Anna Gunn, the actress who plays Skyler White on Breaking Bad, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times this weekend addressing the vitriol her character has attracted from some fans of the show. Titled “I Have a Character Problem,” the essay explores what Gunn calls a “Rorschach test” for society’s attitudes about gender.
Gunn writes that she realized from the beginning that Walter White’s wife would probably not be the show’s most popular character, given an audience’s natural tendency to empathize with and root for a show’s protagonist. “As the one character who consistently opposes Walter and calls him on his lies, Skyler is, in a sense, his antagonist,” Gunn says.
But Gunn admits being shocked by the degree of some fans’ hatred, expressed on the show’s message boards, as well as personal websites and popular Facebook pages devoted to taking down Skyler. The contempt for the fictional character even spilled over into personal attacks on the actress herself. “Could somebody tell me where I can find Anna Gunn so I can kill her?” one post asked.
Gunn writes that she became concerned about what this surge of emotion says about viewers’ perceptions of women and wives. “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, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women,” she writes, and notes that a similar contempt had been directed toward Mad Men’s Betty Draper and The Sopranos‘ Carmela Sporano.
“Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, wanted Skyler to be a woman with a backbone of steel who would stand up to whatever came her way, who wouldn’t just collapse in the corner or wring her hands in despair,” Gunn writes, while acknowledging that Skyler, like her husband, was also multilayered and morally compromised. “But at the end of the day, she hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter.”
Gunn also discussed this double-standard in an interview with Rolling Stone last summer. “It’s more acceptable for a man to be this antihero badass doing all these things that break the law or are really awful,” she said at the time. “People watching want to be Walt, or they identify with him. He doesn’t have to answer to anybody. . . . For the people who love Heisenberg, who love the badass Walt, when Skyler says, ‘No, you shouldn’t do that,’ they’re like, ‘What is her deal!? What’s wrong with her?'”