Last week the New York Times published an op-ed by Anna Gunn, the actress portraying Skyler White in Breaking Bad. In her piece ‘I Have a Character Issue’, Gunn speaks out about the intense hatred that is felt by so many viewers towards her character. When performing a Google image search for Skyler White, most of the results are meme’s proclaiming her to be a bitch, along with much worse. While I personally have never disliked Skyler, upon reflection it does not surprise me that such a strong hatred for her exists. Gunn 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 hatred of Skyler blurred into loathing for me as a person, I saw glimpses of an anger that, at first, simply bewildered me.
Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey claimed in the 70s that men and women on screen are reduced to an active/passive binary, where women exist within film only as sexual objects to please men, whilst the male characters drive the narrative forward. Clearly times have progressed since then, and women are now able to play the hero themselves. However, while there is a much wider range of roles available for female actresses today, the continually male-dominated industry has ensured that women characters remain under-written and one-dimensional – they play the love interest. Alternatively, Skyler subverts from the norm by refusing to be passive, by standing up to Walt and having her own agency, and it is these traits that present her as problematic in the eyes of the audience – she should not be getting in the way or creating conflict. Gunn goes on to say:
Because Walter is the show’s protagonist, there is a natural tendency to empathize with and root for him, despite his moral failings. (That viewers can identify with this antihero is also a testament to how deftly his character is written and acted.) 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.
As spectators, our need to watch automatically makes us complicit in Walt’s actions: we take pleasure from viewing his narrative unfurl, free of any consequence. As Walt’s opponent – and indeed his wife – Skyler is a complication. She interrupts the excitement, and forces us to face the reality of Walt’s behaviour. Scenes revolving around Walt’s home life bring a sense of morality to the table, as they ask us to look at our protagonist from another angle, to put ourselves in Skyler’s position. This alternative perspective is important as it asks us to judge the show for ourselves, and does not automatically assume that Walt is the hero figure. Liking Skyler is not a necessity, but understanding the role that she plays is. Gunn concludes by stating:
But 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.
You can read Gunn’s full article here: