“And the wife of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and a cunt.”
~ Thomas Hobbes
Oh wait, that’s not Hobbes. That’s a disturbingly outspoken, disturbingly large proportion of people watching tv dramas.
Thought-experiment time. (Which will contain mild spoilers for season 2 of Breaking Bad). Go put the kettle on, because I am gonna really belabour the point:
Imagine you’re married. After your husband’s 50th birthday, he becomes increasingly introverted and quiet. One day, he gets a suspicious phone call, which he claims is a sales call. Calling back the number, you hear this: “Yo yo yo. 1-4-8. 3 to the 3 to the 6 to the 9, representing the ABQ. What up, biaaatch? Leave it at the tone”.
Yeah, “sales call”.
You find out who this person is [you nosy bint], and ask your husband. He says that this individual sells him pot. One night, he claims he’s working late at his second job. You tell him you’d already called work and that they’d told you he’d already quit. When he gets home, he tells you he has lung cancer. Which he’s known about for a month.
By the way, you’re already a little preoccupied with your second unplanned pregnancy. [But just chill the fuck out, you henpecking harpy.]
Your husband initially refuses an offer from his very wealthy friends, to pay for his entire treatment. He does not like that it is charity, and would prefer to die on his own terms. He then changes his mind about the offer. Finally, good news!
One evening, you ask where he’s been again, and it seems like he is about to tell the truth. He gets a phone call and leaves the room. He later reappears naked in a grocery store, with no recollection of the past 2 days. In the meantime, your DEA agent brother-in-law checked phone records and the phone call your husband got on the night he went missing, never happened. [You suspicious bitch.]
Your husband says that phonecall must have been the phone alarm reminding him to take his medication. It is a desperate, patently obvious lie. His behaviour suddenly becomes extroverted and over-compensatory. It is massively suspicious. You begin to give him the silent treatment. You eventually both have enough, and confront each other. You demand that he cut the bullshit and tell you the truth. He becomes spectacularly evasive. He admits he is not having an affair. You believe him. After that, his responses are all variations of “Tell you what?”, “What do you want to hear?”, “What do you think is going on?” etc. [You passive-aggressive, uncommunicative cunt.]
Oh hey, hate to take you out of the moment, but that kettle has probably boiled by now. Go make tea, because we will be here awhile. I’ll wait.
This continues. He calls you out on smoking 3 and a half cigarettes while pregnant. [Reckless whore]. At some point, you drop your husband off at the airport so he can finally visit his mother and tell her that he has cancer.
Your husbands wealthy friends say they can no longer pay for treatment. Your husband explains that they are bankrupt. You go back to work to pay the bills. You welcome the attention of your boss, as it is the only attention anyone has shown you in months. When you find out that he’s cooking the books at his company, you do not turn him in to the police. [You morally reprehensible CUNT! How can you do that? What kind of a monster did your meth-cooking husband marry?]. Oh, then your husband misses the birth of his daughter.
Anyhoo. Your husband goes in for surgery. While he’s under anaesthetic, you ask if he remembered to turn his cell phone off. His response is “which one?”. You call your husband’s rich friends, thinking maybe he is having an affair with one of them. As it turns out, they never paid a single dime towards his treatment. You call his mother, thinking maybe she paid it. Turns out, your husband had never even gone to see her, or told her about the cancer. If he’s telling lies like this, you reason, what on earth could he be covering up? He finally offers this: stay, and he will tell you everything. But whatever it is that this house of lies is built on, you’re afraid to know. You decide to take the kids and leave. [You absolute, fucking selfish, dumbwhore, bitchface, wholly unreasonable, inexplicably behaving THUNDERCUNT].
Oh, and is if that’s not enough, you called out your husband on spending $15.88 on printer paper, because the Mastercard is the one you don’t use. [You bitch].
And… scene. Okay, take a breath. So. That stuff in brackets was originally going to be screen captures of actual responses to these scenes, but searching for them just made me feel like punching people. It’s heinous shit.
Let’s have a look and see why this is such an untenable stance.
The anti-hero effect
Obviously, the main character of a work is our point-of-view. We see their world through their eyes, and so we empathize. I get that. We’ve gotten really good at rooting for the bad guy. Tony Soprano is psychopathic. Vic Mackey is an absurdly corrupt cop and serial adulterer. Jax Teller is a drug-dealing, gun-running murderer. We’ve cheered them on while they’ve done some really nasty shit. But hey, we’re living in an age where moral ambiguity is rife for exploration on tv. Fine with me. Maybe, as some people claim, this anti-Skyler malarkey is actually just because she opposes the actions of our nominal ‘hero’? Maybe it’s not misogyny? Maybe this is a reasonable stance, holding her to the same standard as any other character who opposes the ‘hero’, right? Say, for example… Hank? If anything, he’s in more of an opposition to Walt, what with him being a DEA agent and all. Let’s ask google:
- No results found for “Hank Schrader is a cunt”.
- 3 results for “Hank is a cunt” (none of which refer to this particular Hank).
- 76 results for “Skyler is a cunt” (with an additional 25 for the people who spell it “Skylar”).
- And just for fun, “Skyler is a bitch” gets 74,100 results. “Walt/er is an asshole” gets approximately a tenth of that.
In short, that theory is right out of the window. What else you got, to justify your raging misogyny?
Oh, and hey, let’s just get this out of the way: I will be using ‘misogyny’ as shorthand for ‘the denigration of women by systematically holding them to different standards than men’. Also I will be using ‘fucktard’ to mean ‘an individual who retards the progress of gender politics’. Capisce?
Oh, I’ve heard that one before! Skyler is a cunt because she behaves inconsistently. Ah, I see. She lets her boss off the hook for unreported income, but she’s super-pissed at her husband for lying to her. So she’s a hypocrite. Unlike Walt, who… oh wait, he’s a massive hypocrite. But a massive hypocrite who, for some bizarre reason, the fans don’t think deserves to be raped. Hrm. That makes fans kind of, what’s the word? Oh, that one.
This is especially hilarious (in an “if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry” sense), considering that one of the main points of Breaking Bad, and other similar dramas, is to ask questions about moral boundaries, and to ask ourselves under what circumstances we’d reassess ours.
Well, as it turns out, our moral boundaries are very flexible when it comes to Walter. Like, yoga-flexible. Give Walt an inch, and the audience will let him take a mile. Give Skyler an inch, and the audience will complain that the selfish fucking bitch has gone 4 tenths of a millimetre too far, no matter how rationally you explain that an inch is actually 2.54 centimetres.
At this point, I was going to mock up a sliding scale of 1-to-cunt, comparing where Skyler and Walt lie in their definite actions, and their perceived cuntishness. But then I realized that Walt’s scale would be mostly blacked-out with spoilers. So I’m gonna look at the audiences moral flexibility in the case of two other much vilified women, in a very similar situation, who have exactly the same accusations thrown at them. Corrine Mackey and Mara Vendrell, of The Shield.
You can’t please half the audience all the time
Corinne and Mara are both married to corrupt cops. Like Skyler, their family is often endangered by their husband’s actions. Both of these women have an inkling that something is very wrong in their husband’s professional life, and often have access to more money than they know their husband could earn legally. Here’s where it gets really interesting. (Between the asterisks, there will be mild spoilers for The Shield, concerning how each character sides).
Corinne finally has enough, and decides that the adverse effect on her family life is not worth the money. Her focus is on keeping her children safe.
“Well, that’s honest. Sad thing is, I’ve known–maybe not the specifics, the details–but I’ve known, and I have let you infect me and our children. I’ll help you this one last time… and then the kids and I are out of your life! That is my price. And you have to pay some kind of price.”
She has exhibited agency and integrity, and she makes a moral stand worthy of respect.
Around the same time, Mara knows that Shane is in danger. Shane tries to convince her to leave him to the consequences of his actions.
Shane: Mara, you and the kids can start having a good life. And that is all that matters to me.
Mara: No. We wouldn’t. We love you.
Shane: Listen. You can’t think about me now. You can’t. Alright? You gotta go. You gotta go. Come on.
Mara: No. We’re a family. Nobody’s gonna tear us apart.
Mara also makes a stand. To her, the love she has for her husband outweighs his actions.
So, here we have two women. Who both make choices stemming from a well-intentioned principle. Who have put the interests of their family and children first. And yes, despite her specific actions, Skyler has put her family first, also. I can’t talk about the subtleties of that without revealing significant plot spoilers. If (and only if!) you are up to date with season 5 though, this article raises many of those points. Anyway, Corrine and Mara are diametrically opposed on the scale of spousal support, and to an extent, always have been. The choices they make are entirely consistent with their characterization so far.
If you’re hard-wired to support the male protagonists, perhaps you’ll end up agreeing with the stance of one wife but not the other. I can see that. Or maybe you can sympathize with both of them, I think the writers did a pretty good job of covering all their bases on that.
Oh, and here’s two comments after these moments that I particularly liked (hated): “Hope that bitch has a date with a bullet.” and “Mara needs to die – was anyone else uncomfortable as hell listening to her whine last night?”. Oh, I forgot to mention. At this point, Mara is heavily pregnant, and has broken her arm/shoulder. But still. Quit your whining and die, you bitch! Right?
I could add more examples of Corrine/Mara hate, but I won’t, because I’m already starting to feel guilty that I have a penis, and that is not a happy way to spend a Saturday evening.
So I mentioned agency, as a means of justifying a character. Look at the entire concept of Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan deliberately set out to take a likeable character, and turn him into a dislikeable one. But we kept on rooting for him. Why? When he was a nice (but boring) guy, he was trod upon. Forced to work late, wife henpecking over trivial things, disrespected by his students. A pushover. And then he starts doing bad, bad things. But we gave him a free pass, narratively, because he does those bad things of his free will (yes, sometimes he’s forced into a corner [often his own fault], but he has a lot more choice than he claims he does).
But there’s something strange going on. Skyler has agency at the beginning of the show, but she was disliked even in the first season. Which, is perfectly fine. I thought she was henpecky and naggy in the first season (and Walt’s birthday handjob is absolutely tragic), but that should be the extent of it. ‘Henpecky’. ‘Naggy’. ‘Irritating’. ‘Moany’. Maybe even ‘whiney’. (Though there’s a subtle linguistic difference between ‘moany’ and ‘whiney’ which I don’t have the wordcount to get into). But already, in the first season, people were using far, far stronger words than that. Anyway, as the series progressed, Skyler had less and less agency, and becomes trapped in her situation.
Quick digression: Carmela Soprano is in a similar situation to Skyler. Her husband is a dangerous, powerful man, with powerful enemies (and she knows it). She, on occasion, questions this ‘blood money’, but she allows herself to be seduced by it. She lies to herself. As she says to a therapist: “You’re wrong about the accomplice part. All I do is make sure he’s got clean clothes in his closet, and dinner on his table”. (Fine, she’s not an accomplice, but legally, she is complicit). She sometimes stands up to him, but she still looks the other way on his many, many (many) infidelities. But even though there is a subset of fans who hate Carmela, it has nowhere near the vehemence and vitriol of the hate for Skyler. What gives? Is it as simple as the fact that Skyler has less agency? You can tell that (and this) is a rhetorical question, can’t you? Let’s take a look at the response when Skyler takes control, and exercises free-will, and makes choices.
The following remarks are comments taken from a review of an episode where (spoiler-free) Skyler steps up to the plate, shows some Walt-level ingenuity (that impresses Walt, of all people), which enables them to provide for their family (which is often used to defend Walt “Yeah, he’s done some terrible shit, but he’s doing it for his family. Not like that cunt Skyler.”), while also sort of making a sacrifice that threatens her self.
“Skyler especially” doesn’t care how her actions affect others? We understand Walt because he is “emasculated” and “miserable”, but not Skyler, who is trapped by, and because of Walt? Are you fucking shitting me?!?
Okay, so at this point, I realize that this is all very nasty and unsettling, so here’s a palette cleanser to restore your faith that not every fan is a fucktard:
Just to hammer the point home: this action that Skyler takes works out pretty well. She later takes some actions which kind of backfire, and of course the hate for her then gets ramped up spectacularly. Compare her to Chris Moltisanti: he is a junkie, and a constant fuck-up. He does Tony Soprano’s bidding, and on the occasions where he shows agency and what he thinks is ingenuity, he usually fucks up more. He makes life hard for Tony Soprano. He impedes progress of the protagonist. And yet…
I can say with statistical certainty, that if you are claiming Skyler White is a cunt, for any of the bullshit reasons already covered, then you are a misogynistic fucktard.
Not everyone deserves a participation ribbon
Unfortunately, there is such a thing as watching TV the ‘wrong way’. The criticisms of Skyler White, and many other conflicted, multidimensional female characters, are inconsistent, and do not line up with the standards we hold male characters too. You don’t get to feign moral outrage at these women, if you defend their husband doing worse.
“No, you don’t get it. Adolf needs a guard dog ’cause he has important papers lying around, that he can’t allow to be stolen. Eva is a cunt who just likes taking animals out of their natural habitat.”
And as mentioned, much of Skyler’s lack of agency, her being trapped, is because of situations that Walt puts her in. There are of course, decisions she makes, which puts her in the shit, but many haters won’t even concede that there are distinctions there. According to them, she had a choice to get out, whenever she wanted to (erm, even when she couldn’t). This is all on her. (Of course, when Walt gets back in the shit despite the half-dozen or dozen [or more?] opportunities he has to get out, that’s never his fault. He had no choice but to turn down the kind offer to pay for all his treatment, right guys?). Anyway, back to that blaming Skyler thing.
Ugh. The next few paragraphs are gonna be depressing. Just to remind you the world is not all bad, here’s a raccoon being comically startled:
Ready? Okay. Did that whole victim-blaming thing about Skyler being responsible for the situation she’s in sound familiar to anyone, in an “it makes me want to punch humanity in the junk” kind-of-way?
Steubenville. Where an unconscious, 16-year old girl was raped by two high-school football players. Who’s to blame? Team-building exercise leaders say “there’s no wrong answers”, but in this case, the wrong answer is any response other than “the rapists”. However, if your response was “the rapists”, I’m afraid you still don’t win a cookie, because that’s like rewarding someone for knowing that 2+2=4. Clear on that? Rape = not good.
But, this is the world we live in, somehow. That is a difficult thing to read, and I understand how nasty it is, but that is reality. And it’s not mentioned on that page, but CNN’s coverage of the verdict mainly focused on how these two young football stars with “promising lives”, who were “good students”, have had their life ruined. Those poor, unfortunate, nice young boys. Here’s the rancid icing on the poop cake: the CNN reporter? A woman.
TV can be a good thing
Game, set and match, right? After that, it kinda feels like all hope is lost. You’d think this kind of behaviour, no matter how patriarchally pervasive, would be called out the moment a woman heard a word of it. But somehow, this attitude and mindset made it all the way through to broadcast television, a female reporter on a major network grieving the future of two rapists. Wowsers.
There’s obviously a two-way street here. How we watch TV does influence how we perceive reality (particularly gender, among other things), whether we want to admit it or not. And really, after watching any 5 minutes worth of advertisements, it’s impossible to deny how dangerous it is. And conversely, the reality we live in influences what kind of TV we write.
It’s a bad situation. Ideally, TV should present a reality that we don’t want to live in (meth-cooking cancerous teacher), in order to force us to confront big questions (are some people just plain bad? is evil created or discovered? how much is due to circumstance? does the end justify the means? is it ever too late for redemption?). Writers are smart, they want to try new things, and subvert, and challenge us. [If you disagree with that point, I mean cable or subscription drama, not network. Network tv is in a fucking nose dive, but that’s a discussion for another day. Oh, and by nose dive, I meant plane crash, but a cocaine joke also works]. Ahem. Anyway:
Obviously, for centuries, the world has been patriarchal. Myths and legends, plays and books, tv and film, most of the stories we tell, have, as a crucial part of the plot, a father-figure, who is either bested, or whose respect must be earned. But you know what? We don’t have to live in that world. We have arrived at a point in time, where our ability to communicate is absolutely unprecedented. In the 13th century, Norse children probably did not have the ability to openly discuss the phallocentric symbolism of Jörmungandr the serpent, and Thor the God of Thunder killing each other at the battle of Ragnarök. (I’d say “spoiler alert”, but you’ve had 700 years to catch up. No one should be that lazy.)
Us, though? We can have any kind of discussion we want to. Here is an extensive bibliography of Feminist Music Theory. And I mean classical music. I understand a feminist discussion on pop music (do I even need to explain? nope), but on music without lyrics? Even though I hold strong opinions about music (an abstract, universal, genderless language), I kinda like the fact that it is possible to have that discussion. And that’s where hope comes in.
Writers are doing something intentional. They deliberately layer subtext and symbolism and ethical contradictions and moral dissonance. They want us to discuss these issues. What viewers are continuing to do though, is (at best) to uphold the male empowerment wank-fantasy at any moral cost, and (at worst) declaring any woman who opposes this, to be a cunt. Sorry, but this is the ‘wrong’ way of watching TV. When we perpetuate this mindset, we disrespect women, we disrespect the writers, and we disrespect ourselves.
TV can (and should!) be used to inspire new ways of thinking. Instead, we keep using it to reinforce the status quo. It’s simple. Watch and enjoy. But also, think and question. You wanna turn your brain off? Go watch Catwoman, or Human Centipede 2. But taking the surface story of an intentional, deliberate, morally delicious drama, and just accepting male protagonist = hero, female opposition = bitch, is kind of like taking an expensive, miracle cream that cures cancer, and using it as a lubricant for jacking off.
And on that colourful note, I’m spent. I’ve got more to say about gender and language, and about anti-heroes wives, but that’s another post entirely. Until then, be smart, call out misogynistic bullshit when you see it, be gender-neutral with your moral standards, and discuss things openly. Right, who’s gonna put the nice people out of their misery and take this damn thing away from me?
***There will be spoilers in the comments!***