Skip to Content
feminista.v5 copy.png

Breaking Bad's biggest mystery

Read More:

Photo sourced from spoilertv.co.uk

I have to admit, that even I, a self-identified feminist who cheers on the most hated of characters just by virtue of them being female, harbored a simmering dislike for Breaking Bad's Skyler White (Anna Gunn) almost from the beginning of the series.

The show, which focuses on underdog Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) rise in the crime world, sets its viewers up with a challenging and often uncomfortable representation of female roles.

Our lovable male protagonist and underdog is Walter White, who wins viewers through his transformation from a beaten-down chemistry teacher to a notorious and feared drug dealer. His new-found strength, determination and ambition strikes a chord with the audience.

Then there's Skyler, his wife, who plays the female antagonist to Walter’s protagonist. Skyler is forced to deal with the repercussions of Walter’s new life, and in doing so, is demonized by audiences as a “kill-joy”.

As “I Hate Skyler White” pages began to materialize on the internet, generating large amounts of followers on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, I began to question audience's perception of Skyler.

Consider what Skyler has been through: Her husband disappears erratically and for long periods of time, then is too proud to accept money for his cancer treatment. He lies to her about being a meth manufacturer, he gets his brother-in-law shot and nearly killed, becomes a killer, and most importantly, puts his family’s lives at risk.

So ask yourself: Would you normally demonize a character for not wholeheartedly supporting someone who has done all these things and more to them? The answer is simply, no. Normally we would think this person rational, logical and even admirable. So, why do we hate Skyler White? Why do we hate the person that makes the most sense?

The answer is simple: She refuses to allow us to escape reality. Where all those who block Walter’s path (think Gus Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut) are quickly and ruthlessly removed, Skyler stubbornly stands in his way. He cannot simply remove her from his path because his rationalization for perpetuating all these crimes is that he is providing for his family would then be called into question.

Thus, in Walter’s world of renegade moral high-grounds and underdogs gone wild, Skyler remains the anchor that holds him, and audiences, in reality.

She refuses to allow society to easily appropriate her character into that of the archetypical and often submissive wife, mother and woman. She refuses to allow us -- the audience -- to escape a cold, hard reality. Skyler forces us to look at this reality square in the face and see it for all its complications, uneasiness and anxieties.

Walter may be a renegade, and we may love to follow his whirlwind of morally questionable escapades, but the reality is that at home, these actions sit awkwardly with family. It’s the midlife crisis come home, it’s the other woman sitting awkwardly on the sofa trying to talk to your kids, it’s the Ferrari in your driveway that you’re too afraid to drive.

Walter’s alter-ego Heisenberg is posited awkwardly when at home, and Skyler calls attention to this and thus refuses to allow the audience to fully indulge in these fantasies.

So why do we really hate Skyler White? Is it because she is a shrewd woman and a kill-joy? Or is it because her strong female character refuses to be a submissive archetype and thus refuses to allow us, and Walter, to completely indulge in our renegade fantasies?

But the really big question that we need to ask ourselves is: Does Breaking Bad shine a negative light on feminism by positing it in direct confrontation with escapism?

(1) Comments

I think it's fair to start out with a dislike of Skyler, simply because she's a dislikable character when we first meet her.  The sustained hatred of Skyler has roots in sexism, for sure, but also in viewers' inability to gauge shifts in narrative. In other words, many viewers dislike Skyler because she was written as a cartoon for so long, and they still see her that way.

Like every other character in the series, Skyler has evolved, and is now one of the most sympathetic characters in the show. As you say, she is us.

Skyler may have been Walt's greatest antagonist (the whole point of "Breaking Bad" is the flipped moral compass, where Walt is the hero and Hank the villain), but now she's his chief enabler.

Her ability to see reason has actually kept him from getting busted: storing the cash in a rented locker, silverfish notwithstanding, was far more sane than trying to launder it through a car wash, where there's never a transaction of greater than twenty bucks. It wasn't a bulletproof plan, no, but this is a world populated by people who make stupid decisions from the second their alarm clocks go off.

I can't be the only one seeing shades of Gemma Teller in Skyler after S05E12. I have trouble understanding why that shift isn't more universally acknowledged, and I like that Skyler isn't entirely likable. It makes her human.

The larger issue is the quality of writing regarding female characters in "Breaking Bad". I gotta say that it's pretty weak overall.  It's weird to me that Lydia now has the same level of development as Skyler, and both are so much more developed than Marie, who only brings us "shoplifting" and "purple".

I get a nagging feeling that "Breaking Bad" doesn't shine any kind of light on feminism because it's not even considering feminism, or how gender affects character and agency beyond the broadest of strokes. The word "lazy" becomes unavoidable when discussing how the women of ABQ are written in this show.

This is one of the reasons why "Orange is the New Black" tops my must-watch list for 2013: it's just so f*cking different, and it shouldn't have to be that way.