All right, folks: It’s time to talk about your mommy issues. Or, more specifically, your issues with television’s wives and mothers.
Few fictional mothers come under fire as often as “Breaking Bad” ’s Skyler White. The “Skyler is a bitch” argument has been so prevalent since the series’ inception that it feels tedious at this point. But unfortunately, it’s a conversation we need to keep having. Despite Anna Gunn’s own comments on the sexism behind the vehement — sometimes even violent — aversion to Skyler, and despite the countless manifestos scattered across the internet that attempt to vindicate her, the Skyler haters remain.
Just last week, I told a friend of mine that Skyler was one of my favorite characters on the show.
“You like Skyler?” he asked.
Here we go again. When I pressed him for an explanation as to why he can’t stand Skyler, he gave the usual: “She’s annoying.”
Let’s see. When Skyler first finds out her husband has ingrained himself in the dangerous world of the crystal meth market — and has essentially put their entire family at risk in doing so — she reacts like any rational human would. She’s furious. She wants Walt out of her life. When he doesn’t allow that to happen, she cheats on him — something folks seem quicker to criticize than they do Walt’s multiple homicides.
Skyler isn’t a bitch. She’s a prisoner. She’s a victim of Walt’s self-absorbed, oppressive behavior. She’s a mother who so desperately wants to protect her children that she is willing to put herself at risk, is willing to compromise with the man who threatens their safety in the first place. Skyler’s moral compass is far from true north, but every action she takes is for her family’s survival, while Walt’s actions are for the sake of his own ego and relentless need for control. Just look at how many get-out-of-meth-free cards he has turned down.
The only reason people hate Skyler is the result of this perverse attachment to the show’s antihero. Skyler gets in the way of Walt, our chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-maker, who has transformed into nothing short of a sociopathic nightmare. It’s a disease that can be traced back to Tony Soprano.
In 2002, when “The Sopranos” was in decline, the New York Post ran a poll asking viewers how to fix the series. Many of the answers centered around Tony’s wife Carmela, and suggestions included “kill all the women” and “Carmela’s whining too much — whack her!”
Sure, Carmela is no saint, but even her most nefarious activities don’t quite compare to the violence perpetuated by her mobster husband. Why are we so much quicker to pass judgement on these mothers and wives over the corrupt — in some cases, downright evil — men they’re married to?
Victoria Grayson of ABC’s “Revenge” too suffers condemnation, appearing on countless “Worst Mothers on TV” lists.
In her case, her evil husband Conrad is widely disliked by viewers, but Victoria is still a prime example of how hypercritical viewers are of women — and mothers in particular — on television. She certainly isn’t the kind of mother to bake cookies for her children and wish them a great day at school, but like Skyler, she is fully committed to her family’s preservation.
Sometimes that means doing horrible things, like hiring thugs to beat up her son, but as Madeleine Stowe put it at Paleyfest this year, “It all sort of twists back to some sense of family.” Victoria might be a certified ice queen, but she’s also trapped in her marriage, subjected to Conrad’s manipulations — it’s a gross oversimplification to label her a monster mother.
And of course, there’s the mom everyone loves to hate: Betty Draper. Whether it’s comments on her mothering or derision of her appearance, the housewife has been the subject of much criticism in the “Mad Men” fandom.
And it’s not just the fans who despise Betty. In his review of season four’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” critic Roger Friedman declared: “It’s official. Betty Draper, now Betty Francis, is the worst mother in TV history.”
Noticeably absent from Friedman’s work — and most discourse on “Mad Men” — is a discussion of how Don Draper is one of the worst husbands and fathers on television. Yes, Don has a wonderfully complex relationship with his daughter Sally that is a million times less volatile than Betty’s relationship with her, but Don isn’t only self-destructive — he frequently controls or dismisses his family.
We’re much faster to label a character a bad mother than we are a bad father. So in the case of Don Draper, we put him on a pedestal … because he’s so damn cool and sexy and played by the impossibly perfect Jon Hamm for Christ’s sake! It’s an idolization that’s slightly less problematic than defending Walter White, but it’s a double standard all the same.
It’d be easy to blame the “Mad Men” writers for this inconsistency. They’ve somehow made the sexist Roger Sterling, the philandering, emotionally abusive Don, and Pete Campbell — a snide and slimy rapist — endearing, while Betty just gets increasingly more childish and malevolent.
But this is where “Mad Men” ’s writers shine: writing characters that are imperfect. The series is backed by a distinctly female-dominant writers’ room, so it’s no surprise that the show’s women are so complex. They have thankfully made Betty so much more than an oppressed 1960s housewife. She suffers from undeniable depression that’s not simply the result of her domineering husband or her own unstable relationship with her mother, but is deeply ingrained as a part of her.
So, no, the way Betty is written is not enough to justify the huge discrepancies between her and Don’s likability. Both characters are written with flaws. But viewers are simply quicker to sympathize with flawed male characters (They’re so misunderstood!) than with flawed women (They’re so annoying!).
I throw the term “strong female characters” around a lot in my analysis of television. And it’s important to note that this does not mean a character needs to be a fault-free role model. Yes, it’s great to have the Leslie Knopes and Tami Taylors to look up to, but we can learn a lot from more morally gray women, too.
It’s fine to be critical of female characters. But when it comes to television, male douchebags are loved, female bitches are hated, and this double standard has got to stop.
In the meantime, I’ll be patiently waiting for a justification for hating Skyler White that isn’t inherently sexist.