suggests that Skyler is sympathetic in traditional ways, and that’s okay. In order to tune into the show, we sign on every week to identifying with a meth dealer who brags about being a murderer, watching Walt go from a mild-mannered suburban Dad to pure evil. Such an arc is even suggested by the show’s title, and like Elie Wiesel’s Night, Breaking Bad is an anti-bildungsroman. We’re in it to see how “bad” it gets.
However, we don’t allow Skyler to be “bad” along with the show. Television has little room for female antagonists and anti-heroes unless they’re in a comedy. Damages’ Patty Hewes was made into an archetypical villain, as suggested by casting Alex Forrest of Fatal Attraction, and to play a character with shades of grey, Edie Falco had to move to comedy — with Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. Weeds, The United States of Tara and The Big C play female flaws for laughs, but writers have a more difficult time suggesting that female antiheroes can have dramatic weight. Like Young Adult, they can’t go full dark — just for dark humor.
In drama, our current examples of female antiheroism are Carrie Mathison on Homeland and Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans, women as fascinating as they are immoral. However, both of them are balanced out by men who out-evil them, as if a woman’s complexities can only be dealt with next to a man who is much worse. In the case of both women, though, they aren’t much of an antagonist for the show’s more obvious anti-hero, and Carrie goes from hunting Brody down to (spoiler alert!) casting herself in a lovers-on-the-run drama with a terrorist. When it comes down to it, Homeland rarely lets Carrie out-badass Brody, whereas Breaking Bad relishes in Skyler “going there” with Walt.
And why not? Anna Gunn is great at it, one of TV’s finest actresses, and anything less would make her character painfully boring.
You can tell the show loves to push those buttons because many of the show’s best scenes feature Skyler standing up to Walt — in the finales of Season One and Season Two and this season’s “Fifty-One,” perhaps the show’s finest dramatic showcase yet. Gilligan and company know how to write these showdowns and for a certain the audience, when Walt stands up to Skyler, it’s thrilling — like the “I am the one who knocks” speech and Season One’s “climb down out of my ass” comment. But when Skyler tells Walt in “Fifty One” that she’s waited for him to die, it’s not received as warmly.
We love seeing men break bad, as we vicariously live through Don Draper’s chic infidelities. But with women, it’s not so cool, as the predominantly male audience refuses to identify with them in the same way. They’re just breaking bitch.
Part of this has to do with the traditional ways that women are portrayed by male writers — less as characters than inventions of the male psyche, props that serve to hold up the arc of male self-actualization. In As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson’s character jokes that to write a woman he takes a man and then “removes reason and accountability” and writers struggle to write women outside of the box. Women can usually be reduced to a single label, such as “the mother,” “the love interest” or “the bitch ex-girlfriend,” and if you’re the movie Definitely, Maybe, you categorize them by hair color. Martin McDonagh tackled this problem in Seven Psychopaths by having his film comment on the fact that men don’t know how to write for women — all so he wouldn’t have to write for women.
Recent years have shown a greater diversity of women in TV and film — from Scandal’s nuanced Olivia Pope to Girls‘ selfish and confused Hannah and Before Midnight’s neurotic and abrasive Celine — as women make their way into writers’ rooms and showrunners’ chairs (see: Mindy Kaling). However, we still have our blind spots for women, what we accept and what still pushes our buttons. Statistics show that we’re still uncomfortable with working moms, women who straddle more than one role; entertainments like Young Adult ask us to both love and hate women at the same time, letting femininity be as nuanced and sometimes toxic as masculinity.
As seen by the sometimes visceral hatred of YA’s Mavis Gary and Hannah’s Girls, we still have work to do.
While Breaking Bad takes us in a journey into the dark heart of suburbia, asking us to question the ways in which we glorify traditional manhood, we should be able to do the same for women — in a way that doesn’t just ape what the boys are doing or ask women to be more like men. We don’t need a female Tony Soprano or a Don Draper with boobs. We need to let women be their own entities and archetype, allowing them to blaze a different trail, where they don’t have to play the hero or victim, neither fuckable nor likeable. They can just be themselves.
Women don’t need to break bitch. They need to break whatever they want.