Willing or not, Anna Gunn has become the face of Modern Feminism. And maybe – just maybe – that’s the real reason she and her oft-maligned character, Skyler White, inspire so much hostility among men.
Let me get two things straight right out of the gate. This is not really a Breaking Bad article, even though I’m using the Skyler White character to make my principal point. This is about the latest manifestation of American Feminism. And, yes, I do understand the difference between a fictional character and the actress who plays her. I fully intend to single out the actress as the focal point here, because she has made herself, as well as the character she plays, the focus of a great deal of cultural sexism talk over the last season as the epic TV drama Breaking Bad wrapped up its critically acclaimed run as perhaps the best TV drama of all time.
An interesting thing happened in the aftermath of series finale hype surrounding Vince Gilligan’s dark drama. A background buzz started across the nation about the rampant sexism still percolating in our culture. It started showing up in opinion writings by (mostly female) journalists after Anna Gunn began to get interviewed by Rolling Stone about her character, and it got a big boost when she wrote an open letter to the N.Y. Times a few months ago. In that piece, entitled I Have a Character Issue, Gunn complained that she was both confused and disturbed by the degree of hatred directed at her character, and by extension at her, personally, on Facebook and other internet forums. She further contemplates that it may be driven by an underlying sexism in our culture, a troubling double standard among men and, of course, an ingrained hatred of “strong women.”
That “strong women” comment is something that would show up dozens of times as a common point in virtually all sympathetic commentary since then. Without fail, every author I have read, and there are quite a few over the last year, has taken Gunn’s characterization as an axiom without question. They all accept it, even though they disagree on the details of why men hate Skyler White. Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan, for example, echoes that “people hated Skyler White because she stood up for herself and left her husband. ” Seems legit.
But here’s a question; what if that’s total bullshit? What if that’s just the accepted, neo-feminist view about men and their prejudices? Do men dispute it? Did anyone think to ask any men? Shockingly, [insert some sarcasm here] no one really has. Anna herself has been interviewed by men about this, but the closest one has ever come to asking a question from a man’s point of view was when Rob Tannenbaum from Rolling Stone asked her: “She’s not really a great wife, is she?” And that caused Anna to visibly bristle, sidestep the question and perhaps put the interview in jeopardy. There were certainly no further questions along those lines.
Anna and her apologists also imply that women are victims of a double standard about philandering, and that this may explain why they hold Skyler’s infidelity against her. They take issue with the way that our culture, men especially, seem to accept moral failings in men while being more critical of the failings of women. As Anna said in the Times:
“But at the end of the day, she [Skyler] hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter.”
She gets more specific in her interview with CBS News:
“I think that it just brings up the question, which is why I wrote the op-ed piece, about that there is still a double standard, that there is still a way that we see men and women differently. I never would have written an op-ed piece for The New York Times before this. I never would have done that. … I think it just, it pointed up to me that this is still alive, that we don’t necessarily talk about it as much as perhaps we should, and because I was at the center of the firestorm essentially I thought that it was time for me to say something about it.”
Is this just Skyler-worthy whining? Not necessarily. There are two things to consider here; the truth of the cultural claim and its applicability to these characters. It’s a valid point that men on TV and in the movies are sometimes given a pass in their law-breaking and philandering. Think James Bond. Women, especially mothers and wives, are not given wide approval when they are represented as slutty hell-raisers. It’s true. We could blow a million words on why this is, but when it’s over, we all have to agree that it’s not good for anyone to behave this way, be they male or female. So that case is closed. We should judge men and women by the same moral codes. No one can really argue against that. But did anyone notice that in this show, Walt’s not a philanderer? As so many internet “IFT” images attest (Language warning: here, here, here and here, for example), Skyler is the one engaging in revenge-sex, and people do think it’s shocking, at least in this case. So this double standard talk by Anna and her girlfriends could be just an attempt to justify Skyler’s behavior using an irrelevant (to this show) cultural strawman.
Since there is some truth to it, could this cultural bias legitimately be used to explain the public reaction to Skyler’s affair? Normally, I would say yes, if her affair were comparable to the types of casual affairs that normally get easy passes by the watchers of James Bond movies. But I feel there’s something different here. This affair represents a much more serious and malicious betrayal than the affairs of men like James Bond or Tony Soprano, and I feel that’s what explains the hatred. To illustrate, consider the betrayals crafted by writer Jay Wolpert in his 2002 screenplay adaptation of Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. When interviewed about it, he explained that there is no hatred as intense as that caused by the purposeful and spiteful betrayal of a spouse or close friend. It’s the betrayal of the Count Mondego that drives the revenge theme of that novel, and the movie. In Wolpert’s adaptation, Mercedes is guilty of betrayal, but the unconscious aspect of it lessens her guilt, and she’s eventually reconciled with Dantes. Not so for Mondego whose betrayals, both sexually and otherwise, are the fodder of a burning hatred that endures throughout the story. So, does the fact that the hated betrayer in that story is a man mean that there’s some kind of reverse sexism going on there? Of course not. It means that Anna Gunn and her supporters are full of shit. Sometimes when a character is hated, it just means he/she earned it.
After all, maybe the fans are judging these two by the same moral standards and Skyler is the one actually found wanting? Is Gunn really unaware of just how far Skyler fell, morally, during the series? Did she actually believe Vince Gilligan when he told her in real life that he had “no idea” fans would hate Skyler so much? Is she really that gullible? It was obviously part of the plan, and it’s right there in the script. The “Breaking Bad” title doesn’t just refer to Walt. Maybe Anna really wanted to believe Skyler wasn’t so bad. If so, I suspect Gilligan helped her down that path for his own self-preservation and her peace of mind. It may be that he’s as good a liar as his protagonist if an actress of Gunn’s caliber and skill can play such a complex but horrifying role so masterfully and then be duped into defending the character as a courageous mother who’s just a little “morally compromised.” Otherwise, her defense of Skyler is a mystery to me. If Skyler had stopped at giving Walt a little taste of his own medicine, which she fully did to excruciating effect in Season 2, then she would still qualify as fairly blameless. But she blew through that red line with gusto at the beginning of the third season.
Gunn doesn’t seem to remember that part of her alter ego’s history. She seems not to recognize the vileness of Skyler’s betrayal of Walt in Episodes 23 & 24 (Season 3, Shows 3 and 4). That was pretty damn sickening, by my reckoning, and not just because she had Walt’s newborn baby girl in a carry-seat in Ted’s bedroom while she was joyfully f&*#ing her boss out of hatred for her husband. The hatred in that final scene of #23 was palpable, made all the worse by her going back and doing it happily over and over again. By that point in the series, Walt’s biggest sin, aside from being an asshole and breaking the law, was lying to her and keeping her “out of the loop” while he provided for the family the shady way. Sure, it really pissed her off, but morally speaking, at that time, he really did have the moral high ground. He had finally come clean with her about everything, made it clear why he did it, and he was honestly trying to fix the family. And it wasn’t a dodge. The script makes it clear through his confessions to Gus and Jesse and Saul that his desire to give everything else up for the family was legit. It doesn’t matter that there was a germ of selfishness there that would ultimately be admitted in the series finale. What is she, a mind reader? And she had no selfish motivations? Gilligan clearly created her character with her share of those, most prominent being the constant, relentless indulgence in hateful, soul-twisting, self-righteous anger. Where I come from, that’s not a virtue. At this point in the series, Walt’s biggest moral failings are completely unknown to Skyler, so her revenge-betrayal is mostly done out of personal spite. Even her kicking Walt out for the “safety of the children” was only a lie, as she admits clearly that it’s only because she wants him out. As Tannenbaum implied, Skyler is not a great wife. Neither is she that innocent.
That’s my read, anyway, but like the libertarian Gale character, I’m the kind of guy who strictly separates moral law from civil law, so being an illegal drug cooker, to me, does not automatically make someone a moral monster, although Walt certainly becomes a monster by the end. I tend to put a higher moral weight on not using revenge-sex to crush your spouse, whether man OR woman. Gunn obviously does not. Neither do any of the writers who defend Skyler.
So, what do we conclude about Gunn’s NY Times claim? Do men hate Skyler White because they’re all a bunch of knuckledragging sexists who can’t accept “strong women” and judge them unfairly? Like all gross, irresponsible generalizations, this one is part true, but mostly crap. In this particular case, I would call it an outrageous canard that directs attention away from the principal double standard of neo-feminism that is on full display in the character of Skyler White. I think it has very little to do with her being a nagging bitch, which is the label she gets most often. In my view, she’s not much of a nag at all, and she’d be much more likable if she were merely a nag. Instead, when she first learned that Walt was actually involved with drug making, which doesn’t really happen until Episode #23, she said nothing at all. Later, when Walt shows her the money, her response was silence as she calmly walked off to work, and she said not a word to him until late that night when she had already exacted the first revenge by f&*king Ted. Some nag. She didn’t even give it a decent try. Somehow, Gunn exhibits some real memory loss when she claims: “When Skyler discovers what Walter has been up to, she tries to stop him, to no avail.” Come again? How do you effectively “try to stop” someone by icily walking out the door and f&*king your boss without saying a word?
It’s my view that men hate the neo-feminist double standard with a white-hot intensity, and that is why they direct so much disapproval at this character. It’s ironic that by defending the Skyler character in the N.Y. Times and showing herself to be completely blind to the real issues men have with her character, she validated the idiots who seemed to equate her with the character she played. It was her whole point in writing the letter that she was not Skyler, but everything she wrote confirmed that she was, unwittingly perhaps, indistinguishable from her, at least in her cluelessness about the double standard she lives by. In the process she seems very publicly to have made herself the poster-girl of new feminism, by becoming the rallying point of feminists everywhere who are knocking themselves out to defend her and her TV character.
Maybe the reason Gunn and her apologists can’t see that is because of their very own double standard that causes them to see every situation through the feminist prism. I’m not trying to be cute, but accusing someone of having a double standard is a dangerous thing, like a double-edged sword. In the Matthew 7 sense, you need to make sure your eye-plank is not bigger than theirs for your charge to stick. I think their double standard is much bigger.
Meet the New Boss; Same as the Old Boss
What is the New Feminism? And what is the double standard I’m talking about? There is no firm definition, but it’s clear that the old feminism espoused by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem has been replaced with a new version that is not so overtly hostile toward men and marriage. Marriage and children are now openly embraced. Feminists used to claim that all sex in marriage is rape. Some still appear to be anxious to push that charge whenever possible. Most now do not. But the feminist view of marriage, while ostensibly founded in equality, is still rooted in a double standard that embraces the traditional “covenant” definition of marriage for the husband only. For the wife, it is viewed as a contract that is conditional at every step and in every way. This is what it means to be a “strong, nonsubservient” woman in the way that Anna Gunn and her admirers define and defend:
1. Feminists see nothing wrong with a wife setting conditions on a marriage, but it’s bullying when men do it. During Marie’s klepto showdown in the early seasons, Walt asks Skyler what she would do if he turned out to be the one who had broken the law. She responds: “You don’t want to find out.” (i.e., IF you try that, THEN I will leave you.) She makes this kind of conditional threat continuously from the very beginning. Eventually, she not only threatens to leave, but she does, in fact, leave and attempt to lock Walt out of contact with the children without even knowing what he’s done. Worst of all, Skyler makes her love for him conditional. When she’s good to Walt, it’s because he’s satisfied her every demand. When there’s the slightest withholding of something she expects, she shows nothing but contempt and hatred for the man she vowed to love through good times and bad. This continues until the very last episode when Walt finally gives her the last bit of truth she’s been demanding for years: that his actions were not all “for the family.” It’s only after this confession that she allows him a smile. A friggin’ smile before he dies! She doesn’t take him back. He doesn’t get a cold beer. His prize for uttering the handful of words that she covets is a simple smile. Before that, almost all love and affection is withheld. This is a conditional relationship at it’s finest. In contrast, Walt’s behavior weaves all over the road, but his commitment is constant, and there’s plenty of evidence that he never made any attempt to withhold his love for anyone in his family, including Skyler’s family, regardless of what was going on. As Gus told him in the lab: “A man provides for his family, even if he is not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He provides, because he is a man.” His is not a contract. It’s a covenant. And it’s not revoked on a whim.
2. Traditional male responsibilities are open to the wife; traditional female decisions remain strictly under the wife’s control. When Skyler feels like it, she begins applying for jobs. She simply informs Walt after the fact: “I got my old job back.” She regards the option of working, even during the late term of her pregnancy to be her right, not even worthy of family discussion. Later, when she’s discussing a divorce with her lawyer, she makes full mother’s claim: “The children need to remain with me.” Walt has no claim whatsoever. Even though Gunn and the pro-Skyler pundits claim over and over again that fans hate Skyler because “she’s Walt’s equal,” they ignore the fact that Skyler does not view it that way. If she did, would she not regard Walt worthy of an equal role with the children? He certainly helps out willingly and does his part in every way. Why then does he have no rights? Some might argue that she was justified in keeping the children from him because he was a criminal, and they’d be right – part of the time. But she took action to keep the kids from him long before she had any idea he had broken any laws, so this was far from an extreme action in her thinking. It was normal for her to do so under a wide range of situations. Seems like a funny way to define “equal” to me.
3. The wife needs to be free to make her own choices and mistakes, but if they make her miserable, it must somehow be the husband’s fault because of his decisions or behavior. Then her misery becomes a valid reason for leaving him or taking other action against him. Skyler wallows in her misery: “I can’t remember the last time I was happy.” Clearly, her husband has caused her a lot of grief. Still, an objective observer has to conclude that her misery is largely due to her insistence on hanging on to extraordinary anger and absolutely stubborn demands while remaining estranged from any attempt at reconciliation once she gets sufficiently pissed off. Early in the series there is literally no overt reason for suffering in the family, outside of emotional distress that is partly her choice. Walt, Jr. certainly cannot figure out what could be causing her such pain for much of the time. Yet, she continually snarls at Walt about his ever-present culpability. When on the phone together discussing the divorce, he mentions her unhappiness, and she explodes in a tirade about how it didn’t come “out of the blue sky.” She means, of course, that he is responsible for all of her misery. He is not, completely, but she follows the feminist template and gives him the lion’s share.
4. Who is the final judge on what is acceptable in the marriage and what is not? You know the answer. Skyler continuously and unilaterally judges every situation and act of her husband and refuses to listen to any other view. She claims to doubt herself, but she never leaves the door open to discussion of her judgments. Ever. Not even by her divorce lawyer.
5. Communication must remain open and honest, unless the wife decides to cut it off. As it happened when Walt floated the question about Marie’s lawbreaking, most of Skyler’s statements and answers serve to cut off communication. “You don’t want to find out.” Walt simply cannot respond to that. It’s an explicit threat. But then, when he refuses to be truthful about where he’s been, due to that threat, it is construed to be grounds for kicking him out of the house. From the second season onward, having decided that Walt is lying, Skyler simply adopts the practice of walking away from him, staring blankly at him, whenever he begins to explain anything. Though feminist-approved, this tactic represents open warfare completely incompatible with a marriage relationship with any chance of mending. It’s poison. He never even attempts such an offensive maneuver, though he lies when he gets forced into a corner. The lying is gravely wrong, but at least it doesn’t crush all communication. Her method is the nuclear option that only women are allowed to use without guilt, apparently.
6. Suspicion is encouraged, even though it’s a marriage killer, all by itself. Feminists encourage women to always look out for themselves and be suspicious of their husbands’ trustworthiness. It is considered to be necessary due to her naturally weaker position, apparently, or something. Who really knows what they think? If genuine equality existed, then such a self-concerned mindset would be unthinkable, especially in a relationship that is supposed to function in marital union. But they cannot resist viewing themselves as weaker victims of male domination, even as they insist that they are completely equal partners in every way. Contradictory? Yes. But the worst part is that this is one of the most dangerous things you could advise anyone to do. Suspicion, like hate, is antithetical to love. You don’t need it in order to be realistic or aware, and if you are open to it, you will never, ever know love or happiness. No one who espouses it in a marriage has the slightest idea what marriage must be in order to function or thrive. Clearly, “Suspicion” is Skyler’s middle name. The results speak for themselves. Death would be preferable.
It’s not hard to see why feminists would come to the aid of Anna Gunn in her defense of Skyler White. She represents the perfect poster child for modern feminism. So, given the distain that many men and women feel for feminism, is it so hard to believe that many viewers would despise the Skyler character? I don’t think so. And I don’t think it’s necessary to imagine that all of them despise her out of a prejudice against “strong” women. If this is what being “strong” is, then we should all strive to be not so strong.
Now that I think of it, there is one strong woman author who explains the Breaking Bad phenomenon better than anyone else, but when she wrote this piece, she was not speaking of the TV show at all. She was just observing that all men are pirates down deep, and that the adventure women crave can often be found by loving their men for what they really are. I don’t know if Joan of Argghh! considers herself a feminist, but in showing her grasp of what drives men (like Walter White, indirectly), she also shows that she understands what really drives women (and what causes conflict in women like Skyler White). If she’s right, maybe men and women really aren’t that different, especially in how they look at danger and what makes them free.
The Gruntessa of Monte Cristo made valuable contributions to the writing, reviewing, revising and opinion content of this essay. She declined to be included on the author byline, but she is, nonetheless, the strongest woman I know.