At the excellent panel on Breaking Bad at ACMI a few weeks ago, one point became alarmingly clear: everybody hates Skyler.
Skyler is the long-suffering wife of Walter White, Breaking Bad‘s chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin. She can be whiny, and moralistic, and passive-aggressive – but others on the show are overtly horrible and aggressive-aggressive, and they’re not attacked in the same way. Lurk on any online discussion of the show and you’ll find furious ranting about how Skyler is a stupid bitch who should, like, die.
Is this sexism? Well, yeah, of course. But I’d argue it’s sexist for more complicated reasons than you might expect, and that characters like Skyler are being badly served by the basic building blocks of their respective stories.
First, families – mostly wives and children, of course – are often on these shows to motivate their men. To give them something worth fighting for. Although, as David Surman pointed out at ACMI, one of the fascinating things about Breaking Bad is how Walt’s protests that he’s doing everything “for his family” so quickly become unconvincing.
Beyond that, these women can exist as a show’s voice of morality – and unfortunately, the alchemy of TV dialogue seems to inevitably transmute this into ‘nagging’.
Rita on Dexter, for example, began as an interesting character in her own right. She was a broken woman, and romanced by the emotionally-dead Dexter specifically for that fact; as an easy cover story for his serial killer’s lone wolf tendencies. As she became more confident, though, her character broke in a different way. By the end of season four, she only existed to tell Dexter that he needed to pick up the kids from school, and maybe look disapprovingly afterwards.
(An aside: was this same sort of hate circulating for Carmela on The Sopranos?)
Anyway, being nominated as a show’s moral guardian just a side-effect of these characters’ primary function: to stop the protagonist doing things.
Apparently, Billy Wilder once explained a three-act story like this: in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down. I think TV morality is often just another way of setting the tree on fire.
So Rita prevents Dexter killing. Skyler prevents Walt cooking meth. And this is where the hate comes in – because death and drugs are exactly what people want to see! I mean, it’s like a whole issue of Spider-Man where Peter Parker is trapped in the house by Aunt May and doesn’t get to punch Doctor Octopus in the face, right? God, I hate Aunt May!
There’s another common role for women, and it’s one especially prevalent in superhero comics. Years ago, Gail Simone referred to it as “Women In Refrigerators”. She realised how female characters always seemed to be injured or killed – just so their heroes had a reason to seek revenge. (A dead wife is even better motivation than a live one!)
The sexism, though, kicks in before the female characters are butchered. It starts when the hero is created. Male heroes tend to have female love interests; those love interests are the easiest to maim for maximum emotional impact; voila! Dead superwomen.
If we had more female superheroes, wouldn’t their boyfriends be the ones in danger? And the same goes for Breaking Bad and Dexter. If we had more females in active leading roles, would there be men doing the nagging-but-necessary plot-blocking?
Maybe. Or maybe gender is now so deeply embedded in these narrative structures that writers simply wouldn’t allow their male characters to fulfil the same function. And even if they did, I suspect that male Skylers simply wouldn’t generate the same levels of hate.
But why don’t we give it a try?