Skyler and Walter White from Breaking Bad.
Anna Gunn, the actress who plays Skyler White on Breaking Bad, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times last week about the abuse she’s faced for her portayal. Skyler, for those who don’t know, is the wife of Walter, the show’s protagonist. Walter is a chemistry teacher-turned-meth cook, who initially ‘broke bad’ to build a nest egg for his family after he learned he was dying of cancer. Fast forward a few seasons and Walter has gone ‘from Mr Chips to Scarface’, in the words of one TV critic, embracing his new criminal life. Faced with a drug-cooking husband who consistently puts her and her chidrens’ lives at risk, Skyler is the one character who tells Walter that he is crossing the line. In doing so, she’s become the target of widespread fan hate. There are Facebook groups and message boards dedicated to hating Skyler White. As Gunn puts it, “The consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an ‘annoying bitch wife.’”
Gunn’s courageous stand against the misogyny she has encountered got me thinking about TV’s “wife problem.” While (as Gunn points out) we’re entitled to our opinions of characters, there seems to be a trend toward hating TV’s atypical, well-written wives. Skyler is just one. Gunn also namechecks Betty Draper (Mad Men) and Carmela Soprano (The Sopranos), and to that list I’d add Lori Grimes (The Walking Dead) and Margaret Schroeder (Boardwalk Empire). With the exception of Lori, these women could form a Wives of Terrible Husbands Club. Betty was married to Don, a womanising borderline alcoholic who hid his true identity from her for years. Carmela’s husband was a mob boss. Margaret is married to Nucky Thompson, the greedy, corrupt king of Prohibition-era New Jersey. Lori is the lucky one – she’s married to small-town cop and all-round nice guy Rick. But we’ll get to her later.
These women are almost universally disliked by viewers. On a Facebook page in Margaret’s name, viewers have posted gems like, “I f^&king hate you… but you’re hot as hell. I still hope you die, though” and “You thieving, cheating little minx. There’s a bullet with your name on it.” And that’s pretty tame compared to the viewer backlash against Skyler, Betty and Lori (since The Sopranos aired before social media became the force it now is, Carmela has been saved this fate). And hey, it’s fine to dislike, and even hate characters, including female ones. Like the male characters on these shows, these women are flawed and yes, they can be unlikeable. But there is something inherently sexist about accepting and even applauding that male characters can be uncontrollable, morally bankrupt and weak while simultaneously reviling female characters for the same reasons.
“The consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an ‘annoying bitch wife.’”
It’s not as if we can’t see the awfulness in the male characters – we know that Walter White dispensed of his moral compass, we see Don nastily belittling employees and cheating not just on his wife, but on his mistresses. But as viewers, we seem socially programmed to accept and even celebrate this behaviour from men.
Perhaps, in the case of these male-centred shows, we empathise with the male characters more because they are the protagonists. It’s in the rules of storytelling that we’re supposed to be on their side. So when their wives remind us that what they’re doing is wrong, we see them as killjoys and shrews. They become the antagonists. And of course, this in itself is a problem. TV needs more female protagonists (Orange is the New Black is a good place to start, TV execs). But there’s also a sense of thrill to be found in the terrible things these male characters do. It’s satisfying to see Walt and his sidekick Jesse pull off a heist. It’s sexy when Don buys a girl a drink. It’s part of the reason we watch.
But this idea gets complicated when we get to The Walking Dead’s Lori. Believing her husband died in a zombie apocalypse, Lori found solace in his best friend, which soon led to an intimate relationship. When she discovers Rick is alive, she (eventually) confesses and apologises. On a scale of one to cooking crystal meth, Lori’s actions are around four, at most. Yet she was frequently the subject of hateful memes that call her out on being a bad wife and mother. There is no thrill in Lori’s mistake, but there seems to be a lot in hating her.
TV's difficult female characters
Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards. Photo: Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon
Which brings us back to Anna Gunn and the hate she – not simply her character – experienced. While receiving death threats for playing Skyler, Bryan Cranston (who plays Walter) has become an Internet hero. Similarly, Jon Hamm (Don Draper) gets to show his funny side by guest-starring on 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, while January Jones (Betty Draper) is often described as “cold” and “stand-offish” in the press, just like her character. It may be testimony to their acting talents that these women’s characters are so despised – and that vitriol is also transferred to them – but that’s not the whole story. Gunn or Jones’s acting skills are rarely mentioned, and certainly not as much as their male counterparts who play characters with far more negative traits. So could it be the way that they’re written and directed that’s at the heart of the issue? As Jessica Rabbit once said, ‘I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way’.