Sophia McDougall’s great article “I hate Strong Female Characters” has been posted all over my social networks in the past week. I agree that female characters in pop fiction rarely get to be full, complex people, and that “strength” often functions as another one-dimensional, unrealistic cliche.
I’ve been mulling over this topic, and it seems to me the problem involves more than just writers creating one-dimensional women. Women in the real world get pigeon-holed into impossibly contradictory stereotypes, too (virgin/whore) – I’m a woman and a feminist I know I work to be conscious of this kind of stereotyping, including of myself. Meanwhile, the actions of white men rarely limit their access to humanity unless they do something that’s seen as, say, undermining their gender (men of color absolutely get boxed into dehumanizing stereotypes). If this is something that plays out in the real world, it makes sense that audiences would default to limited views of actually complex female characters in fiction. And I think this is exactly what’s happened with Skyler White on Breaking Bad.
Skyler is deeply, passionately hated by a lot of viewers. There are large Facebook groups dedicated to talking shit about her. Critiques of the Skyler hate that I’ve read focus on the fact that she’s actually trying to be a good person and that Walt is pretty horrible. Breaking Bad‘s creator Vince Gilligan brought this up when he spoke out on the issue:
I think the people who have these issues with the wives being too bitchy on Breaking Bad are misogynists, plain and simple. I like Skyler a little less now that she’s succumbed to Walt’s machinations, but in the early days she was the voice of morality on the show. She was the one telling him, “You can’t cook crystal meth.” She’s got a tough job being married to this asshole. And this, by the way, is why I should avoid the Internet at all costs. People are griping about Skyler White being too much of a killjoy to her meth-cooking, murdering husband? She’s telling him not to be a murderer and a guy who cooks drugs for kids. How could you have a problem with that?
I think this response somewhat misses the point. Yes, Walt becomes an increasingly horrible, even evil person over the course of the show. But while Walt is dealing with a shitty reality – the entire plot of Breaking Bad hinges on the cruelty of the US healthcare system – he works to act from a position of strength. This goes a long way to making a fictional character likable, at the same time that we can recognize his actions would be deplorable IRL. But Walt’s also a white man, and this is key. Hell, Dexter is a long running show with a white male serial killer protagonist, and it’s seemed like every network wanted their own white man serial killer lately. Meanwhile Scandal, a show with a Black female lead who’s a white hat even when she’s sort of not, is a notable anomaly in our pop culture landscape, and it’s basically still on the air only because networks are now paying attention to fan reaction on the internet.
Sophia McDougall mentions briefly the racialization of the strong female character cliché and the dangerous ways it can intersect with the “strong Black woman” stereotype. Jumping fandoms for a second, Joss Whedon’s work is sadly a great example of this. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the quintessential strong woman character, is actually super multidimensional. Hers is the story of someone who is pushed into the strong woman role by big, patriarchal forces (“In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule.”) and would love to get to be/actually is “just a girl.” As a vampire with a psych degree tells her, “You do have a superiority complex. And you’ve got an inferiority complex about it. Kudos.” Buffy is impossibly strong, which actually creates some room for her to be complex. But then compare her to Zoe from Firefly, who I love (especially because Gina Torres is the shit), but who doesn’t get to be much besides strong, even when her husband is a leaf on the wind. Here, the strong female character intersects with Whedon’s standard Black character archetype: the morally conflicted soldier (Gunn on Angel, Truman in The Cabin in the Woods, Boyd Langton for the first season of Dollhouse, anyway. I also find it interesting that when Buffy dates this archetype he’s white – and many Buffy fans have called Riley boringly one-note).
Skyler’s not the only complex woman on TV right now – Game of Thrones is notable for featuring multiple female characters who get to be people, but they’re a pretty white group (The Wire is often brought up as the exception to every TV norm, but even that show brings up issues when it comes to representing women of color). Additionally, a number of them still get generally read in one-dimensional ways – I was struck by how much of the show’s fandom didn’t seem to notice Daeny’s story was a riff on “going native” and “white savior” narratives until this was clearly, obviously, visually represented at the end of the latest season. Sure, Daeny is “strong.” She’s also singularly obsessed with getting back to a cold, conflict ridden region full of white people, and uses the fact that other people have enslaved brown populations to her own ends.
Getting back to Breaking Bad, I’ve noticed public opinion shifting somewhat on Skyler lately – the founder of the “I hate Skyler White” Facebook page is even thinking about shutting it down. Which could be read as being about her character demonstrating increased strength. But Skyler’s stood up to Walt throughout the course of the show in the ways available to her given her shitty, patriarchal reality. The biggest change I’ve noticed in Skyler lately is that she appears to be on the same side as Walt – is she more likable because she now looks to be standing by her man? And still, I’ve heard criticism of Skyler for her willingness to accept and protect Walt’s money after she pushed back against it for so long. Again, as if she only gets to be one thing, the unlikable white hat or the unlikable sell out. In fact, every trait Skyler gets criticized for is also demonstrated by Hank (being temporarily paralyzed by fear) or Walt (being a survivor), and these characters simply never face the same kind of fan hate.
As Sophia McDougall argues when discussing Peggy Carter from Captain America, there is an, “underlying deficit of respect the character starts with, which she’s then required to overcome by whatever desperate, over-the-top, cartoonish means to hand.” Skyler doesn’t get turned into a Strong Female Character cartoon because that’s not the world of Breaking Bad, a smart show that offers a different kind of entertainment than fiction with less complex heroes and villains (I like both kinds of stories, for the record). But the mostly negative audience reaction to Skyler is pretty cartoonish.
Fiction has a unique power to communicate alternative world views – I first learned feminism from Buffy while I was still in a Christian fundamentalist church. But we still consume stories in a patriarchal context that shapes how we think about gendered people, real or made up. I’m sick of kung-fu moves counting as characterization for fictional women, too. I want more. And I think there’s still work to do to move towards a paradigm where female characters can be read as complex and multidimensional while we’re dealing with the context of globalized, racialized patriarchy.