Saturday, July 30, 2011

Breaking Bad, Medium, and Withholding Women

One thing I discovered in workshop that may not surprise you is that it's remarkably easy to make people dislike a female character. Often you won't mean to do it: if she stands up for herself in the wrong way, or if she doesn't seem purely generous and nurturing and self-sacrificing and emotionally available, that will rub people the wrong way and they may say things like, "The mother character is a real bitch." People are just ready to dislike women. You also often see this in writing, especially amateurish writing; often the writer, male or female, reserves a special scorn for women who are seen as failing to do their wifely or motherly duties, for instance if they are a little cold or cruel.

This is a problem because it reflects and reinforces sexism, but it's also a problem we need to watch for as writers and readers because it can really get in the way of our stories. Consider the fact that any fully-realized character needs his or her own agenda. A woman, just as much as a man, in a story requires goals that conflict with the goals of others if she's going to be a useful, interesting part of the story. In other words, she has to do things that will cause many readers and writers alike to think of her as a bitch. If you're thinking of your own characters that way, it becomes awfully hard to write them well.

This brings me to Breaking Bad. This is a show starring the dad from Malcolm in the Middle as an aging man who discovers he has terminal lung cancer and begins cooking meth in order to pay his medical bills and provide for his family. With each season, the main character -- Walter White -- becomes a little more compromised, a little more entrenched in the criminal world, a little further beyond redemption. (I will probably spoil the show a little now.) Breaking Bad has slowly become a major critical hit, with anticipation for the just-launched fourth season being rather intense. A lot of my online friends and people I admire like it rather a lot. But it's never quite worked for me, and I think the main reason is the dynamic between Walt and his wife.

Husbands and wives in fiction can rarely truly get along if they're both going to be truly present in the story. Fiction usually requires impressive people, and it always requires trouble: mistakes, and conflict. If your protagonist is something of a hero, or an antihero, then naturally his wife or her husband will have to be a daunting figure as well: impressive people generally don't marry unimpressive people. And if your husband is running around making terrible mistakes and getting into trouble, then you're going to, as his impressive wife, have something to say about that. Probably there will be conflict between you. Probably it will be big. The writers of Breaking Bad get that.

They may also have some sense of the difficulty of writing a wife that stands athwart her husband and retains the sympathies of the audience. Breaking Bad is an interesting test case because this is one example where the husband is clearly in the wrong: we're sympathetic to his initial involvement in the drug trade, but the longer he stays there the more obvious it becomes that he's the villain of the piece, dopy mustache or no. But of course the nagging wife who knows better but still comes out looking bad and unsympathetic is a bit of a trope, isn't it? Think of poor, nagging Marge: she's always trying to ruin Homer's fun, which means she's trying to ruin our fun, even as we recognize that she's in the right. The Simpsons often makes this dynamic work, and it works best when Marge is recognized as an eccentric in her own right -- one whose eccentricity happens to take the form of trying to be dull and safe at all costs. Breaking Bad suffers from nagging wife syndrome, in spite of its own best efforts.

The thing is that the show doesn't seem to like Skyler (the wife character), and the reason I say this is that three seasons in I know almost nothing about her that couldn't be said of every nagging wife in every TV show ever. She clearly sees herself as morally superior to her husband and most other people. She doesn't like risk-taking behavior. When she eventually figures out that Walt is cooking meth, she leaves him immediately, even as he's just recovering from his cancer. She doesn't talk it over with him, she doesn't even seem especially upset. He's been lying to her and he has to go; he can't see their children anymore. End of story.

The problem here is complicated because she's very much in the right. Walter is a dangerous man living a dangerous life and he should not be allowed in their home. But her decision is simply correct, it's not human, it's not specific to her character, it's just something she does because it's the right thing to do. Her moral superiority is further undermined by her decision to have an affair with a man who is clearly doing illegal things at her accounting firm and probably for his own enrichment. The show is good about showing the illegality and corruption we casually accept in our own lives while turning our noses up at illegality among the underclass (for instance, the way Walt's DEA brother-in-law watches Walt's teenage son drink tequila without a word of protest, but shows no hesitation to destroy the lives of people outside his social circle for similar violations) but Skyler really didn't need another reason to look unsympathetic. Said teenage son, Walter Jr., doesn't know why his mother left his father (he doesn't know about the drugs, so from his perspective the story is "my dad almost died and then my mother left him for no reason") shouts at his mother for being such a "bitch." What we're supposed to feel is sympathy for Skyler, and to some extent I do, but it's hollow: ultimately her character is defined almost purely by standing athwart Walt's desires, and a vague sense of moral superiority. We don't know much else about her. We don't understand why Walt loves her and, worse yet, we don't understand why she ever loved Walt.

I just don't think the writers quite like her enough, as I've said. I don't think they understand and care about her enough to make her more than the unfeeling bitch who stands in Walt's way. Ultimately she might do more unlikeable things if they did like her, ironically -- but they would have the specificity and humanity she currently lacks. In short, they've got the right idea with Skyler, but they can't seem to believe in it enough to make it work, and the show suffers for me as a result. 

The husband character in Medium makes an interesting point of comparison. This is an NBC show about a woman, Allison (Patricia Arquette) who can communicate with the dead. Naturally, she solves crimes. The difference between this show and, say, Ghost Whisperer, is that it pays a lot of attention to the strains Allison's power places on her family: talking to the dead often leads to strange, dangerous behaviors, which particularly frustrates her husband Joe (Jake Weber). My family was into this series; I mostly wasn't. I saw its merits, especially relative to most entries in the genre, but for me the formula quickly wore thin. Its weakest point? The husband character, Joe, who constantly stood athwart his wife's attempts to use her power to save lives and catch criminals.

The thing is that in the beginning, Joe had a point. His position was basically that his wife did not have special powers and that she was putting their family at risk by pretending otherwise. This is, generally speaking, the right position. If Tracy starts to believe she's magic tomorrow, I'm probably going to work pretty hard to disabuse her of that notion! But the thing is that if Tracy proceeded to successfully use her magic powers every week, I would probably decide to consider seriously the possibility that I was wrong and she was magic. Joe never seemed to really quite catch on, and it made him look like a bit of an idiot. There came a point, several years in, where he was still trying to talk her down and I just couldn't take it anymore.

This is essentially the same character as Skyler, but actually apparently worse: not only is he constantly standing athwart our protagonist, he's genuinely wrong to do so, and even more stubborn about it for all his wrongness. But the truth is that even though he ruined the show for me, I could never dislike him the way I do Skyler, because the show never really disliked him. He always seemed specific to me. He was invested with life of his own. He had a job that he cared about, he had things he wanted to accomplish in life, and he had a way of arguing with Allison that didn't make him seem excessively smug, even as he gradually came to have what was clearly a much weaker position. The difference between the characters seems to come down to a collective misogyny: even when writers know better, even when they're trying their best, they can't help but render a woman in the right as an unlikeable nag if she stands athwart our narrative desire. A man in the same position, even a man in the wrong, is afforded sufficient sympathy to keep us from hating him even as his position becomes untenable. I don't dislike Skyler, I think, because of a problem that I personally have with women: I think it's a collective problem wherein the writers don't like her enough to make her a fully realized character, and so she becomes a bit of a generic, withholding annoyance instead.

As a final example, think of Scully in the X-Files, a character who was sometimes entirely sympathetic and sometimes unbearable. Every week there was clearly a magic guy or a space monster or whatever, and every week she insisted, in the face of increasingly insurmountable evidence, that no such things existed. Sometimes this seemed okay, and sometimes it was awful. I would argue that the difference was mostly, again, in the specificity of her characterization: when she droned on about science and rationality, she was just "the rational one," or essentially another generic version of the nagging wife. When we could see that she was genuinely bumping up against the limits of her ability to cope. She was seeing crazy, irrational shit every week, and it only made sense that this would lead to cognitive dissonance, especially in someone who had devoted her life to making sense of things. When the writers remembered to sympathize, there was a lot there to sympathize with. When they forgot, she was truly irritating.

All this is to say that we have a problem here. And it's essential that we solve it: women are more than half the world, and they deserve to play a major role in our fiction. But until we know how to let them participate in real conflict without seeing them as bitches, we won't be able to do them justice.


  1. David Foster Wallace discusses the role of television in American lives in his essay "E Unibus Pluram: television and U.S. fiction" back in 1990 and this post reminds us that we have yet to fix (or even fully address) the dilemmas he discussed back then. DFW noted that Americans spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the magic box that offers a unrealistic (and in many cases offensive) portrayal of "people", a reality that we cannot achieve, and unquestionably causes havoc in the lives of those individuals who (intentionally or otherwise) attempt to mimic the drama seen on these shows---without question television warps our sense of the world. The point, I think, is that it's important for us TV watchers to take a step back from what we are viewing, try to maintain that distance, and to question the ideas/perspectives these shows present us with---and that is precisely what this post appears to be all about.

    It's true, half of us are women. Now let us take a look at the Fall 2011 lineup on major networks. Looks like a whole bunch of shows geared toward a certain kind of perceived male audience. Business as usual...

  2. i stopped reading because i didn't want to see spoilers, but breaking bad is a great show, from what i've seen of the first season so far. also, scully is one of the all-time great feminist characters on tv.

  3. I'm late to this post, but yeah, right on here. I do like Breaking Bad quite a lot, but have a problem with Skyler's character. I think she's taken a little more seriously as the show progresses, but certainly early she seems developed solely as a foil for Walter. The reason this stuck with me, I think, is that I remember the actress's similarly naggy and annoying character from Deadwood. This seems so familiar, I thought, then realized why. It must be sort of horrible to play the same annoying character in two different time periods.