(This article should be avoided by anybody not caught up with the most recent finales of Breaking Bad and Mad Men)
One of the bonus pleasures of watching a great show the night it airs is the great conversations on the Internet in the aftermath. It is tremendous fun to go online immediately after the conclusion of Breaking Bad or Mad Men to react to and discuss the episode’s events or to theorize about what happens next. These discussions can provoke new perspectives or reveal complex meanings and connections not obvious on first viewing. The fans of these shows frequently reveal themselves to be intelligent, insightful and willing to engage intense, troubling dramas on intellectual and emotional levels.
Except for when it comes to the protagonists’ wives.
Yep, turns out that while many viewers have no problems following (or even rooting for) philanders, pathological liars, murderers, drug dealers, rapists and all-around toxic human beings, they suddenly lose all sense of compassion or interest when the focus turns to said Walking Garbage’s wife.
Don Draper lies, ignores, cheats on, and emotionally mindfucks with his wife for years? Eh.
Betty Draper contemplates an affair? Worst human being ever.
Walter White wantonly murders people who get in his way? He’s doing it for a good reason!
Skyler White can’t take living with a murderous drug lord and has an affair? How dare she!
It goes without saying that not everyone who watches these shows, or even a particularly large minority, has these feelings. But the ones who do feel this way, screech about it, and so it becomes an impossible subset of the audience to ignore. Reading Twitter and comments sections rapidly becomes wince-inducing as certain members of the audience seem determined to mis-read the show-runner’s intent. Or simply refuse to regard prominent female characters with any degree of empathy.
Worse, even if the emotions are not as strong as I’ve stated; if say, someone simply dislikes the characters but does not truly loathe them, the language they use to express that discontent tends to veer towards either the ignorant or the straight-up misogynistic.
Women aren’t just “annoying” or “unlikeable” which is the terminology that gets slung around about male characters. No, women are “bitches”, “whores”, “sluts” or worse. And if Skyler or Betty or another female character don’t actually do anything morally skewed, the hateful will steer the conversation away from the content of the show or the behavior of the character, and begin running off a checklist of physical faults in the actress.
Why does this disconnect happen? Why are people willing to follow male anti-heroes into the darkest reaches of humanity, while refusing to give women even the slightest bit of moral latitude?
I think it boils down to two major camps, one sort-of understandable, one very much not. Let’s start with “Not”.
Sexists Hate These Characters, But Hating These Characters Is Not Automatically Sexist
I’m not going to try and psycho-analyze anybody. Everyone has their own hang-ups and prejudices and beliefs and I’m not going to try and turn this article into a therapy session.
So let’s be clear up front: Many, many, many of the people who have this hatred for female characters are at the very least, somewhat prejudiced against members of the other sex, if not full-blown misogynists. Sorry but it’s true.
These are audience members who willfully reconstruct the narratives and thematic content of the work they are watching to better suit their own belief system and worldview. And so, even if Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad) or Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men) explicitly frame the narrative in such a way as to make the female characters sympathetic, these viewers will do mental gymnastics to establish for themselves that no, the man is always in the right and the woman is in the wrong.
Particularly on Breaking Bad, the creative team will time and time again create scenes and imagery which are designed to show how much Skyler White and her sister Marie are emotionally abused by the actions of Walter White, and how much his life of crime is devastating on an intimate emotional level. The show has actively worked to turn Walter White into an amoral monster willing to commit heinous acts to preserve himself, up to and including poisoning a child to better manipulate someone else. Yet time and time again, these scenes are dismissed because the women are “annoying” or “stupid”.
But here’s the thing: just because you dislike a female character on a television show, that doesn’t make you a sexist. There are plenty of moments on Breaking Bad that are also devised to show Skyler and Marie making awful decisions or engaging in destructive, hurtful behavior. Being frustrated by that is a perfectly legitimate response.
In fact, if this was a different article, I would tell you about why I think that Betty Francis nee Draper of Mad Men is a colossal failure as a character. As a multi-dimensional character, as a source of drama and as a piece of the thematic architecture of Mad Men, Betty is awful. And I can give many, many reasons why I think that.
But I never have to resort to calling her a bitch or insulting the actress’s appearance.
And this is the greater point: Many of the people who dislike these characters are not sexist. They just dislike the characters. The issue then becomes the language that is used to discuss that discontent. Internet conversation is largely (mostly?) built around saying something quicker and louder than anyone else can. And so, in trying to sum up feelings of unhappiness with a character in as few characters as possible, commenters fall back into easy, hurtful language.
Please don’t do this. Not only is it disappointing and annoying on a human level, it’s severely limiting in terms of discussion. When you use the basest form of language, you are limiting yourself to the basest form of understanding.
When someone calls Skyler White a bitch, the discussion changes. Instead of talking through what the problems are in the context in the show, the conversation becomes something like this:
“Skyler is a bitch because of this scene!”
“But what about this scene!”
“I don’t care about that scene, what about this one!”
“HOW COULD ANYONE THINK THAT ABOUT THAT SCENE!”
Ugh. Moving on.
Why Do Female Characters Get the Short Shrift?
I’ve talked about my own dislike of Betty Francis as she’s implemented on Mad Men. And there is no question that Skyler and Marie were given the weakest, broadest material in the first season of Breaking Bad. And going beyond those two dramas, television right now is littered with great dramas built around morally ambiguous protagonists who have wives or girlfriends that exist to voice displeasure with the anti-hero’s anti-heroic actions that viewers crave every week.
Let’s talk about story for a second. The most basic drive of a story is forward momentum. The most basic thing that an audience desires is that same forward momentum. We want stories to move. We want things to go forward. Action causes reaction causes action causes reaction causes Bruce Willis jumping off a building. This is elemental to storytelling.
So with that in mind, here are two character types. You tell me which one is going to be more compelling to an audience member:
Character A promotes forward momentum through their behavior.
Character B inhibits forward momentum through their behavior.
Of course the audience is going to be more interested in Character A. Character A is exciting. Character A gets in gun fights and runs from explosions. Character A solves problems, gets betrayed, discovers mysteries, has thrilling cliffhangers right before commercial break.
Character B gets mad at Character A for doing all that stuff.
And, and this is the important part, Character B is almost exclusively a female character.
It’s not just TV. The easiest pop culture example is Talia Shire’s Adrian in the Rocky films. You go to a Rocky movie because you want to watch Sly Stallone beat the blonde off of Dolph Lundgren’s head, and yet the film devotes huge chunks of time to Adrian whining at Rocky that he shouldn’t do that.
“No, don’t do the awesome, exciting thing that people paid money to see! That’s a terrible idea!”
And that’s true of television dramas as well. Walter White cooks and sells meth which brings him into visceral, thrilling situations. Skyler White gets mad at her husband for getting involved in those situations. Leaving aside the matter that of course she fucking would, of course this going to provoke discontent from viewers. They came to watch Breaking Bad, and Skyler is trying to prevent said breaking. We have seen this dynamic play out dozens of times across various mediums: Male character does stuff, wife/girlfriend watches/tries to stop/gets endangered.
Why do the writers keep going back to this dynamic? Because it’s easy. Especially on television, where a creator only has at most a one hour pilot to set up the dynamics and tensions that the show will utilize going forward.
So in the early goings of Breaking Bad, Skyler was written to henpeck Walt and give him a hard time over every one of his choices. It was an immediately understandable relationship that gave the audience an instant rooting interest in Walt’s desire to assert himself and control his own life. The show has long ago left that narrative in the dust, instead refocusing on Walt as having always been a hateful monster that is only now getting unleashed, but fans have long memories and tend to be unwilling to relinquish original reactions.
This article may not change anyone’s mind. Indeed, it may provoke readers to become defensive and double-down on feelings of resentment towards female characters. But I’m not trying to insult anyone or take away from anyone’s interpretation of a show (unless that interpretation is built on willful misunderstanding of either the show or this article, but someone who would do that is probably a lost cause). All I’m asking is for people to take a step back and reexamine what they really think before they share it. What is making you unhappy about a given character? Why are you having the reaction you are having? And maybe, just maybe, think about the language that you will use to express yourself. We show people who we are through the words we use.
So who do you want to be?