A Difficult Woman: Skyler White and the “Tip of a Very Big Iceberg”

–Nick Fleming

Among the many reasons to both celebrate and study television’s Third Golden Age, the last fifteen years has been further distinguished by the development of difficult women; women who’ve broken traditions and crossed boundaries once reserved for their male counterparts.  Unlike the lightweight, agreeable and ultimately benign TV wives of the past including: Donna Stone (The Donna Reed Show), Edith Bunker (All in the Family), and Carol Brady (The Brady Bunch), Carmela Soprano (The Sopranos) and subsequent difficult women have come to define women for the masses.  Written as morally ambiguous people, these characters are often, for better or worse, their husbands’ equal, and affect the trajectory of the plot in profound ways.  Nevertheless, they are held to a different standard; much like a woman is in all facets of life.

Breaking Bad (2008-2013), one of the crowned jewels of the Third Golden Age, is of particular interest because the character Skyler White (Anna Gunn) speaks to the concept of a difficult woman being judged differently than her male counterpart.  Treating the context between the character and Bad fans as a case study, it’s prudent to begin with an op-ed printed in the New York Times on August 23, 2013, approximately one month before the program’s series finale.  Written by Gunn, formerly of HBO’s Deadwood (2004-2006), “I Have a Character Issue” is about the misogynistic, cruel, and often hostile tone a circle of the show’s more vocal fans have for her character and, at times, the actress herself.  Made aware of various hate boards dedicated to loathing her character, the actress took precautions to ensure her personal safety.  Reasonably, there are cynics who tally up the op-ed as simple publicity, but to treat this moment in popular culture as something so superficial would be to deny subsequent discussions concerning the portrayal of multi-dimensional women in contemporary television drama and the interests and motivations of the typical fan.

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Of the millions of people who watched the show, whether on a weekly basis or in a series of Netflix binges, thousands of like-minded fans with a grudge against Skyler’s treatment of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) joined a number of Facebook pages created by viewers keen to verbally beat up on Gunn’s character.  One such Facebook page entitled, “I Hate Skyler White,” has over 11,000 “likes” and has spawned a series of like-minded and offensively titled profiles including “Kill off Skyler White” and “Fuck Skyler White.”  Some users write Skyler off as a “shrieking, hypocritical harpy,” while others say “[they] have never hated a TV-show character as [they] hate her (quoted in Gunn, 2013, para. 7-8).  From the standpoint of an outsider looking in on one of these online communities of interest (C.O.I.), a common area where people assemble around a common topic of attention (Henri & Pudelko, 2003, p. 478), one certainly feels inclined to equate the comments as nothing more than fans simply “trolling.”  Perhaps, there is a kernel of truth to this explanation.  However, misogynistic and borderline-line sadistic comments including, “Thinking [Skyler] was going to kill herself gave me a chubby,” and “I want to see that bitch skinned alive” beg the question: how can viewers communicate such cruelty toward a fictional character?  Wouldn’t it be easier to say, “I don’t like her?”  Yes, the “easier” way of expression is “nicer,” but it’s still negative, just a little more sanitized.  Perhaps more important, is it a coincidence that the character at the center of these fans’ attention is a woman?

No it isn’t.

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On a micro-level, the reasoning behind the more heinous Facebook comments concerning Skyler surely varies.  To understand the Anna Gunn case on a macro level, however, one needs to look back at some of the television programming that preceded the Third Golden Age in 2000.  In doing so, it would be safe to assume that decades of television programming has swayed us—as viewers—to unconsciously anticipate certain beats.  In terms of women-characters, the audience anticipates them to be typified in specific ways and to fulfill certain duties.  According to Bonnie J. Dow, these tasks include, but are not limited to: supporting the lead character, giving sexual release to other characters, and fulfilling unexciting functions for the sake of simply moving the plot forward (1996, pp.8-9).  As a woman who frequently stepped away from the aforementioned duties reserved for women-characters of both the past and present, Skyler’s position at the intersection of feminism, entertainment, and fandom is an extension of a movement that’s often been misunderstood and marginalized since TV’s earliest days.  No, Breaking Bad is not feminist television, at least not exclusively, but Skyler White is certainly a more truthful representation of what a feminist might appear to be than her more idealistic and unflappable television predecessors.

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In all fairness, Skyler’s husband, Walter, is the focal point of the show.  In the pilot episode, viewers would be hard-pressed to not sympathize with and pity the man: he’s a law abiding citizen, he struggles to support his soon to be family of four (including a teenage boy with C.P. and an unborn daughter) on the meager salary of a high-school chemistry teacher, and he’s just been blindsided with a terminal lung cancer diagnosis.  To borrow a now famous sentiment from Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan, Walter is in the beginning very much the spiritual successor of the agreeable, harmless, and somewhat dreary Mr. Chips (Martin, 2013, p. 267).  However, staying in line with the show’s underlying theme of transformation, Walter becomes more akin to Scarface and in sharing his motivations: money and power.

The idea that Skyler is an obstruction along the path to Walter’s success isn’t lost on Gunn.  In her op-ed (2013), she acknowledged, “[T]here is a natural tendency to empathize with and root for [Walter] despite his moral failings…As one character who consistently opposes [him]… Skyler is, in a sense, his antagonist” (Gunn, para. 5).  However, as willing as Gunn is to acknowledge her on-screen husband’s status as the show’s chief protagonist being an inherent advantage, said status doesn’t explain the some fans’ general attitudes about gender and how those are communicated in a number of Facebook comments.  In her op-ed, Gunn (2013) described one particular wall comment brought to her attention that asked where she, as in the actress, could be located so they could kill her (para. 12).  Visiting “Kill off Skyler White” and other associated online communities of shared interest, it’s obvious this post is an extreme instance, but nonetheless, is this simply harsh fan ridicule that’s the product of active viewership?  Or is this, as columnist Maureen Ryan (2013) suggests, the “tip of a very big iceberg?”

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In the end, why should Breaking Bad fans and media consumers in general start caring about the venomous attitudes and comments made about a fictional character that has proven she is more than capable of making bad decisions herself?  Who cares whether fans sympathize with one criminal, but not the other?  This is, after all, a fraction of Bad’s fan base blowing hot air and never actually following through on what they have to say.  Speaking to this series of inquiries, James Poniewozik, TV critic for TIME, returns to the aforementioned position on Skyler as a strong representation of a multi-dimensional woman.  Asserting that spiteful comments made across various channels of communication are not unique to Gunn’s character nor do they come out of nowhere, Poniewozik contends, “[There’s] a much-repeated pattern [in fandom]: the resentment of the wife… who keeps the antihero down… and holds the fantasies of the show in check (Poniewozik, 2013, para. 6).  Essentially, fans are seeking Ien Ang’s notion of “emotional realism” which dictates media consumers forge and emphasize poignant connections and disconnections with characters by applying specific links to their own real world frames of reference (1985).  Therefore, a very negative perspective, or pattern, is indeed being indulged over and over again when viewers continue to judge Skyler and other difficult women differently than men-characters.

One thing is certain; television’s climate is in the middle of important changes.  The days when fictional women were defined by light fair are in the past.  Skyler White, Carmela Soprano, and Betty Draper are today and written as strong, morally complex, and peculiarly flawed equals to the Third Golden Age’s difficult men.  The medium is certainly better for it, but in a constant game of give-and-take where society influences media and vice versa, some fans cannot handle the shifts in TV tradition.  Thus, the Gunn case is a timely matter of where fan criticism begins, misogynistic slurs end, and why some fictional characters are rarely scrutinized in the same vein as their counterparts.

Works Cited
Ang, I., (1985). Watching Dallas: Soap opera and the melodramatic imagination. London:
            Methuen.
Dow, B. J. (1996). Prime-time feminism: Television, media culture, and the women’s
            movement Since 1970. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Gunn, A. (2013, August 23). I have a character issue. The New York Times.
Henri, F.F., & Pudelko, B.B. (2003). Understanding and analysing activity and learning in virtual communities.
          Journal of Computer Assisted Learning19(4), 474.
I Hate Skyler White. Facebook. accessed February 14, 2015 from
           https://www.facebook.com/SkylerWhiteYuck.
Kill off Skyler White. Facebook. accessed February 14, 2015 from
           https://www.facebook.com/KilloffSkylerWhite.
Martin, B., (2013). Difficult men: Behind the scenes of a creative revolution. New York: The Penguin Press.
Poniewozik, J. On Anna Gunn, the Skyler-hating sexists, and the billion-megaphone
            era.

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