I’ve written before about the ways in which anti-heroes wives tend to get judged even more harshly than the villainous men they’re married to. And in the Los Angeles Times today, the great Meredith Blake talked to me, the New Yorker’s television critic Emily Nussbaum, and Jezebel founder Anna Holmes about why that’s the case. Meredith, Emily, and Anna pointed out something I think is critically important: these characters are initially set up as obstacles at a point in the story when we still want to see these men succeed:
Shows like “Breaking Bad” encourage viewers to relate to men who do truly unspeakable things (poisoning children) while judging their wives for much smaller transgressions (retaliatory affairs). If they stand up to the men in their lives, they’re irritating obstacles; if they don’t, they’re hypocritical colluders. See also: Soprano, Carmela. “These women are called upon to provide the drama, to serve as roadblocks that the male protagonist has to get around,” says Anna Holmes, founder of the feminist website Jezebel.com.
The phenomenon frightens and perplexes series creator Vince Gilligan. “Skyler compared to Walt is Mother Teresa. She’s the hero of that duo, yet so many viewers are saying, Man, I wish she could get bumped off, killed off or otherwise get out of his way so he can really break bad,” he told The Times in an interview earlier this year. “I want as many people as I can to watch the show, but wow, I hope I’m not living next door to any of them.”…
“They’ve designed Betty as a character you’re supposed to react against. Even if you wanted to be sympathetic, it triggered in you as a viewer this kind of ‘Ha-ha!’ Nelson reaction,” says Nussbaum, referring to the bully from “The Simpsons.”
It’s one thing to have your characters have arcs and grow over a series of several seasons. It’s a harder thing to completely reverse polarity on your characters when you’ve established it so strongly from the beginning, too. While that’s an orientation that makes it easier for audiences to hate female characters than male characters, it’s a problem that also gets in the way of viewers appreciating the downfall of male characters, too. If characters don’t want to see Vic Mackey or Walter White punished, then they might find it frustrating to discover that the creators of their favorite shows side with the wives, rather than their anti-heroic husbands.