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Op-Ed: Breaking Bad - Meth, Morality & Misogyny

 Op-Ed: Breaking Bad - Meth, Morality & Misogyny

Skyler White, beleaguered wife of meth kingpin Walter White on AMC's Breaking Bad, is one the most reviled characters on TV. Why is that?

On TV, wives hold their men back. They hold them in check. They control them. They keep them from running amok because, for the most part, on TV, husbands are glorified kids who want what they want when they want it and if they don’t get it they sulk or throw a tantrum.


Nearly every sitcom on the tube has this set-up of the pretty-but-bossy wife and the running-to-fat but meek husband. It’s a thing, a meme, a projection of what men think women are.

That’s why men hate Skyler White.

Skyler White (Anna Gunn) is the wife of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the dystopian anti-hero protagonist of AMC’s Breaking Bad. On Breaking Bad Walt is a chemistry teacher who, when he discovered he had lung cancer, decided to start cooking meth and selling it to provide a nest egg for his wife, son and as yet unborn second child in the event of his death.

Walt was heroic, right? If you think cooking meth, the most addictive drug there is, and selling it with the help of a former student is heroic.

Nevertheless, Breaking Bad began five years ago on the premise that Walt was a good guy in bad circumstances. Unlike Tony Soprano, for example, he wasn’t born to be bad. Stuff happened, much like it did to Don Draper on Mad Men.

Breaking Bad is thequintessential guy’s guy show. More than Justified, more than Dexter, more even than Mad Men (and not counting Ray Donovan, which ignores women outright), Breaking Bad is a show about men, with men in the leads, that caters to male sensibilities. Breaking Bad is about who men are, what men do and the lines men cross, either of their own volition or because they’ve been pushed too hard by society.

Skyler White is why women watch Breaking Bad. She is, quite literally, the civilizing force and the moral compass of the show. She reminds the audience each episode of what is so easy to forget: her husband is a villain. A classic, no-holds-barred villain. He’s not someone we should admire or emulate or hope gets to continue his dastardly deeds. He’s someone we should want off the streets and safely tucked in jail. He’s a threat–not just to Skyler and their two kids, but to everyone’s kids. Skyler reminds us that we shouldn’t be cheering Walt on, we should be wanting him to fail. She stands there, steely and determined, fighting for her family and also for her own conscience, to talk back to Walt when no one else does.

Skyler and Walt 

But no one wants to hear that, so people take issue with the wife, the long-suffering, why-does-she-stay, victimized wife and mother. Why doesn’t she grow a pair and leave Walt, we demand in one more round of wishing Skyler would just go away. Isn’t she really the problem? After all, if she had just had her own life, would poor Walt have had to do this in the first place?

See how that moves so seamlessly from her being an impediment to an instigator?

Just like real life.

There’s something a little worse in the telling about Skyler than there is about other women in similar shows. Did we feel this way about Carmella Soprano, wife of the murderous monster mobster, Tony? I don’t think so. But then Carmella was nice, she was funny, she pitched fits. We could identify with Carmella a bit–because we could see how charming Tony Soprano was, too. It would be better not to know too much, to just go along, eyes half-closed and pretend Tony was anything but a mobster/monster.

But Skyler’s not like that. She’s serious. She’s worried. She’s sad. She’s angry. How did her husband come to be making meth and selling it when he was just a chemistry teacher? How did this happen to her and her family?

And then even women get annoyed with her. She should leave him. How can Skyler stay with Walt? What kind of a person is she? Think of the kids!

No one watching Breaking Bad and thinking ill of Skyler thinks about how wrong they are about her or how wrong they are to diss her when it’s Walt who’s the criminal. 

Skyler is endlessly angsting over the horror of what Walt is doing. But someone has to temper him, rein him in as much as possible. And that’s her job. How bad would he be without her civilizing force in his life? Would he be like Columbian drug lord machete-ing his way through life, doing untold damage? She’s the one who tells us, hey, this guy I married, the father of my two kids, shouldn’t be doing this.

Anna Gunn, who plays Skyler with such depth, wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times on Aug. 23 about her experience of being dissed, dismissed and outright threatened for her role as Skyler.

In her column Gunn is surprisingly shocked by the experience. Gunn clearly doesn’t spend much time online or she’d see it is a minefield for strong women like her character and herself. The Breaking Bad message boards declaring, as one I Googled began, "OMFG what a cunt, she needs to die," talk that way about real women all the time.

Aaron Paul (who plays Jesse Pinkman) and Anna Gunn at the Television Critics Association BB Panel

In her Op-Ed she writes, "At some point on the message boards, the character of Skyler seemed to drop out of the conversation, and people transferred their negative feelings directly to me. The already harsh online comments became outright personal attacks. One such post read: ‘Could somebody tell me where I can find Anna Gunn so I can kill her?’ Besides being frightened (and taking steps to ensure my safety), I was also astonished: how had disliking a character spiraled into homicidal rage at the actress playing her?"

How viewers feel about Skyler is how they feel about wives and girlfriends in general. Stop controlling me, bitch. Stop telling me what to do you... Whichis why there’s actually a Facebook page devoted to Skyler White titled "I am a Cunt."

TV reinforces this. Breaking Bad, despite being brilliant, despite being listed as one of the top 20 TV shows of all time (The Sopranos being number one), has, like most scripted TV dramas, left the female roles to sort themselves out. Skyler wasn’t always equal to Walt; that’s happened in the past two seasons.

Shows with female characters as strong as their male counterparts or as clear in their own agency are few, and once those shows get established rather than cancelled, like Shonda Rhimes’ award-winning Scandal, starring Oscar --and Emmy-nominated actress Kerry Washington, they slip from being shows for everyone to being "shows for the ladies." I don’t know any men who watch Scandal. Twitter is rife with smart women, including some top political pundits, live-tweeting the show when it’s on, but no men, even though it’s a political drama about Washington politics and the cast is more male than female.


Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, as well as the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, and Village Voice, among others. She writes a weekly TV column for the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate, SheWired and Huffington Post. Her most recent book is From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, winner of the Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction 2012. Her novella, Ordinary Mayhem, won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012.

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Victoria A. Brownworth