Defending Skyler White
Some months ago on Twitter there was some stupid timewaster of a question going around. I barely remember what it even was, something like “who’s the least sympathetic character in all of fiction”. Or maybe it was just on TV. It doesn’t matter. I don’t remember many of the answers, not even my own to be honest. But I do remember one of them.
This probably wouldn’t have caught my eye normally; after all there were many answers in the thread that I deemed incorrect. But someone in the thread hadn’t watched Breaking Bad and didn’t know who Skyler White was. So this is how Skyler White was described by the person who claimed that out of all the unsympathetic characters out there – Gollum, Nellie Oleson, George Costanza, Thomas Covenant, Humbert Humbert, the entire Corleone family, even Walter White himself – Skyler White was THE single most least sympathetic character in all of fiction.
That’s right, I said single most least.
As anyone who has watched Breaking Bad knows, things were just a skosh more complicated than that.
Technically, I suppose you could say that yes, indeed, Skyler White did sleep with her boss when her husband had cancer, but several fairly important tidbits of info were left out of that description. Such as, the fact that her husband Walter had obviously been lying to her for months (and in fact, Skyler believed he’d been cheating on her), the recent revelation that he was manufacturing methamphetamines, and most critically, the fact that she wanted a divorce but Walter was basically holding her hostage against her will. If you’ll recall, Walter was forcing Skyler to become an accessory to his crimes and putting her and their children in immediate danger from the people he was doing business with. Immediately before Skyler had the affair, Walter lied to the police and gleefully made her look insane when she tried to force him out the house for her own protection. Skyler had an affair for the primary reason to drive her husband out of the house and to get the divorce she wanted, for the sake of her own safety.
tl; dr – The idea that Skyler White broke up a wonderful happy marriage when her blameless husband was cruelly stricken down with cancer because she was a horny selfish beeyotch out looking for a good time is so great a misrepresentation of the plot of Breaking Bad, it’s right up there with saying the sky is green IMO.
It bothers me. It bothered me then, it bothers me now. And I think part of the reason it bothers me so greatly is that even though Skyler White is a fictional character, assigning a woman a negative stereotype whether or not it fits really is a thing. Being the recipient of bizarre generalizations based on the most cursory and least charitable read does seem to be part and parcel of the female condition. The Slut. The Cheater. The Ingenue. The Bad Girl. The Good Girl. The Saint. The Bitch. The Harpy. The Ballbuster and The Cocktease. The Madonna and The Whore. Perennial favorites The Woman Who Let Herself Go and The Woman Who Never Puts Out Any More. Someone makes a quick decision based on the most simplistic, uninsightful interpretation of a woman’s motives/behavior and presto, change-o, Skyler White is a woman who slept with her boss when her husband had cancer.
All too often, for women, it seems our backstory never really matters. There are no mitigating factors, no extenuating circumstances. There are no reasons allowed for women’s mistakes, only excuses made. Women are tropes, caricatures, our moral failings always easily explained by the vast panorama of female foibles that our ovaries spontaneously generate. We are either constantly perfect and beyond the reproach of even the most fault-seeking snap-judgement-making passersby, or else we slept with our boss when our husband had cancer.
I feel like we make every excuse in the book for men’s bad behavior…not even fictional characters, but real live men. We’ve all seen people even defend Bill Clinton, Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby. I’ve even heard actual people stick up for Brock Turner and the Steubenville Rapists (even famous people). Male fictional characters get even more leeway. Many of the most beloved male characters in all of entertainment are complete and total scumbags. Just off the top of my head: James Bond, Vic Mackey, American Psycho, Dexter, the guys in Trainspotting, Walter White himself. Many others are morally iffy in some way or another, even if they have redeeming qualities – Rhett Butler, Han Solo, Captain Kirk, Wolverine. And we LOVE those guys. We eat them up and beg for more.
But Skyler White, wow. She entertained more than one peenie during roughly the same time period. She is the literal WORST.
Now if you want to get all nitpicky about it, you could say that yes, Skyler’s character development was just the teensiest bit lacking at times and a few of the things she did didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense (although if you rewatch the series, you may be surprised as I was to see just how much care was actually put into Skyler’s story arc – you can easily miss it the first time thru because you’re so focused on Walt and Jesse, but it’s there). But you know what, even given that, how can you watch Breaking Bad, a show chock full of terrible people doing terrible things, and come away from that saying Skyler is anywhere near the worst of the lot?
The only conclusion I can draw is this: some men really, really want to see the worst in women. So much so that they’ll search until they find something that vaguely resembles the damning evidence they’re convinced exists and then they’ll stretch reality to fit the conclusion they’ve drawn. Many times as a woman I’ve felt surrounded by amateur private investigators who have a list of crimes I have probably committed because they used to work with some dude whose girlfriend did, and they’re seeking any scrap of evidence they can find to support my conviction. And if they can’t find it, they’ll make some and plant it on me. Some men truly believe they should be the arbiter deciding which of several mandatory life sentences without possibility of parole I should receive, for just, like existing in the life I managed to tumble my way into, after speaking to me for maybe 5 minutes or so.
Cocktease or Ice Princess? You be the judge, dudes, since I know you’ve already assigned yourself the role.
But context is EVERYTHING. We make the choices we make for reasons and the reasons have to do with the situation we’re in and the scars we carry with us from our lives thus far and the the actions of people around us. We may not have much or ANY control over those things. A person put into a sh-tty situation they’re ill-equipped to handle may make a sh-tty choice but it may have been the best choice they could make at the time. And it’s as true for women as it is for men, if not truer since women historically haven’t always had anywhere near as much control over their environments and their destinies as men have.
Breaking Bad gave us five seasons in which it unraveled, little by little, the mystery of how exactly a good man went bad. We sympathized with Walt even as he did awful things, terrible things, incredibly stupid things, because we knew he felt that he had no choice.
Why would we not extend the same courtesy to Skyler?
Feminists complain a lot about a lack of female representation in entertainment. But they never really explain WHY it’s so important to have female representation in entertainment. They treat representation as the end itself, not a means to an end, and so we are given terrible Ghostbusters reboots and Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman and they pat themselves on the back and think they’ve struck some blow for equality or something. But it’s not enough to just cram a woman into what has traditionally been a man’s role and keep everything else precisely the same. We need to have more representation of women in entertainment not to fulfill some box on a beancounter’s checklist, but to explore motives and morality and human behavior deeply, female humans as well as males. We need representation to help people understand that women are more than bitches and sluts and whores even when we are totally acting like bitches and sluts and whores.
But even more so, when we aren’t and people are saying that we are because that’s the lens they’ve been indoctrinated to view all women through.
The fundamental purpose of fiction is to give us a window into the minds of other people. Not only when they are acting like saints but when they are acting in ways we like to think we ourselves never would. The noblest purpose of fiction is to help us come to understand other people better, to reflect upon what drives them, to consider what we ourselves would do in the same situation. And we get this with male characters, in ample supply. But female characters? A fully realized, three dimensional character, where we get a full and fair accounting of her thoughts and feelings and incentives, the good, the bad, the ugly? It’s rare.
Bridget Jones? Maybe, but she’s awfully silly. Scarlett O’Hara, I suppose. The chick in Gone Girl, I guess, although she’s so unabashedly evil it’s hard to believe she’s shedding any light on the complexity of being female.
Even the best female characters are to some extent defined by their relationships to men – and Skyler White is definitely among them. Do you know why that is, though? You may suppose it’s because of patriarchy and misogyny, you may say that it’s because most books and movies are created by men. And there’s a little truth in that, probably. But I think it’s primarily because in the real world, a good many women – even strong and successful women, actually ARE defined in no small way by their relationships to men.
Limited and controlled may be even better words than defined.
Just like Skyler, a good many women, even strong and successful ones, dim their light and change their course for the men around them – a husband, a boss, a father, or all of them at some point along the way. Just like Skyler, many women, even strong and successful ones, wake up one day and find themselves having sold their soul to some devil or another, compromising on things they never thought they would, looking at a person in the mirror who they don’t even recognize. They did it all because they wanted to be a good daughter, a good protegee, a good wife, a good woman because everything we’ve ever been told about being a good woman entails sitting back and keeping quiet and letting somebody else steer the ship. They went along for the ride and then the driver took them someplace they never wanted to go and by then it was too late to grab the wheel.
Then what do you do? You do the best you can.
And if you’re reading this now and have no idea what I’m talking about, you’re either male or you’re lucky.
Skyler White gave her husband the benefit of every doubt for a very good long while. She trusted him. She forgave him his trespasses. She kept trying even when it seemed like Walter had totally checked out of their marriage. She wanted him to live, remember how badly she wanted him to live when he was first diagnosed with cancer and he was ready to give up? She wasn’t perfect, but she wasn’t a villain, by any metric. And only after Walt had hauled Skyler through hell and put her in both legal trouble and physical danger, only after he had revealed himself to be a freaking criminal even, only then could she just not go on with the show anymore.
I would even go so far to say that even if she hadn’t been trying to drive Walt away with weaponized infidelity, even then it would have been understandable, even dare I say justified, for Skyler to fall into Ted Beneke’s arms for a little solace. The trope of the poor misunderstood man who’s failed at everything in life and whose wife just doesn’t understand him is such a cliche but at the end of the day I think most of us still believe in it (even me, a little.) If that trope has a female equivalent, surely the Curious Case of Skyler White, a woman struggling with financial woes, a handicapped child, an unplanned pregnancy, whose husband had seemingly checked out of their marriage entirely some time prior, who suddenly found herself married to a monster with no way out, qualifies.
Cheating is never ok, let me just say that very clearly. But sometimes even when it’s not ok, it’s still understandable. I know some people who have cheated in a variety of situations and I mostly understood it. Not always, but mostly. I had some sympathy for them. And that’s really what we’re talking about here, remember? Having sympathy for a fictional character, or not, as the case may be.
I have sympathy for Skyler. A lot of sympathy. I think it’s frankly bizarre that there are people out there in the world who don’t.
But it doesn’t surprise me. For a whole lot of people, the only lens they have to view the world is that women are either flawless paragons of virtue or they’re whores worthy of contempt.