Whether or not you’re a fan, you’ve probably heard of the TV show Breaking Bad. Rest assured, I’m not going to divulge any details about the finale or delve into the show’s message (but be warned, there are a few spoilers ahead). What I would like to talk about is the characters—or more specifically one character in the show.
For those of you who don’t watch (or hate) BB, please bear with me. I’m going to talk about something more universal than the show—and it may be of interest to you.
I recently read an article written by actress Anna Gunn about the world-wide hatred of Skyler White, the character she portrays in Breaking Bad. Skyler is the wife of the protagonist, Walter White, a chemistry teacher who after a lung cancer diagnosis decides to cook and sell crystal meth to save money for his pregnant wife and son (who suffers from cerebral palsy) and pay for all his cancer treatments. Throughout the five seasons of the show, Walt experiences a transformation from meek, principled man to hardened criminal. The power, respect and money he gets from the drug world becomes his addiction and by the end of the show, his close family members can no longer recognize him.
Skyler is not perfect either. Initially a supportive wife who assists Walt through his chemotherapy treatments and gets a job late in her pregnancy to help with the expenses, she becomes embittered and unfaithful when she learns the truth about her husband. Not only that, but she eventually helps Walt launder the cash that reproduces in his cellar like a hoard of rabbits in springtime.
Ok, so we have a story full of negative characters (with a few exceptions) but not all crimes are created equal and there are degrees to the wickedness of each character. Every character in the show, it seems, has his/her own set of principles and limits to his/her (bad) behavior. But by the end of the show, Walt has no limits.
The bizarre thing is that the majority of the public, according to Gunn’s article and to some internet research I did, DOES NOT HATE WALT, but Skyler is hated to such an extent that there are clubs/forums/Facebook pages dedicated to insulting the character and “sharing the hate.” The actress even denounced death threats against her.
Some fans brand Walt as a “badass” yet Skyler gets called a “bitch” on a daily basis. How can we explain this phenomenon? Why does a female character inspire so much hatred when she is “less bad” than her husband?
|Skyler and Walter White, an explosive combination|
In an earlier post, I talked about what makes antiheroes appealing to the audience. One of the tricks I mentioned was having to compensate for the characters’ antipathy by showing something admirable about them. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, gave us Walt’s intelligence. Even his nemesis, his brother-in-law and DEA agent, Hank Schrader admitted a few seconds before dying that Walt was the most intelligent man he’d ever met. However, Skyler is no box of rocks herself. Whereas Walt is brilliant when it comes to chemicals, schemes and outwitting his enemies, he becomes excessive and careless with his profits. Skyler, on the other hand, has a more pragmatic nature. Once she somewhat accepts her husband’s new lifestyle, she figures they have to find a way to justify their earnings and comes up with a clever plan that Walt—in his infinite recklessness—could have never devised. Not to mention the way she saves them and her boss from an IRS audit.
So why doesn’t the audience have the same admiration for her intelligence as they have for Walt’s?
This is not an isolated phenomenon. Look at so many beloved antiheroes in fiction: Vito Corleone, Tony Soprano, Dirty Harry, the vampire Lestat de Lioncourt, Dr. House, Hannibal Lecter, and let’s not forget the infamous Christian Grey. These men have a cult following trailing behind them. I don’t think there’s anti heroines who compare in popularity to these men (Scarlett O’Hara and Lisbeth Salander are the only ones that come to mind).
I recently finished writing my third novel and handed it over to a few friends. Two of my Beta Readers have expressed an intense dislike for my protagonist: a young woman who makes a huge mistake and needs the entire novel to redeem herself. Their biggest gripe is that she’s selfish and self-centered. I asked one of them—who has been known to love antiheroes in the past—if she thought people had less tolerance for negative female characters and her answer was a simple “yes”.
Women, it seems, have low tolerance for other women. Call it jealousy, competition, “cattiness,” but it is seems to me that women have more patience for “bad men” than they do for their own kind. In the case of male Skyler-haters, I have read complaints about her being a “dominant, nagging bitch” to Walt and demanding that he answers to her about his whereabouts at all times. Could it be their own frustration with their spouses that brings about this reaction toward a fictional character? Or is it a matter of gender expectations? Are there traits we cannot tolerate in women but we can in men?
This double standard seems to be an accepted state of affairs in Hollywood. Just take a look at what Diablo Cody (award-winning screenwriter and creator of Juno) had to say on the subject:
“The conventional knowledge in Hollywood is that an unsympathetic female character can tank a movie. I’m hoping that’s not true. I’m knocking on wood really emphatically right now but honestly I have a lot of theories sometimes I wonder if it comes down to mommy issues. The idea of a cold, unlikeable woman or a woman who is not in control of herself is genuinely frightening to people because it threatens civilization itself or threatens the American family. But I don’t know why people are always willing to accept and even like flawed male characters. We’ve seen so many lovable anti-heroes who are curmudgeons or addicts or bad fathers and a lot of those characters have become beloved icons and I don’t see women allowed to play the same parts. So it was really important to me to try and turn that around.”
As writers, we need to understand that this double standard exists. But how can we create anti-heroines that are not despised by all? Is it even possible? Or are we limited to creating antiheroes and good girls? Can you think of negative female characters who have been accepted (and loved) by the public?
And here, a small treat for the Breaking Bad fans.