Anna Gunn has an interesting Op-Ed in The New York Times today, detailing her response to the almost universally negative, vitriolic, misogynistic response that her character on Breaking Bad—Skyler, the wife of Walter White–has evoked. In it, she writes:
My character, to judge from the popularity of Web sites and Facebook pages devoted to hating her, has become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women….As the one character who consistently opposes Walter and calls him on his lies, Skyler is, in a sense, his antagonist. So from the beginning, I was aware that she might not be the show’s most popular character. But I was unprepared for the vitriolic response she inspired….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.
Much of the Skyler-hating finds its roots in the first season depiction of her and in Walter’s gradual decline into moral depravity.
In the first season, Skyler is undoubtedly depicted as a quasi-shrew, a woman deluded about her mediocrity. She seems to have emasculated Walter, sucking from him his creative and sexual energies; if this brilliant scientist is now a mediocre high-school teacher, then part of his decline can be traced to his domestication at the hands of this seemingly bored and brittle housewife who cannot even be bothered to give him a decent handjob. (Her overreaction to Walter smoking weed does not help; this was a poorly written section of the show; it’s hard to imagine such a puritanical over-the-top response in their milieu.) Conversely, Walter comes across as a desperate man, striving–foolishly and recklessly perhaps–but striving nonetheless, to do the best by his family. His moral and spiritual decline is not immediately apparent, and only becomes apparent later in the show. By that time, as Skyler’s strength’s become most apparent, most viewers’ impressions have already congealed. There are still, unsurprisingly, those who consider Walter a ‘total bad-ass.’
Skyler might also have been the victim of a backlash triggered by the usual ‘violence OK-sex bad’ moralizing that afflicts our culture at large. Her infidelity to Walte via her liaison with Ted Beneke made her the target, I suspect, of a pompous ‘look at this bitch, sleeping with another guy, while her cancer-afflicted husband struggles imperfectly to take care of her and her kids’ reaction. Walter’s mistreatment and destruction of Jesse Pinkman did not evoke such a visceral response. Perhaps there was a shaken head or two, a rueful ‘man, that’s fucked up, but a guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.’
And that, in the end, is it. A man does what he does; the world is harsh and tough choices have to be made. Imperfection is a badge of honor, a sign of having made it through the gauntlet. A woman, however, has to fight mightily to keep bitch-hood at bay; her imperfections brand her guilty forever. The tribunals that judge her are considerably more exacting.