TelevisionMade possible by

Bad Week: Breaking Bitch With Skyler White

Alex Casey assembles a car boot full of internet ammunition to defend Skyler White against the haters to the bitter end. //

I’m a bitch, I’m a lover. I’m a child, I’m a mother. I’m a sinner, I’m a saint. I do not feel ashamed”
– 
Meredith Brooks and Skyler White, probably.

There are a lot of people in the world who don’t like Skyler White. There’s at least 5000 on Facebook, dispersed across various groups where their hatred led them to hit that ‘Like’ button with the force of one thousand flaming demons. ‘Skyler White is a Bitch’ takes the lion share with 4184 likes. But Walter White? I could only find one page with around 100 likes. ‘Walter White is a Dick’? Doesn’t exist. ‘Walter White is a Bit Bad’? Not a chance.

And then there’s the memes. The terrible terrible memes. We have the deeply misunderstood and vaguely slut-shamey (never forget Walt’s own freaky extra-marital attempt):

2w6a3w8

The confusedly personal:

53fc1dbfe94e9-meme

And the extention of Skyler hatred so far as to shit on Lois from Malcolm in the Middle for some weird reason:

3qdm15

There has already been a lot of writing defending Skyler White against these exact sentiments, including a piece for the New York Times by actress Anna Gunn herself. Gunn started to receive personal attacks and even death threats from fans of the show, and was driven to defend herself and her character publicly. She said that her complex female character became a barometer for how open the TV watching public was to accepting various representations of women:

“Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, wanted Skyler to be a woman with a backbone of steel who would stand up to whatever came her way, who wouldn’t just collapse in the corner or wring her hands in despair. He and the show’s writers made Skyler multilayered and, in her own way, morally compromised. But at the end of the day, she hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter.”

“I finally realized that most people’s hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives. Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.”

Anna Gunn shows that the negative reaction to Skyler comes as a stark reminder that the representation game is not yet equal, and there are still miles to go in terms of breaking down perceptions of gender roles on television.

Some disagree, blaming the show’s writing instead for the frustration towards Skyler. This Grantland piece argues that it is Skyler’s complicated character arc that is the real cause of all the hate:

The wives are there to represent the normal, non-murdery world at large, which, in the context of the story, basically involves being a giant buzzkill — but even after Skyler was in on Walt’s secrets, the problems continued. In recent seasons the character has vacillated between cowed accomplice, depressed wine repository, and, most recently, earth-tone rocking, page-turning doyenne of a burgeoning car wash empire. While Walter took the express elevator down from Mr. Chips to Scarface, Skyler zigged and zagged like a remote control car with a ganked-up Badger twiddling the sticks

I agree that Skyler’s journey has not been as straight up and down as Walt’s, but perhaps that makes it truer to life. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t change their minds a million times over about whether or not to out or support their drug-manufacturing loved one. I can’t even decide what I want to have for lunch most days.

Skyler tiptoes between sympathy, anger and a desire to protect and nurture that makes perfect sense for someone faced with her situation – male or female. In this Esquire piece, it mentions how the period after Skyler finds out Walt’s secret coincided with the peak of her loathing by fans:

“Yet, as Gunn notes, the Skyler haters who rose up during that period often derided the character for being “a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew.” To some, almost immediately, Skyler committed the cardinal sin of the stereotypical awful wife: She was a nag.”

Skyler was chastised by viewers for being a real stick in the mud after discovering that her husband manufactures meth and recklessly kills people. Let’s think for a moment, if it had been the other way round, and Walt had stepped in to try and stop her, would it have been different? I imagine he would have been portrayed as an assertive, caring father reaching out to protect his family and the woman he loves. Not a nag, because men can’t nag. Women nag, men tell.

Another possible reason that Skyler is so difficult to digest could be what we have been taught about the roles of mothers and fathers in television in general. We endlessly tolerate the lovable buffoon television husband. Prevalent in sitcoms – he’s seen on the couch or in his favourite chair, bereft of any sort of responsibility and/or moral compass. Homer Simpson belches and strangles Bart. Walter White cooks up a little bit of meth and poisons a child. We love ’em both to bits. The mothers often become the pillars of civility, held up to entirely different standards:

“Skyler is a mom and all of us are conditioned from birth to see our mothers as our ethical barometers. They’re the ones who praised us for saying “please” and admonished us when we beheaded our sister’s favorite Barbie for no particular reason. Moms tell us the difference between good and bad.” – Jen Cheney, Esquire

These sorts of ideas damage both genders, but could explain why Skyler has come under much harsher scrutiny than Walt throughout the show. I don’t know, it’s just all pretty exhausting and depressing to get to the bottom of.

You might agree with the arguments, you might think it’s all crap. Maybe Skyler is a bitch, maybe she’s not. But if being a relentlessly strong, incredibly smart, and endlessly complicated woman makes you a bitch, then I want to be one too.

Lightbox users: watch Breaking Bad by clicking here.

Everyone else: click here to start your free trial (12 months for Spark customers; 30 days for everyone else).

‘Bad Week’ is a weeklong examination of Breaking Bad ahead of the launch of its prequel Better Call Saul on Lightbox next Monday.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.