According to a chunk of my Twitter feed, last Sunday night’s episode of Breaking Bad (“Fifty-One”) would finally make me see the light. After watching, I’d most certainly side with (or at least feel sorry for) Walter White’s wife, Skyler.
Yeah, that didn’t happen. Let’s get a few things straight before I continue:
- I like Breaking Bad.
- I’ve recommended Breaking Bad to family members and friends.
- These people have recommended Breaking Bad to others in their lives.
- Like most viewers out there, I think Breaking Bad is one of the most well-crafted, well-written, and intense shows on television.
- I appreciate that Breaking Bad is shot on 35mm film and that it (noticeably) takes great care with its mise-en-scene and cinematography. (That said, I have grown a bit weary of its use of time-lapse and static points-of-view from inanimate-objects: “Hey, you know what would be cool? Let’s put this camera on the end of a broom and wave it around!”)
- To no end, I adore the character Gus Fring. Love him. As folks on social media would declare in hashtag form, Giancarlo Esposito deserves #AllTheAwards.
- Like so much contemporary (and classical) television and film, Breaking Bad has major problems with gender representation, particularly its female characters (hence, this post). And in case you’ve not noticed, there’s also a whole lotta middle-aged male angst going on here. Clichéd.
- Finally and perhaps most significantly, for this post anyway, just because I dislike Skyler White does not mean I (currently) side with or like or approve of or identify with her now- ridiculously arrogant, abusive, murderous, meth-making husband, Walter. Contrary to what social media would have you believe (e.g., the image below is making its rounds), it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation here, people. Viewers may dislike both characters. (For the record, Mr. Pinkman’s always been my man.)
Why Do Viewers Hate Skyler?
In his recent post “Skyler Is Such a Bitch!” and Other Unfair Breaking Bad Observations,” Steven Silver attempts to vindicate Skyler White. Alyssa Rosenberg does the same in “Skyler White and Breaking Bad: Stop Hating TV Wives.” A quick scroll through Twitter, Breaking Bad message boards, and other social media outlets indicates that Silver and Rosenberg have ample reason for writing such defenses. In short, people hate them some Skyler White, and they — men and women, but mostly lots of men — will vocalize that hostility freely and often.
These declarations about the character range from relatively mild (“Skyler White is the worst“) to creepily violent (“I wanna smash Skyler in the face with a bat over and over and over and overrrrrr“), and from downright evil (“I hate you so much just drown yourself in the pool already“) to horribly misogynistic (“Skyler needs to get fucked by mister white so she can stop being so uptight“).
Additionally, you won’t have to dig too deep to find a solid number of Breaking Bad fans offering their thoughts on the character’s alleged weight-gain and facelift, this, of course, a direct reflection on poor Anna Gunn (who’s a fine actress, btw). Gunn addresses some of these sexist reactions an interview for Rolling Stone. According to Steven Silver, this so-called “Skyler-is-a-bitch” brigade mostly derives from the character’s
- sleeping with her former boss while separated from Walt, and then telling him about it
- dropping her disgust with Walt’s choice to become a drug dealer — as well as her plans to divorce him — and abruptly deciding to cooperate with him
- adopting a hectoring and emasculating tone towards Walt at various times
Here’s the kicker. None of these instances explains my distaste for the character of Skyler White. So if these are the reasons most anti-Skyler viewers cite, I’m very much in the minority.
Let me take the first bullet point above as an example: people despise Skyler for sleeping with Ted. On the contrary, this storyline was one of the few times during the series (thus far) I’ve actually rooted for Skyler White — with gusto, I might add. When she acted on her feelings for Ted Beneke and subsequently “cheated on” her husband (to be fair, she and Walt were separated), it gave me some hope that the woman had chutzpah, a mind of her own, a rebellious spirit, desire.
Virtually none of these attributes, if I recall correctly, were quite this present in her before. I certainly don’t condone adultery, but inside, I was cheering for the girl to get her some — and more crucially perhaps, to be an active, non-traditional female character rather than a passive, suffering one. So, no, it wasn’t Skyler’s act of infidelity or her later admittance of such to Walt that made me feel this way.
If You Don’t Dislike Skyler for These Reasons, Then Why?
So what is my beef with the character? Well, Meg from Feminist, Unplugged (whose post proper is actually devoted to defending Skyler White) nicely sums up the show’s conventional gender roles:
[Skyler, as Walt Jr.'s and Holly's mother,] is the one who must be responsible for their well-being. The idea is supported by much more than traditional stereotypes: Walt has, since early season 3, treated the children more like pawns, buying Walter Jr.’s affection with flashy sports cars and cuddling with the baby in order to play the part of a good father for the police (and, at times, the audience). In a way, the White family dynamics are gender roles taken to their extreme: Walt has taken his role as the provider and warped it, so that he believes his job as a meth chef is for his children’s benefit; meanwhile, Skyler keeps the traditional female role of protector, all while knowing that her children’s father is most likely the biggest danger.
But I think my dissatisfaction with the character began with the Season 2 premiere (“Seven Thirty-Seven”). Wearing an avocado mask, Skyler asks Walt, anxious from his run-in with Tuco, if he’d like some chicken. In a matter of seconds, avocado and chicken turn into rape, or as some argue, a near-rape experience (see “Glad-to-Be-Alive Sex“).
This disturbing scene has been referred to as “horrible, violent, ugly sex in the kitchen” (um, that’s not sex) and a sign of Walt’s true powerlessness. Here, I felt for Skyler (as any sane person would, I hope), and I was relieved when she finally yelled, “Stop it!” But afterward, I begin to question her purpose in the overall narrative and intent within her own storyline(s). I wondered, for example,
- Why the hell is she staying with this man who smelled her, took her from behind, and forced himself upon her?
- Further, why did it take her so long to stop his actions?
- Excluding Jesse, why does Skyler have to be the primary character on whom Walt exacts his frustrations, sexual and otherwise?
- Why must she virtually always remain in a passive position (hard to get more passive than semi- doggie-style against a refrigerator)?
- Can any “quality TV” showrunner write a female character people will support? (Alyssa Rosenberg also contemplates this last question, kinda.)
In brief, this rapey scene and Skyler’s remaining loyal to her rapey husband (initially at least) did not sit well with me. It still doesn’t. While we’re at it, yes, I’m aware that several of these questions lie beyond the scope of “Skyler White” and more with the show’s writer/creator and the media in general; but still, it’s her characterization that magnifies these issues and, thus, renders her problematic to me.
No doubt much has happened between this Season 2 premiere and last night’s episode, some of which positions Skyler in an active, unconventional, non-suffering role: she starts a new job, throws her husband a party, gives birth, learns of Walt’s meth-making, leaves her husband (yes, gumption!), sleeps with her boss (yay!), covers up Walt’s activities with a gambling story, pays for Hank’s medical bills, launders money for/with her husband, buys a car wash, invites Walt back into the house, drives to the Four Corners and debates leaving her husband, returns home “to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” feigns being a dumb blonde accountant for Ted, breaks down in front of her sister (Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up!), attempts to drown herself all Ophelia-style in the family pool, allows Walt back into her bed, and verbally wishes for his cancer to return.
But it’s this second-to-last occurrence that, I think, brings my aversion to Skyler White full circle. Last week’s episode (“Madrigal”) features one of the most disconcerting shots in the entire series (also in the Top Ten Most Disconcerting, the above-mentioned avocado/chicken scene as well as that turtle and poor Victor’s demise-by-box-cutter). In a nightgown, Skyler is in bed. Walt approaches her and begins to derobe, all clothes. He slides in bed, adjusts his penis, closely spoons his wife, and kisses her on the arms. Although she’s clearly uninterested, Skyler does not recoil. WTF?
This seeming act of “pseudo-rape” is indeed, as one blogger puts it, “one of the most uncomfortable moments of the entire series.” A TV Line writer remarks similarly: “Aaaand thank you, Breaking Bad, for the fade to black that spares us a full-on, against-Skyler’s-will sex scene [...] though I’m not sure what’s worse — seeing it or imagining it.”
At this point, it should be clear that I’ve a very low tolerance for representations of rape and/or forced sex (the same goes for portrayals of animal abuse). But what’s more, I’ve little patience for female characters who choose to remain in said abusive relationships without exacting some sort of revenge or authority over their male oppressors (maybe this is coming to a head in Breaking Bad?).
Finally, as mentioned above, I take issue with female characters who function as victims — or prey, as Anna Gunn puts it when describing the set-up for the “I’m a coward” scene depicted in the animated gif below: “It ended up as a dance, with Bryan [Cranston] pursuing me all around the room. It was really like I was trapped animal that was Bryan’s prey.” Yeah, I don’t dig this situation.
Skyler White As Femme Fatale?
In closing, a reviewer from Forbes (Forbes has a TV critic?!) writes about the scene that closes out the episode “Fifty-One”: “Skyler is chain-smoking in the White home, the portrait of a femme fatale straight out of a film noir picture.”
No, no, no. Film fatales (at least in classical Hollywood) have power. They have strategies. They are resourceful. They are overpoweringly desirable. They threaten to castrate and devour their male victims. Many have murder on their minds. Little of this holds true for me with regard to Skyler White at this point.
That said, Todd VanDerWerff maintains Skyler’s smoking in this scene is one way to hasten the return of Walter’s lung cancer. Interesting. Maybe it is. (It’s not a good plan for her health though.) Nonetheless, if this is true and Skyler is thinking/acting in this manner, then perhaps one day I’ll sing a different tune.