TV has a 'bitchy wife' problem

Date

Lauren Smelcher Sams

Skyler and Walter White from <i>Breaking Bad</i>.

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.’”

“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.

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’.

 

18 comments so far

  • I don't think people hate January Jones or Betty Draper - the usual comment is "any episode Betty's in is a good episode". Lori in Walking Dead is just an emotional mess - one minute she is bemoaning how bad things are (for her and her family) while her son wonders off unsupervised to be chased by zombies. I think people hated Skyler White because for a long time she was so oblivious to Walt's activities and yet seemed to want to believe his rather transparent made up excuses but then still got all moral on him when it suited her. Now she has "broen bad" herself I find I like her a lot.

    Maybe the problem is that writers still want women to be the moral torchbearers while viewers want them breaking all the rules like the men. You can't have it both ways (unless you are Katee Sackhoff).

    Commenter
    StBob
    Date and time
    August 30, 2013, 8:38AM
    • Some people just don`t have a life,taking out their aggression on actors that are just doing a job to entertain us.Why do people take these film characters to heart as if they are real people?

      Commenter
      Screamer
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 30, 2013, 8:49AM
      • another story here based on the opinion of trolls as somehow fact. While i totally agree there needs to be more female protagonists the examples you give are only centric to what you want to prove. Look at how much hate Matt Smith and Steve Moffat get from Doctor Who to name but one example. To say nothing of the awful stuff Jenna get in feminist media for her character. Trolls (and indeed commentators, in a different way) want to tear things apart. Trolls for fun and commentators to prove a point.

        To take one example of Skylar. Gosh i hated her, every moment she was on screen. Not the actor because she was fantastic in Deadwood but in this she was an uptight bore. While our hero was doing his best to survive cancer and make a nest egg for them, she was the nagging killjoy. Her character NOT HER. Thats how brilliant she is as an actor. And yes there are many women like that in the world. Yet now she is the rock of sanity to the show, she and Walt Jr are the moral core to show, even if she is wavering. The opinions you claim above are the stupid people of the world but you quote them as the voice of the people.Yes of course Walt is still the hero of the show. His manipulation into getting us to still like him after all the evils hes has done is not unlike what he does with Jesse. Its succeeded where Dexter failed to hate and love our leading man. This is not the first story i had read about Skyler but think its funny that even with such a high quality show someone will still desperately look for flaws.

        Commenter
        blakeavon
        Date and time
        August 30, 2013, 9:12AM
        • Totally agree with all you said, other than the Skylar wavering bit. I think she's a fair way beyond wavering.

          Also, what kind of silly name is Skylar? Must admit I couldn't really stand her the first 4 seasons, but am finding her a lot less annoying lately.

          Commenter
          funkigreendog
          Date and time
          August 30, 2013, 10:43AM
        • Funki: "....what kind of silly name is Skylar?" As if your nick isnt silly.

          Besides, according to thinkbabynames.com, Skylar has been a popular name for last 20 years. And it means "scholar, protection; fugitive; giving shelter". Rather apt, dont you think?

          Commenter
          PeterC
          Date and time
          August 30, 2013, 8:32PM
      • I don't think the haters understand the function these characters serve within the shows. If Skylar wasn't around, Walt would maybe be having a 'better time' and not be held back or whatever, but if that were the case then the show would lose it's tension and drama.

        Commenter
        Alex
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        August 30, 2013, 9:13AM
        • I stopped watching Breaking Bad halfway through season 5 because I loathed the way Walter treated Skyler. I fell so deeply in hate with him that I no longer cared if the character lived or died, which isn't really the ideal engagement level for a show! I wanted him to be the hero, I really did - but someone who forces himself back into the house after you have repeatedly asked them to leave? Someone who is so indifferent to your suffering - so selfish and self involved - that they simply don't notice or take your opinion into account? Revolting.

          Commenter
          Jessem
          Date and time
          August 30, 2013, 10:07AM
          • What? That's the beauty of BrBa! It's so well written that you are made to feel for a character because they've acted human; for better or worse. When Walt returns home after being kicked out... his slyness and manipulation should be why you loathe him. I'd argue that that IS the "ideal engagement level" for this show. That's how the writers want you to feel. It's why it is such a successful show.

            Commenter
            ClaireF
            Date and time
            August 30, 2013, 11:18AM
          • I'm only half-way into season 2 and I no longer care what happens to Walt, just his wife and son. Then again, I don't take characters in a film series that seriously - it's just fiction!

            Commenter
            MO4
            Date and time
            August 30, 2013, 1:20PM
          • He was never a hero. That's the point of the show. If you want a black-and-white moral dichotomy go watch star wars or something equally asinine.

            Commenter
            Gabriel
            Date and time
            August 30, 2013, 1:51PM

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