Skyler White, The Anti-Muse?

Yesterday I wrote a short response to Anna Gunn‘s New York Times Op-Ed about the negative reaction to the Skyler White character on Breaking Bad. I want to add a couple of points to that today.

Some of the adverse reaction to Skyler finds its grounding in her instantiation of an archetype that I alluded to yesterday: the domestication, and hence taming, of the artist. Walter White is an auteur, a maven who marries science and art to produce the purest crystal meth possible, who worries incessantly, and proudly, about the quality of his ‘product.’ This is a man obsessed, like all good artists are, about whether his vision has been realized, who is capable of endless ‘revision’ and ‘drafting’ to get things to come out just right. His pride may be his downfall, as in when he cannot stop himself from bragging to Hank about how Gale was a mere child compared to Heisenberg, but it is a justified pride: his work is just that damn good. Skyler, however, is no such thing. Remember that in the first season we are told that she writes short stories and sells items on Ebay. The former activity marks her not as creative but as delusional, like all those people who imagine they will write the next Great American Novel, the latter as a not particular edifying combination of a hustler and parasite. Later she becomes book-keeper for Beneke Fabricators.

The contrast is clear: in one corner, creativity, innovation and enterprise, in the other, dull, stodgy, mundane beancounting. And more significantly, the brilliant male artist, bought to heel by the cackling, nagging, domesticity of the home and hearth, his rising star brought back to earth by the dead weight of the home. An old joke has it that one mathematician wrote to his colleague after his marriage, ‘Congratulations, you can do more mathematics now’, but in general, the received wisdom is that the artist’s work suffers after marriage. He is called away from his easel, his desk, because of the calls from the kitchen and the nursery. Skyler is thus the sand in the wheels for Walter’s artistry; she gets in the way of his work. she prevents him from realizing his potential. We are invited to see her as a millstone and barrier.

There is an interesting visual grammar to the contrast drawn between Skyler and Walter. As the show progresses, Walter becomes sharper: he loses his hair, starts dressing in black, speaks with gritted teeth, delivers his lines with barely controlled violence, and his actions follow a trajectory of decreasing compromise (like all good artists’!). His rough edges are smoothed, he becomes menacing, not just in his deeds, but in his appearance as well. Compared to him, Skyler appears rooted in the ordinary. indeed, for a while, she is visibly weighed down with pregnancy, viewed here not as fertility, but rather, as a symbol of the artist’s enslavement.

It is little wonder Skyler provokes such visceral reactions; her character carries the burden of many pernicious tropes.

Skyler the Shrew?

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 BadSkyler, 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.