The Skyler White Effect and the Much Maligned Mothers of TV

Hello Nerdlings! Breaking Bad is back for the conclusion of its final season, and in fact, your own AngryNerdGirl is recapping it over on TrashTalkTv (formerly TvGasm). As excited as I have been for the show to come back on the air, I’ve also been dreading the inevitable Skyler White bashing. How one of the few characters on the show who has never sold drugs, killed anyone, stolen anything, or even been arrested has come to be one of the most hated characters on television is beyond me.

Skyler White bitch

The vitriol coming Skyler White’s way may be more intense than with other tv characters, but it is by no means new. Antiheros have been populating American television more and more in the past decade, and no one is riper for hatred than their wives. Betty Draper. Megan Draper. Catelyn Stark. Lori Grimes. Carmela Soprano*. Why do we hate them? The easy answer: because they’re annoying. Maybe they cheated on their husband. Maybe they’re a bad mother. Maybe the viewers are just misogynists. The real reason, however, is because they dared to get in the protagonist’s way.

Darth Vadar Stfu

[*I included Carmela because from what I’ve gathered, any list of hated tv antihero’s wives would be incomplete without her. I have never seen The Sopranos, though, so I won’t analyze her here.]

Don Draper is a lying, womanizing, anti-Semitic alcoholic and he makes brilliant television. For a long time Betty Draper was there to show the consequences of Don’s kind of behavior. A blue-blood girl turned model from an abusive household, Betty was swept off her feet by the newly created Don Draper. He seemed too good to be true, and was. However, we don’t find out Betty’s backstory until later. We meet her as his ice queen wife, so emotionally numb that she loses feeling in her hands. Just like her husband, Betty ignores her children, mistreats her staff, and only vaguely tolerates her friends. She has, in essence, become Don’s perfect wife: all style and bitterly concealed substance. She hates her life, so we hate watching her on screen.

Betty Draper

There is no joy in Betty Draper, so she’s frankly less fun to be around than Don. When she acts out, she follows in Don’s footsteps by drinking too much and sleeping around. It’s clear she doesn’t enjoy it any more than she enjoys anything. Now she’s called a slut and a whore, in addition to her previous “bitch” labeling. Eventually, Betty leaves Don when he finally comes clean about being Dick Whitman. It looked like she could take his drinking and his cheating, but she couldn’t take him being blue collar. In reality, Betty was just done. Once Betty accesses her anger, she is incapable of releasing it in healthy ways and like many abused people before her, lashes out on whomever she regards as weaker than herself. Fan favorites Sally and Carla aren’t deserving of Betty’s uncontrollable rage, but they are dependent on her and convenient targets. The fandom exploded and to punish Betty, January Jones wore a fat suit for a season as we watch “Fat Betty” going to Weight Watchers. Of course, no stranger to eating disorders, Betty eventually loses weight the way she always has (some combination of pills and starvation) and regains the viewer’s sympathies. It doesn’t hurt that she regains Don’s affections, and of course we love whoever Don loves…except for Megan.

What to say about Megan Draper. When she first arrived, everyone loved Megan. She spoke French, comforted a crying Sally, and didn’t cry over spilled milkshake. Unfortunately, she won Don’s heart and lost the viewer’s empathy. Suddenly, Megan was seen as “childish,” “spoiled,” “annoying,” and “gold-digging.” While it is true that Megan has had most things handed to her on a plate via her wealthy parents and then by her wealthy husband, this is hardly a strike against her. She’s merely luckier than most of us. She tries her best to be a fun step-mother, but is on the receiving end of fan rage when she refuses to babysit last minute because she has to go to work. Don, on the other hand, routinely forgets to even pick up his children (in fact, the reason Megan is needed as a last minute sitter is because Don is bailing on them yet again) and is lauded as “such a great dad.” Oh, apparently Megan is also “hideous” because of the gap in her teeth. There was a rumor that Sharon Tate-esque Megan was going to be brutally murdered this season, and the positive reaction to it was genuinely disturbing. Honestly, what has she done to warrant her death?

Megan Draper

Lori Grimes is another receiver of fan vitriol. What did she do wrong? She was told her husband was dead and while grieving, slept with his best friend. For that, she’s labeled a whore. When former lover Shane threatens her life and attempts to rape her, she keeps it a secret in order to protect her son. This makes her a traitorous bitch, apparently. Like many mothers, she doesn’t want her child shooting a gun. This being the zombie apocalypse, preventing her son from having one of the few known ways to protect himself is certainly misguided, but the whole premise of The Walking Dead is that normal people are trying to regain the life they once had against insurmountable odds. Lori is far from the only character who wants to continue living the way things used to be. Her husband Rick is basically a paragon of this, and he’s universally beloved.

Lori Grimes

Finally, Lori crosses the unforgivable television line of attempting (rather pathetically) to give herself an abortion by taking handfuls of Plan B. Besides being a prime example of the need for proper sex education (Plan B doesn’t cause abortions, it merely prevents fertilization), the desire to abort her child makes her completely unforgivable to most viewers who are keen to ignore the difficulties inherent in pregnancy during the zombie apocalypse. Carrying a child to term could easily lead to her death, and it’s incredibly likely that her baby wouldn’t survive infancy. “That’s not the point, though! She’s an evil, nagging, shrew-harpy! Also, she’s way too skinny. She looks like a skeleton. Eat a cookie, bitch!” Sigh. Now I personally don’t really care for Lori, but the hatred launched at her has always struck me as extreme. I stopped watching the show halfway through Season 2 (I really didn’t give a shit about where Sophia was), so maybe she did some truly awful things before dying in Season 3 that I missed out on. I kind of doubt it, but it’s always possible.

Catelyn Stark is another wife and mother on the receiving end of fan hatred, and I really don’t understand why. She’s not a fighter like Arya and she doesn’t have dragons like Daenerys, but she’s hardly Cersei Lannister or Lysa Arryn. Yet time and again, Catelyn is on lists of the most deplorable characters in A Song of Ice a Fire, which is basically an entire series about deplorable people. Catelyn’s faults include disliking bastard son and fan favorite Jon Snow, arresting fan favorite Tyrion Lannister, and freeing fan hated (that season, anyway) Jamie Lannister.

Catelyn Stark

Let’s look at Cat’s reasons for these three major failures. First of all, she never abused Jon Snow, but she did dislike him for everything he represented. To her, Jon Snow was the living embodiment of the one time her husband faltered. It is a rare woman who will gladly raise the child of her husband’s one-night stand, and Catelyn’s apparent failing is in her refusal to be an exception. She arrested Tyrion with what she saw as concrete evidence that he had attempted to murder her paralyzed son while he was in a coma. I think any of us would do the same. Finally, when her husband has been executed and she receives word that her two youngest sons have been murdered, she does what she can to secure the safety of her two remaining children. Yes, it is treason. Yes, she deserves King Rob’s punishment. No, she does not deserve to be universally hated. Catelyn even admits in a brilliant passage foreshadowing her transition to Lady Stoneheart, “I am become a sour woman…I take no joy in mead nor meat, and song and laughter have become suspicious strangers to me. I am a creature of grief and dust and bitter longings. There is an empty place within me where my heart was once.”

Catelyn Red Wedding

Cat is human. Like her husband, she trusts the wrong people (Littlefinger) and like her daughter Arya, she occasionally makes mistakes while acting on impulse. However, Catelyn is an excellent diplomat, a wonderful mother, an incredibly loyal wife, a dutiful daughter, and a perceptive and intelligent person. She falls short of perfection, however, and is apparently unforgivable for it. Oh, one more Cat critique is of course, she’s ugly. Michelle Fairley is an absolutely gorgeous woman but unfortunately, Catelyn Stark is a middle-aged woman, so she’s “gross and old.”

This brings us to notorious television pariah Skyler White. Poor maligned Skyler. A character so hated that she led to the terming of the Skyler White Effect: wherein a female character judges the male protagonist’s bad behavior in a completely rational way, and the audience hates her for it. Never in my lifetime has there been such an undeservedly hated character on a tv show. Breaking Bad is a show about flawed people. Even the sweetest characters do terrible things, and some of the worst people have moments of genuine caring. However, on a show full of murderers, drug dealers, liars, and thieves, the hatred launched at Skyler is ridiculous.

Skyler White

Walt is a bad person. He is a cancer-stricken genius and he’s been kicked around by fate a few times, but he should be no one’s definition of a hero. Putting aside manufacturing and selling drugs, he has orchestrated an attack on his brother-in-law, hid evidence, poisoned a child, condoned the murder of another child, raped his wife, and orchestrated several murders. What has Skyler done? Well, she’s condescending to Walt in the first season, along with the rest of the family. She “cheats” on her husband with her boss (she and Walt were separated at the time) and tells him about it. When she finds out that Walt is dealing drugs, she takes his children away, correctly believing that he is fostering an unsafe environment. After being raped, threatened, and emotionally abused by her husband, she agrees to go along with his drug dealing and launders his money for him, saying that what gives her hope is that his cancer will eventually return. For this, she’s called a bitch, a whore, a slut, a home wrecker, a bad mother, fat, ugly, a hypocrite, and Lady Macbeth. That’s quite the list! Sadly, this is one case where character hatred leaked into real life, and Anna Gunn’s life has been threatened. Because apparently Skyler White is so bad that the actress portraying her deserves to die.

All of these fandom hatreds have a common theme: ______ is a bitch, a bad mother, and is ugly/fat/skinny. While allowing men to lead complex lives and commit good as well as evil actions, we still want to reduce women to where the only things that matter are her appearance and her reproductive capabilities. These women make the mistake of not being the star of the show. They didn’t realize that they were merely there to be eye candy and to clean up the messes of the hero while dutifully raising his children for him. No matter how horribly the male protagonist treats her, she is meant to simultaneously be sexy for him and idolize him. Of course, if anyone actually did that, she would be lambasted as weak, fake, subservient, and (inevitably) annoying. In a male-dominated tv universe, women are set at an insurmountable disadvantage. Unless they are Action Girls, basically going along with the desires of the main character while simultaneously having non-traditionally feminine pursuits such as fighting (Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth come to mind), they are doomed to be loathed.

Idealized womenThe feminine ideal, eerily still apropos

We can accept a woman who does horrible things when she is the star of the show. Olivia Pope, Emily Thorne, Brenda Lee Johnson, and Buffy Summers come to mind. All of them, to varying degrees, have done truly terrible things and the audience cheered them on. However, each of these women got various comeuppances (losing the respect of her team, unwittingly causing the death of her “sister,” losing the faith of her husband, and being dumped for not being needy enough, respectively) and we collectively agreed that they deserved what happened to them. There’s apparently nothing so cathartic as seeing a powerful woman sob. A strong woman who goes too far inevitably has to learn her place. A man, not so much. Don Draper and Walter White are horrible people, but they remain the heroes, and when the fall, we root for them to get back up. Sadly, when the women who stand in their way fall, we kick them while they’re down and secretly hope they’ll die before they can get back up.

2 thoughts on “The Skyler White Effect and the Much Maligned Mothers of TV

  1. This was awesome. I hope you pick up your blog again! It’s nice to see another blogger out there who likes writing about pop culture in a properly analytical way.

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