‘Breaking Bad’s Skyler White and the Difficulty of Leaving Abusers

I know that a lot of you think I’ve been too easy on Skyler White, the deeply morally compromised wife of violent meth kingpin Walter White on Breaking Bad. But her transformation from naive wife to a woman who’s grieving her own sins and confronting her husband even though she’s terrified of him has sparked some fantastic considerations of the character. And I wanted to grapple a bit with this one from Kelli Marshall, which I disagree with, but want to address because I think it raises some problematic ideas about women and violence and abuse in popular culture:

But it’s this second-to-last occurrence that, I think, brings my aversion to Skyler White full circle. Last week’s episode (“Madrigal”) features one of the most disconcerting shots in the entire series (also in the Top Ten Most Disconcerting, the above-mentioned avocado/chicken scene as well as that turtle and poor Victor’s demise-by-box-cutter). In a nightgown, Skyler is in bed. Walt approaches her and begins to derobe, all clothes. He slides in bed, adjusts his penis, closely spoons his wife, and kisses her on the arms. Although she’s clearly uninterested, Skyler does not recoil. WTF? This seeming act of “pseudo-rape” is indeed, as one blogger puts it, “one of the most uncomfortable moments of the entire series.” A TV Line writer remarks similarly: “Aaaand thank you, Breaking Bad, for the fade to black that spares us a full-on, against-Skyler’s-will sex scene […] though I’m not sure what’s worse — seeing it or imagining it.”

At this point, it should be clear that I’ve a very low tolerance for representations of rape and/or forced sex (the same goes for portrayals of animal abuse). But what’s more, I’ve little patience for female characters who choose to remain in said abusive relationships without exacting some sort of revenge or authority over their male oppressors (maybe this is coming to a head in Breaking Bad?). Finally, as mentioned above, I take issue with female characters who function as victims — or prey, as Anna Gunn puts it when describing the set-up for the “I’m a coward” scene depicted in the animated gif below: “It ended up as a dance, with Bryan [Cranston] pursuing me all around the room. It was really like I was trapped animal that was Bryan’s prey.” Yeah, I don’t dig this situation.

It’s one thing to not want to consume fiction that involves images of women being the targets of physical and emotional violence, which I completely understand. Everyone has their own limitations—it’s one of the reasons I rarely go to or write about horror movies—and those personal boundaries are worthy of respect. It’s another to say that a female character is not written credibly, that her failure to resist to violence against her, or her resistance to violence visited upon her don’t resonate given what we know of the characters, their material and emotional resources and support systems, and the worlds in which they live. A third to examine the work of creators who appear to enjoy visiting harm, degradation, or embarrassment on their female characters. But I have a hard time disliking Skyler White on the grounds that she should have found a way to leave Walt or stop him from potentially assaulting her already.

Women who are battered, and I’m not even talking about women who are emotionally abused, the most common form of abuse Walt subjects Skyler to, take an average of five to seven attempts to leave the partner who is abusing them. There are all sorts of reasons a woman might not leave, or return, many of which affect Skyler: the safety and continued care of her children, her knowledge that her husband is willing and capable of murdering people who he believe threaten him, even ones who are protected, Walt’s ability to implicate her criminal activity. Skyler’s been in this situation for almost precisely a year, which is not a tremendously long time. Given that timeframe, and the timing of Skyler’s confrontation of Walt, it makes sense to me that she’s potentially working up to a first attempt to leave Walt, not counting his moving out before she was aware of his criminal activity, a hugely exciting, but also hugely frightening prospect.

And beyond that, there’s something disturbing about the idea that Skyler, who certainly deserves blame for her involvement in Walt’s drug-laundering, should be considered at all complicit in her marital rape and abuse. This sort of judgement is unnerving for the same reason the prospect of Lara Croft facing sexual assault was unnerving: it placed responsibility for avoiding rape in a female character’s power, and made that process into a game that didn’t take into account the prospect real sexual assault victims sometimes face of being murdered or further brutalized if they fight back. In a sense, I find the fantasy that it’s easy and realistic to fight back against rapist or domestic or emotional abusers even more damaging than illustrations of what it’s like to be trapped in an abusive relationship. What’s horrifying about Breaking Bad isn’t that Skyler is taking it from Walt, that she’s forming a human barrier between him and her children, but its depictions of how Walt has set up a situation where his wife has to forfeit the credibility that she might have been able to leverage against him in order to protect the most vulnerable members of his family, that he believes his intimidation of her is a sign of his moral superiority.

I’d really like to live in a world where it was easy for women to leave their abusers and to see their rapists convicted. It’s a beautiful, powerful fantasy, one that I definitely enjoy see reflected in utopian and science fiction and fantasy. But it’s not the world we live in. And what I’m hungry for is not fiction and heroines that erase the difficulties of reaching that world, but that illustrate how high those hurdles are, and spur the people who consume that fiction to action and awareness anyway.