On August 23, 2013 Anna Gunn, who starred as Skyler White on Breaking Bad, published an article in The New York Times titled “I Have A Character Issue”. Her article discussed the cruel and sexist online backlash that her character- and even Anna herself- received.
She wrote “My character, to judge from the popularity of Web sites and Facebook pages devoted to hating her, has become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, non-submissive, ill-treated women. As the hatred of Skyler blurred into loathing for me as a person, I saw glimpses of an anger that, at first, simply bewildered me.” She continues, “It’s notable that viewers have expressed similar feelings about other complex TV wives — Carmela Soprano of ‘The Sopranos,’ Betty Draper of ‘Mad Men.’ Male characters don’t seem to inspire this kind of public venting and vitriol.”
Anna Gunn writes that she understands that since Walt is the shows protagonist, the audience will root for him. These male anti-hero dramas and character studies started with The Sopranos, and Mad Men and Breaking Bad continued on with the genius success that changed television forever. Naturally, we are all on these anti-heroes’ sides, despite their bad deeds. And Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White all have an antagonist, their wives. They call their husbands out on their lies, moral failings, and oppose them. Thus, the nagging wife that everyone hates.
There are many hate groups for Skyler White, including the “I Hate Skyler White” Facebook page with over 30,000 likes. On these boards you can find typical comments like Skyler is a “controlling shrew” a “shrieking, hypocritical harpy who doesn’t deserve the great life she has.” (Umm…what? Did you even watch the show? Their life got progressively worse each episode) And that she “needs to die, hate her strongly” They even remark on Anna Gunn’s appearance saying how Skyler “got fatter as the show progressed” So the consensus among viewers is that Skyler was a drag, a ball-and-chain and overall an annoying bitch. All because, in Anna Gunn’s words “Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward genders” And that attitude looks pretty horrible.
But Skyler’s arc of the show is just as captivating as Walter’s Mr. Chips-to-Scarface transformation. She had a loving husband and a quiet suburban life in a nice home, while still struggling to make ends meet. And then by the end she’s the shell of her former, self- trapped in a shitty apartment with two children. Reputation ruined, brother-in-law killed, sister she loved dearly now hates her. Her life turned completely upside down. All because of Walt.
Of course Skyler is not without flaws or faults, she had an affair to deal with her shattered homelife, she was insensitive to Walt’s feelings when he did not want to receive cancer treatment. She and Walt already had underlying tensions in the marriage before he broke bad. But Walt has just a few bit more faults with all that murder, manipulation, and that little meth cooking habit. Think of all the lies she had to deal with, over and over again from Walt.
All she was doing was trying to protect her family from the danger, and what more of a dilemma when that danger is someone they all once knew and loved. How do you make the right choice in that situation? Why do audiences not even give her ANY shred of understanding? Why is she just vehemently hated? Viewers cannot put themselves in her shoes and think of how they would handle those life-changing events? Nope, she’s just a bitch.
Betty Draper is not only hated as a character, but many hate January Jones’ acting. Many feel that she is a bad actress, too wooden, bland, one-note and cold. But regardless of your opinion on her acting, I think she is good at the part, for Betty is cold and blank. Now whether this is intentional on January’s part or it just ends up fitting because January is wooden all on her own, that’s up for debate.
Betty Draper receives tons of online hate, bloggers calling her to be killed off, articles entitled “No Sympathy for Betty Draper” and montages of Betty’s worst parenting moments titled “Ugly Betty”. Online comments on Reddit and other sites include a high number of c-bombs, and comments like “Betty is a fucking, annoying, immature, bitch.” and “I want to slap that bitch every time she is on the screen”
It is very easy to dislike Betty Draper. Is Betty a bad mom? Yes, she is 90% of the time. But Don Draper’s a bad dad. Is Betty terrible to most people? Yes. Isn’t Don just as terrible to people? Answer: most definitely yes. With Don being the main character, we are able to see flashbacks of his childhood, letting the audience understand why Don causes so much damage to his family and friends, and why his inner psyche is so troubled. But we do hear from Betty’s as well. And if you’re really listening, you can see why she is the way she is.
Her mother focused terribly on her appearance, telling her “You’re painting a masterpiece, make sure to hide the brushstrokes.” In other words, you can be nothing but perfect. Isn’t that a lot of pressure to put on a child? Can’t you see how that would affect Betty? We do see that throughout the show. Betty must always maintain her trophy wife status, meaning be beautiful and thin. (She has extremely disordered eating habits throughout the show.)
Betty is literally a character ripped from the true-life 1950s/early 60s housewives Betty Friedan studied in her book The Feminine Mystique. Like many housewives of that time, Betty Draper went to college, (anthropology at Bryn Mawr) just to buffer the time until she found a man, and then went on to literally do nothing with that degree. Taken from Freidan’s book, “Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question– ‘Is this all?”
We see Betty’s trapped in the confines of domesticity described above in the earlier seasons. Don convinces her it’s better for her not to work at modeling, so we see Betty’s ‘busy day’ at home. Breakfast for kids, a load of laundry and housework done by 1 o’clock, then sitting alone smoking and drinking wine at the kitchen table. This is the monotony of her day, nothing to do with her life but wait until Don comes home. If he even comes home that night.
That blankness that Betty has is exactly described in The Feminine Mystique, the hundreds of housewives she interviewed who were trapped in their homes with nothing to feed their minds, just like Betty. I think why people loathe Betty the most is because she doesn’t change. She starts out as a frail oppressed housewife filled with anger and bitterness, but never combats her oppression. Even with a new husband and new life, she still gets worse. She doesn’t learn from her mistakes.
But neither has Don, really. He makes small steps throughout the show, but he still has a long way to go. Mad Men seems to be culminating in the idea that although times and decades may change, people don’t. And both Don and Betty are on that same trajectory. It may be easy to hate Betty because of the way she acts, but she has inner wounds as Don does. And they both have moments of cruelty and honesty, steps back and forward.
The online community was not as potent in the late 90s early 2000s as it is today, so viewers did not have a platform to express their negative opinions as much as they do today. But there are still comments to be found, from DVD rewatches, like, “I wanted nothing more then to see Carmela shot in the face!” or “She should have been whacked from the start!” And, “Carmela Soprano, the whiny bitch who deludes herself into thinking she can have a mafia boss husband and expect her family to lead a moral life at the same time. She wants the luxury but not the consequences. It’s hard to imagine somebody to be so dense, and it hurts the show in my opinion.”
Hard to imagine? Hurts the show? How can someone not see Carmela Soprano as a complex, intriguing character? She is a woman who deals with Catholic guilt over Tony’s sins; she knows she is just as guilty as he is for standing by him. Carmela Soprano is dense? This woman knows her husband has sex with nearly everything that walks. She knows that all those old friends aren’t in the witness protection program- they’re dead. And that is her whole inner conflict. She knows all this but chooses to stand by Tony anyway. No one’s interested in that dynamic? At all? If Carmela was whacked from the start where would the show even go?
These sexist jabs show that some fans have the inner desire for the show to be all whackings all the time. No diversion into the “soap opera” marriage and family boring stuff. And it’s hard to separate that from sexism, since relationship stories are considered “girly things” These viewers are deluded if they think the family stories were a waste of time. Just look at this incredible work of acting from Edie Falco and Tony Soprano in one of the tensest moments of the show.
Without these familial conflicts (in addition to his childhood) why would Tony even be in therapy, the entire point of the show itself? Carmela Soprano “hurts the show”? I think not.
I’m not denying that the men, despite all their flaws are complex characters, they truly are, and are a testament to the rich and nuanced writing of these brilliant television shows, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Mad Men. But the wives are, too. Without these women, where is Tony Soprano’s story? Don Drapers? Walter White?
Walter’s loving family is what drives him to start the meth business. At the beginning his only defense is that he did it all to “take care of his family”. Don Draper’s arc and story about the effects of his childhood on his relationships with women and family is nothing without his wife Betty. Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions, the crux of the show, deal with his conflicts between his two families- the mafia, and his wife Carmela.
Online, you can see tons of battles between these female characters of who is the bigger bitch, Skyler Vs. Carmela Vs. Betty. You certainly don’t see who is the bigger Dick? Tony Vs. Walt Vs. Don anywhere. One has to wonder if we had complex shows where female characters were the protagonists, the flawed anti-heroes…would their husbands receive such hate online?
You can hate a character, and you can hate a female character. But do you have to express that hate with such highly sexist remarks? These sexist remarks are oversimplifying these complex female characters that the brilliant writers of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men have given us. These comments show why audiences can’t handle a complex female character, which Carmela, Betty and Skyler are.
Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Walter White, will forever remain heralded as the most complex and fascinating television characters of all time. But the women? Just a bitch.
Categories: Feminist Criticism