In a recent New York Times op-ed, Anna Gunn reacted to the overwhelming hatred Breaking Bad fans direct towards her character, Skyler White. Gunn’s argument is that Skyler-haters are essentially haters of strong, complicated women who aren’t submissive to their husbands’ wills. This notion makes me uncomfortable. I consider myself both a Skyler-hater1 and a strong woman.
While I admire Gunn’s passion for her character and her bold contribution to the public discussion, her understanding of why Skyler is disliked is too simplistic. She’s distracted by the minority of viewers who have displaced their hatred of Skyler on to Gunn2 and thus comes off overly defensive. Her you-hate-me-so-there-must-be-something-wrong-with-you argument largely misses the mark.
There are a number of reasons to be turned off by Skyler White and none of them involve misogyny. Let’s examine…
She’s Walt’s Character Foil
Breaking Bad is first and foremost the story of Walter White, and as someone who antagonizes him by trying to quell his illegal activities, Skyler is naturally resented. Gunn does acknowledge this to some extent but I think she fails to give it the weight it deserves.
Television viewers are at the mercy of the writers. Great writing and great acting can easily make an audience root for the “bad” guy and hate the “good” guy. We don’t tune in each week to make sure our moral compasses are aligned—we’re looking to be entertained, and Walt with all his drug-producing, child-poisoning, deceitful behavior is that entertainment. Skyler frustrates us because she’s a road block in the way of our favorite moments in the show.
Gunn says that Skyler “hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter.” She has, but Gunn is unaware of exactly what the standards are. The type of character this show favors is not one who follows the traditional values of right and wrong. It’s a character who, to put it indelicately, gets shit done.
Skyler is always on a tirade against Walt but never actually does anything that’s particularly effective. Walt identifies a problem and, however cruelly, eliminates it (think: crashing Hank’s car, poisoning Brock, eliminating the people on Mike’s list). Skyler’s plans, though well-intentioned, tend to do more harm than good (think: scaring Ted Beneke, keeping the children at Hank and Marie’s).
Beyond ineffective, sometimes she’s just plain stupid. Take the most recent episode in which Jesse can see right through Walt’s carefully choreographed deceitfulness encouraging him to leave town, but Skyler isn’t the slightest bit suspicious of Walt’s sudden interest in the car wash vending machine. Anna Gunn refers to her character as Walt’s equal, but in terms of accomplishments she’s just not.
We Do Like Powerful Women
Gunn claims that Skyler white has “become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender,” and cites Carmela Soprano and Betty Draper as other hated TV wives. I don’t dispute that there must be some misogynistic viewers who hate Skyler for her womanhood, but to say these people are representative of the whole is just inaccurate.
Off the top of my head I can think of a number of powerful female characters that viewers adore precisely for their power. Since Gunn brought up Mad Men, what about Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway? Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones? Olivia Pope in Scandal? Fine, they aren’t wives per se (although a number of them were married at times), but perhaps then the writers are to blame for constantly using the husband as the central protagonist.
To me, Skyler represents exactly what a powerful woman doesn’t want to be: someone whose bark is worse than her bite. Power comes from action and effectiveness of action and not from pontificating directives. Skyler does have her moments where we can’t help but get behind her (like when Marie tried to take her baby) and Anna Gunn plays her beautifully, but I think it’s okay that she is a less liked character on this show. Being a Skyler-hater does not equate with being a woman-hater, and by implying it does, Anna Gunn is practicing the exact simplicity and defensiveness that a strong, powerful person would avoid.
1Here, I use the term “hater” loosely. I don’t actually hate Skyler White. To be accurate, it’s more of a deep distaste and constant frustration, spotted with moments of sympathy. But for the purposes of brevity and finding an umbrella term, I’ll say hate.
2 In an attempt to not let the loud and outlandish minority define the conversation, I, unlike Gunn, am going to disregard viewers who have displaced their hatred for Skyler onto the actress herself. This kind of argument is so foolish it doesn’t even deserve to be addressed.
Written by: Talia Rebecca Ergas