Breaking Bad, Misogyny, and Anna Gunn’s Bully Pulpit

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Piggybacking on the popularity of Breaking Bad’s final season, and jumping at a chance to propagate their lefty agenda, the New York Times recently published an editorial by Anna Gunn entitled I Have A Character Issue.

Gunn, who plays Skyler White on the show– the wife and foil to Bryan Cranston’s meth-cooking Walter– is a talented actress, to be sure. However, as she has come to realize, her character is universally despised.

The vitriolic hatred of her character prompted Gunn to write the editorial defending Skyler, and trying to identify the “real causes” of people’s anger toward her. Gunn’s conclusion is as solipsistic and agenda-driven as you’d expect:

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.

I’m concerned that so many people react to Skyler with such venom. Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or “stand by her man”? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?

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.

In fact, people’s hatred of Skyler isn’t caused by her breaking out of an expected mold, but because she’s all too familiar. What Gunn fails to acknowledge is that this is how the writers of the show always wanted us to feel about Skyler.

It was written into Breaking Bad’s DNA from the very first episode. In the pilot, we are introduced to the pathetic Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher and niceguy, and his lantern-jawed, Amazonian wife Skyler, who chastises him for using the wrong credit card for a $12 purchase, forces him to eat veggie bacon (“We’re watching our cholesterol”), and gives him a half-hearted handjob for his birthday*.

The character of Skyler was conceived as an antagonist of sorts from the beginning, someone who made us sympathize immediately with Walt’s situation. As befits the dramatic architecture of such a brilliantly complex show, this obstacle to Walt’s plans and desires is also someone he loves, and needs to be in harmony with in order to achieve his main goal, providing for his children’s future after he eventually dies of cancer.

Interestingly, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has backed off this obvious characterization of Skyler in recent interviews. This can be chalked up to his wanting to avoid controversy and backlash, a concession to mainstream political correctness in order to not alienate any viewers or critics. It seems abundantly clear that Gilligan’s true intentions with Skyler are to serve as both a shrewish impediment to Walt, and also at times the glue that holds the family together. He succeeds, but that doesn’t mean we (and him too, maybe) are not constantly annoyed by her. The proof is in the pudding.

In her editorial, Gunn conveniently omits all the subtleties that make her character a fully fleshed-out human. Instead, she cherrypicks aspects of the character and cites them out of context in order to make her fit the same old, tired Feminist narrative we’ve heard a million times before.

When Skyler discovers what Walter has been up to, she tries to stop him, to no avail. She is outraged by the violence and destruction of the drug world, fearful for her children’s safety, disgusted by the money Walter brings in and undone by the lies and manipulation to which he subjects her.

Hmm… sounds like her character is just a helpless, special snowflake…

Oh, wait.

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Ah, that’s right.

Skyler does a ton of deplorable things on the show. She even becomes a conspirator in Walt’s drug business, and justifies it with the same reasons he does (family).

I point this out because it underscores the disingenuous tone Gunn uses in her editorial (though she does mention once that Skyler is “morally ambiguous”). I might describe the character as “a horrible person on every conceivable metric,” but let’s not mince words, right?

But this still doesn’t completely answer the question of why Skyler White is so despised that Facebook groups such as “Fuck Skyler White” have soared in popularity. And the last piece of the puzzle is the one that Gunn has the biggest blind spot for.

Skyler is disliked because of Anna Gunn herself.

Though Gunn is an excellent actress, she’s not a particularly likeable one. Her line delivery, her somewhat masculine look, and her very presence do not garner the type of pathos that is generated every time a Bryan Cranston or an Aaron Paul is on screen.

This is partially exacerbated by the writing and role Gunn is fulfilling, but that just underscores how intentionally she was cast and molded to make us dislike Skyler.

The writers of Breaking Bad are geniuses. If they wanted us to truly like Skyler, they could have done it. But that was not the story they are telling. In a sense, it’s highly disrespectful for Gunn to skew and politically color the morally ambiguous world her bosses created.

Anna Gunn took an easy opportunity to get her name published for jumping on the Feminist bandwagon and repeating their talking points, but anyone who has watched Breaking Bad will see how hollow her outrage echoes.

The full editorial can be found here.

*This scene was later pulled from the pilot episode as it is now presented on Netflix and reruns. Perhaps this was done to soften Skyler’s unsympathetic qualities, a surprising move for a show that has always been uncompromising in its stark portrayal of human flaws. But this seems congruent with Gilligan’s other recent revisionist statements where the character of Skyler is concerned.

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7 Responses to Breaking Bad, Misogyny, and Anna Gunn’s Bully Pulpit

  1. aceofhurtz says:

    The half-hearted hj really hit home for me. In the bad old days I had a ltr that practically qualified as marriage and we celebrated valentine’s day and (supposedly) “steak and blowjob” day the following month, as a sort of masculine counterpart to vagina day. The first year I got both of these things. The second year I only got the steak.

    The last year of our relationship valentines proceeded as normal, but when steak and bj day rolled around I received neither of those things. She would not engage in any sexual act with me unless she was nearly blackout drunk. And yet insisted she loved me more than anything. Blech.

    Skyler White on the show is not in any way intended to be a sympathetic character. She’s actually supposed to make us cheer for Walt when he breaks out of the milquetoast, sexless, suburban mold that so many of us are imprisoned in or have been.

  2. Badger says:

    Sounds like some major solipsism on Gunn’s part…I had always thought actors took some kind of professional pride in understanding that they were NOT their characters. Gunn seems very invested in the criticisms coming at the character.

    I think of Danny DeVito in Get Shorty, who said “a true transformation doesn’t take place, that wouldn’t be acting.”

  3. Just Saying says:

    As the “meme” shows exactly what Skyler is… Is it surprising that people despise her? Yes – this is a portrayal of a typical American house-wife – which may be why people find her repulsive…

    Walter should have ditched her before she knew too much – now his only option is to kill her. But he won’t do that – because of his children – although I’m surprised he hasn’t had DNA tests done on the kids to find out which – if any – are actually his…

    Gunn should be happy that she is as despised as she is – it shows that most Americans still find such behavior deplorable, or maybe she’s upset because she is one of the actresses that is just “playing herself” and that’s why she’s upset. I don’t know…. But I like Walter – he’s a good man in a bad situation, doing what he has to do. The perfect anti-hero…

  4. skinny pete says:

    The dweeb that wrote this article seems more butthurt than those losers on
    the Breaking Bad board at IMDB…or probably is one of them.

    • No White Feather says:

      The only loser here, skinny pete, is the guy who thought a schoolyard insult completely devoid of rational content would serve to destroy a well-articulated argument. Epic fail.

  5. Piledriver says:

    Anna Gunn did a wonderful job playing Skyler White, abd not just because she looked the part (though there is as much narrative power her wide-eyed confrontation face as Bryan Cranston’s squinty evil face). She’s an awesome actress and I LOVED her performance as Skyler.

    I also HATE Skyler White, and no amount of self-imposed victimhood (Season 5) does anything close to redeeming the character’s endless hypocrisy.

    Perhaps it was better for Gunn’s performance that she viewed the character the way she described — heroic, and heroically burdened. But anyone actually following the narrative Skyler was a part of knows that was not exactly her role.

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