By Sean Czarnecki, Film Editor
Published September 6, 2013
Note: Spoilers ahead. This article was written before Episode 13 of Season 5 “To’hajiilee” was aired.
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In the center of today’s culture war is a woman, a TV character whose divisiveness has come to define the unanswered problem of gender in show business. Her name is Skyler White.
When the talented actress who portrays Skyler, Anna Gunn came to the defense of that very “Breaking Bad” character in an op-ed for the New York Times, she asserted that the unequal ire Skyler endures from the show’s fans is due to her strength and, most importantly, to her gender. This is the gross generalization I wish to re-examine, but this I write with great unease.
Among my concerns, which include being presumptuous or prejudiced, my gravest still is the possibility I might strip this issue of the gendered elements that are very real.
The vitriol aimed at Skyler — and now Gunn — is some of the ugliest stuff Generation Troll has managed yet. It’s blind to say there resides no misogyny in those sentiments. But Gunn’s op-ed and other similarly written pieces preclude the possibility that there are other reasons besides sexism underlying the bitter disdain Skyler attracts. And so we have sanctified Skyler. We have sanctified her and established her as a feminist figure walled off from any legitimate criticism.
I’m not here to bully or to diminish the feminist debate, but to complicate it. I want only to test Gunn’s argument and to re-imagine Skyler as an object for analysis.
Many legions of fans would in fact refute Gunn’s claim that Skyler is a woman of steely resolve or any type of feminist hero at all. They’d say she’s helpless, hypocritical and passive aggressive. (Who else cringes when she gives her husband, Walter, the “silent treatment?”) She shares her bed with her oppressor and cooks his dinner. For five seasons now, she has done nothing to turn in Walter.
I believe they loathe her for her helplessness because they have no empathy. They’re unable to identify with victims and they blame Skyler for her problems. In this way, she is more Fanny Price than Elizabeth Bennet, more desperate than efficacious, more crazed than delightful (and rightfully so).
It’s now her lot in life to overcome her victimization. She’s trapped in an abusive marriage — in her own home — with no way out. So how are we to expect her to climb out of the dangerous world Walter has imposed on his family? Lack of empathy is the beginning of all prejudice, but here helplessness (some would say willful helplessness) is the key factor and much of that has to do with how the story was told.
The characters with which the viewer empathizes rely on the craft of storytelling, on what function to which the character is relegated, what the storyteller wishes to show us of him or her. In short, I won’t empathize with a character unless the storyteller gives me good reason.
We naturally identify more with Walter as the protagonist, who used to be the one suffering silently, not Skyler. Somehow, they both let the other down: They never realize just how much they need each other. It makes you wish that, after all this time, Walter’s first “confession” in the pilot, before he ever had Heisenberg delusions, will find its way back to his family. That would be the way they remember him. Just as sympathy for Walter endures for once being a powerless high-school teacher, fans’ hatred of Skyler endures because of the way she was initially framed.
Walter is a monster. He endangers all his friends, his family, all he loves. He never wanted to hurt anyone, but his tragic flaw — his hubris — compels him to continue down this road. And therein lies the difference on which everything depends: Walter is our tragic hero. Not Skyler.
William Brennan of Slate calls Skyler the “moral grounding” of the story; I call her a moral irritant.