Web Only / Features » August 28, 2013
Breaking Bad’s Skyler White: Victim or Villain?
Actress Anna Gunn wants to know why fans hate her character. In These Times’ feminist TV critics answer.
Is Skyler uptight? Cold? Harsh? Complicit? Is she, in her own way, possessed of a powerful need for control? Yes, sure, of course: She's not a perfect victim.
[Spoiler Alert: This piece contains spoilers for the show.]
Actress Anna Gunn, the critically acclaimed actress who plays Skyler White on AMC’s Breaking Bad, recently took to the op-ed page of the New York Times to discuss the outpouring of hate for her character. Today, In These Times staff writer Sady Doyle and I tried to get to the bottom of the Skyler Hate epidemic.
Lindsay Beyerstein: Hi, Sady! I have a confession to make: I don't always like Skyler White's character. For one thing, she's sad all the time. Walt gets all the snappy lines. Skyler pulls off some brilliant schemes, but she takes no pleasure in them because she's a reluctant accomplice. Basically, she's a victim, and the dirty little secret about Americans is that we are culturally conditioned to hate victims, often more than victimizers. Obviously, I don't hate Skyler’s character, and I think that Breaking Bad fans who do are missing the point. Skyler is difficult to watch because her character is trapped, hopeless, and resentful, like a real woman with a dangerous meth lord husband and two vulnerable children might be in that situation. Victimhood isn’t necessarily ennobling. Sometimes it’s deadening and diminishing, and it’s good to see that reflected in art.
When it comes to unabashed fan hate, poor Skyler gets it coming and going. The most vociferous haters are the misogynists who resent Skyler's role as Walt's antagonist. These are the guys who are determined to read Breaking Bad as a “revenge of the nerds” fantasy in which Walt the schlubby nobody reinvents himself as the triumphant action hero and shows everybody. To the haters, Skyler's the ball and chain. She's the bitchy, judgey wife who tells Walt that he can't come home if he's going to cook meth, or that he can't buy his son a flashy sports car because it will expose her painstaking money laundering scheme that's keeping both her and Walt out of jail. It kills them that Skyler doesn't give Walt the adulation that they think he deserves. These guys are easy to dismiss because they are crass misogynists who refer to a fictional character in terms that bitter men reserve for their ex-wives, and because they are clearly misreading the show. Vince Gilligan has bent over backwards to show that Skyler is right and Walt is wrong, and Walt's day of reckoning is coming. Actions have consequences.
Then there's another, more insidious camp of pseudo-feminist haters who despise Skyler because she can't bring herself to leave Walt, despite his abusive and controlling behavior and his dangerous lifestyle. Many of these critics acknowledge that the writers have done a pretty much airtight job of trapping Skyler in circumstances. Between her kids, her lack of a support system, and the punitive nature of American drug laws, there was never really a point where she could have left Walt without losing everything, or nearly everything. Yet, on an emotional level, these critics still dislike Skyler, rather than Walt for putting her in this position.
It's amazing how much anger gets heaped on real and imaginary victims of abuse who don't leave their abusers. (Cf. Chris Brown and Rhianna.)
This post by Kelli Marshall perfectly encapsulates the second school of Skyler Hate. In response to a scene where Walt rapes Skyler, Marshall remarks that she has “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.” In a more compassionate culture, Skyler's passivity would inspire pity rather than contempt.
Sady Doyle: Hi, Lindsay!
You're probably more steeped in BB fandom than I am, but I love your thoughts here. I think you can track the precise level of misogyny in Skyler fandom by comparing fans' reactions to Skyler and Jesse, respectively: Plenty of people, as you've said, shame Skyler for not leaving Walt (even though he worked quite consciously and effectively to make that impossible) or for her money-laundering “complicity” in Walter's operation. Yet, when you look to Jesse, even the most hardened Skyler-haters can understand that he's been abused by Walt, that Walt's manipulation and isolation and toxic mentor-Daddy-disapproving-God routine with Jesse made it impossible for him to “just leave,” and that he's got some heavy Walt-induced PTSD. And Jesse has killed people for Walter! We can view even that level of “complicity” as a violation, when it comes to a male character. But God forbid Skyler buy a car wash.
That said, I tend to agree with Maureen Ryan that Breaking Bad tends to underserve its female characters—and has, in the past, underserved Skyler. Nowadays, we're conscious enough of the political undertones in Skyler-hatred to push back against ideas that she's a scold or a shrew or an ice queen. But Breaking Badcasting women as shrews and hysterics is nothing new, if you look at how Marie and Lydia have been written, and the show seems uninterested in walking back those characterizations. I latch on to Skyler because she's the most developed woman in the set, but in some ways I think fans hate her – or Marie, or Lydia—because the scripts call for it.
LB: I agree, Sady, Breaking Bad underdevelops its female characters. The writers have done a good job of humanizing Marie since her Season 1 portrayal as a kleptomaniacal motor-mouth, but they haven't given her much depth. Alas, more shoplifting did not equal more depth.
Arguably, Lydia's character is an even more important example of under-development because she plays such a critical role in the plot. They've given her so much to do, plot-wise, but so little characterization beyond the various trappings of the superficial yuppie bitch. Even Todd the psychopathic cypher has more depth than Lydia, who is a much more important character. You could argue that Lydia’s character is revealed through decisive action when she orders the deaths of Declan and his entire crew, but I don't think writers laid the groundwork to explain how she managed to overcome the paralyzing anxiety that was her other defining characteristic.
Skyler has evolved a lot as a character, to the point where some critics argue that her character is not coherently written. I disagree. I think Skyler's evolution is hard-earned, and Breaking Bad is about nothing if not the possibility of radical change. If Mr. Chips can become Scarface, Skyler White can become a money laundering genius.
In the first season, Skyler's basically like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. Her job was to be confused. It's hard to like a character whose role is defined by her credulity. As Anna Gunn points out in her op/ed, early Skyler has to do double-duty as a symbol of Walt's emasculation and failure in life. In the minds of the sexist Skyler haters, she was the woman who trapped Walt in a shotgun marriage with a pregnancy that produced a son with a disability (something those jerks regard as shameful in itself, and of course, as the woman's fault).
As Skyler comes into her own in later seasons, laundering Walt's money, she becomes a lot more sympathetic to reasonable people, but also more threatening to the chauvinist haters. The haters dislike this new, competent Skyler because she refuses to kiss Walt's ass. She's not thrilled that her brilliant husband brought home millions of dollars in cash. For this, the haters call her a shrew. But it's not that she's ungrateful, she's realistic. That cash is a burden to her and a threat to her family, and so, ultimately, is Walt. No amount of money can give her what she really wants, which is to escape from the living nightmare that Walt has consigned her to. The haters despise Skyler because she knows Walt isn't the hero they need him to be.
It will be interesting to see how the pseudo-feminist Skyler haters react to Skyler's decision to stand by Walt in the face of Hank's plea offer. For the first time in the whole series, Skyler seemed to have had a real “out.” If she'd marched straight to a lawyer and hammered out a plea deal blaming Walt for everything, she probably could have emerged with no jail time, custody of her kids, and an intact relationship with her only friends in world, Hank and Marie. Walt would die in jail, the feds would seize all their assets, and she'd be left a penniless widow, but she'd be free. I’ll be honest: It killed me that she said “no.”
SD: Right. I think you could argue that Lydia's characterization—to the extent that she has it—is defined by what she said to Todd after the massacre she'd ordered: “I don't want to see.” (She didn't want her daughter to “see” her corpse in a messy state, either, which is part of why Mike spared her life.) If Lydia went to war, it would be 100 percent drone strikes: Like every character in the meth plotlines, she's up to her neck in death and pain, but she wants to participate in that, and benefit from it, without witnessing any of the messy consequences at close range.
But this also frames her as uniquely villainous and unlikable, in the eyes of the Breaking Bad fans I think we both deplore, the kids who want to skip all this messy moral-decay-and-trauma stuff so that they can see Walt being a bad-ass, blowing dudes' faces up and using super-magnets. Lydia isn't a bad-ass, she's a girly girl, and she thinks blown-off faces are icky. About two inches away from Lydia, as she's currently characterized, is the old stereotype of squeamish, weak women jumping up on chairs and shrieking when they see a mouse. And this is particularly unfortunate, given that she is the only remotely central or powerful female character we've seen in the meth business.
Which brings us right back to Skyler. You describe her, in the early seasons, as “Keanu Reeves in the Matrix.” But, as originally conceived, she was way more than that: She was the ultimate voice of conventional morality, an increasingly comic foil for all the bad stuff Walter was getting up to. She was the Lawful Good to Walt's increasingly Chaotic Evil. And that put her right in the Lydia slot: She was both a square and a priss. Remember how over-the-top outraged she was by Marie's shoplifting? Or how she completely flipped out at the idea that Walt had smoked a joint? Early ideas of Skyler as uptight or nagging weren't just the inevitable result of misogynists seeing a not-completely-submissive wife expressing anger: They were, more or less, built into the script.
But when, as you say, she “came into her own” with the car wash plotline, she became something even worse: In a world that can seemingly only tolerate moral complexity from men, Skyler was neither a complete villain nor a complete victim. Skyler had no choice but to “see,” and although it wasn't remotely her choice, once she was in the business, she wanted control. She had to be broken to the point of suicide before the fandom accepted her again, and that was only because she'd entered the safe, “female” powerless-victim position.
Which she's breaking out of, again, with her choice to back Walt against Hank. Hank explicitly gave her the option to define herself as “abused” and “Walt's victim,” and she refused him. Which brings us to this final set of episodes. What do you think is next, for the women of Breaking Bad? Does the show have a chance to turn around and give us a feminist-friendly statement before it goes off the air forever?
LB: I'm having a hard time imagining a more feminist-friendly ending than Skyler selling out Walt to Hank. There's no shame in admitting victimhood. There's stigma, but there shouldn't be. If Skyler had found the courage to turn her back on Walt, she would have deserved to walk away.
The sad truth about life is that we aren't always in control, no matter how much we might want to believe we are. As viewers, some of our anger and resentment towards victim characters is probably a reflection of our own anxiety about losing control. Walt's greatest flaw is that he needs to control everything and everyone around him. Skyler may have sealed her fate by buying into that same mindset.
Then again, my inability to imagine a feminist ending for Skyler might just be a function of my limited imagination. The writers of Breaking Bad consistently surprise me.
SD: Agreed. There's no shame in Skyler's victimhood, or Jesse's, or even poor Walt Junior's. (What happens when that kid has his world inevitably cracked open, I don't even want to imagine.) I'd argue that, particularly with regard to Skyler and Jesse—the two people closest to him—shame has been Walt's most powerful weapon. Walter drags people in, puts their lives and psyches through the meat grinder, and then, when they can't take any more, reminds them that they've come too far and made too many mistakes to walk away clean. His “confession” in the last episode – in which he framed Hank as the relentless criminal mastermind behind all his actions—is just a big, showy, unsubtle version of what he's been doing to Skyler for years.
What fascinates me about Skyler, though—and what, as you note, enrages so many Skyler Haters—is how she manages to exercise control and agency under those conditions. I keep coming back to a line from a speech I once saw given by Feministing's Lori Adelman, during the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape accusations: “We're not looking for a perfect victim.” That line cracked a lot of complicated questions open for me, in terms of feminism, and it's continued to resonate far beyond its original context. It resonates, particularly, with Skyler. Is she uptight? Cold? Harsh? Complicit? Is she, in her own way, possessed of a powerful need for control? Yes, sure, of course: She's not a perfect victim.
But when she turns Hank away, refuses his description of her as a powerless pawn in Walter's evildoing, I don't think she's showing loyalty to Walter, let alone forgiving him for what he's done. She's claiming the right to tell her own story, to control her own end game. Hank is swooping into her life, playing White Knight, promising to “control this” and save her, and, not coincidentally, all of this will be Hank's good deed that helps Hank to get what Hank wants. But Skyler's not looking for that. Whatever happens next, she wants to be a central part of making those decisions. And, in many ways, she has far more right than Hank to claim that power. She's also the only female character in Breaking Bad to claim it so forcefully. If she succeeds—if the end game of Breaking Bad has room for something that is not Hank's story, or Walt's story, but Skyler's story—then I think that might be one of the most powerful endings imaginable, for a character who has always challenged our ideas of female power.
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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.