Breaking Bad’s Skyler White should be taking her place as one of the most beloved TV characters of all time. Performed with vanity-free honesty by Anna Gunn, Skyler, wife of the show’s protagonist Walter White, has gone through a lot the past three seasons: discovering her husband’s secret meth business, agreeing to cover it up with him, and eventually realizing that she’s stuck in a domestic violence situation with no clear path to escape. Despite all this, the character has shown remarkable fortitude and cunning that often equals her husband’s, as if she were a better version of Walter, equipped with the compassion and humility he lacks.
So why do the fans hate her so much?
That fans hate Skyler isn’t up for debate. In a recent poll during the show’s online scrolling service Story Sync, 55 percent of fans disagreed with Skyler’s assertion that she’s Walt’s “hostage” and not his wife, even though in the very episode before he made a speech where he explained to her that he controls her and she has no real option to leave him or the money laundering business. You have to burn with hate for a character to disagree when she states what really can be regarded as an objective fact.
Plenty of TV critics have noticed the haterade. Stephen Silver and Alyssa Rosenberg both wrote extensively about the unfair fan hate for Skyler, and Gunn had to answer questions about it during interviews with Rolling Stone and The Wrap.
The anti-Skyler brigade seems to be part of a larger trend of fans loathing wives on television—especially if they’re married to anti-heroes—and this antipathy stems from underlying sexism that comes rushing out in the socially acceptable terms of hating a fictional character.
Silver noticed the trend back in 2002, when fans would frequently express their desire to eliminate all the female characters from The Sopranos—the bulk of the scorn aimed at Tony’s wife Carmella. So it has been since, especially with prestige television. Did you think fan hatred around Betty Draper on Mad Men was simply a reaction to the ice queen aspects of her character? Well, the second Mrs. Draper, Megan, is deliberately characterized as Betty’s opposite, but the fan vitriol just switched to her.
Sexism explains quite a bit of this kind of reaction. A lot of viewers tune in to watch bad boys being bad, and want the wives to shut up and make them a sandwich. The language aimed at these characters certainly points to this as the motivation. Skyler is called fat. Megan is called a “shameless hussy.” Carmella is accused of “whining,” as if being married to a mobster gives one no cause to complain.
Still, there might be a bit more going on with fans’ reactions to characters that should elicit sympathy but instead generate contempt. Much of it stems from the way that anti-hero shows thwart traditional expectations about how a narrative works. Most of us grew up with the most basic story of all, evident in everything from fairy tales to “Star Wars” to every 80s comedy about nerds overcoming bros: Good guys fight for good and/or try to go about their lives. Bad guys resist them. Good guys conflict with the bad guys, eventually overcoming. We in the audience hiss at the bad guys and cheer the good guys.
Anti-hero stories resist that. Yes, the main character comes across people who thwart and resist him, but since the protagonist isn’t a good guy, characters resisting him usually have good reason. Wife characters are easy to plug in for writers as the characters who push back the hardest, often because they have most to lose. The audience, however, reverts back to old tropes about hating everyone who resists the main characters, even when the resisting characters objectively have a better case for audience sympathy.
Take, for instance, the character of Rory Williams on Doctor Who. Fans hate Rory, because Rory spent his first season on the show trying to pry his wife, Amy, away from the Doctor and return her back to normal life in small town England. Amy is the hero, and so Rory, who gives her indigestion, gets treated by fans like a villain. But he’s actually not a villain, but an ordinary man with reasonable concerns about his wife traipsing off with another man she’s clearly attracted to. In fact, his resistance goes away completely once he realizes Amy loves him and not the Doctor.
The real problem then? Fans aren’t only sexist but short-sighted. They resent characters who clash with the protagonists, even when those characters have a legitimate point. The problem is that without conflicts, there is no story. Conflicts give the story meaning and bring out the traits in the characters we enjoy watching. How will we know that a character is truly an anti-hero if we don’t see the people he hurts push back?
This is the burden writers and producers of prestige television must bear. By bringing more complex, interesting stories that flout the childish conventions of lowbrow TV (such as having the protagonist always be a good guy to root for), they’re turning what was once considered a worthless medium into an art form. But such a dramatic rewriting of television’s traditions leaves much of the audience confused. So, they turn to the internet to complain about those bitch characters with their tireless demands that their partners not murder anyone. It seems audiences not only have sexism to overcome, but also simplistic expectations about what makes an interesting story.