Playing Skyler White on the television show “Breaking Bad” for the past five seasons has been one of the most rewarding creative journeys I’ve embarked on as an actor. But the role has also taken me on another kind of journey — one I never would have imagined.
My character, to judge from the popularity of websites and Facebook pages devoted to hating her, has become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women. As the hatred of Skyler blurred into loathing for me as a person, I saw glimpses of an anger that, at first, simply bewildered me.
For those unfamiliar with the show: Skyler is the wife of Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher who, after learning he has lung cancer, begins cooking and selling methamphetamine to leave a nest egg for Skyler, their teenage son and their unborn daughter. After his prognosis improves, however, Walter continues in the drug trade — with considerable success — descending deeper and deeper into a life of crime.
When Skyler discovers what Walter has been up to, she tries to stop him, to no avail. She is outraged by the violence and destruction of the drug world, fearful for her children’s safety, disgusted by the money Walter brings in and undone by the lies and manipulation to which he subjects her.
Because Walter is the show’s protagonist, there is a natural tendency to empathize with and root for him, despite his moral failings. (That viewers can identify with this antihero is also a testament to how deftly his character is written and acted.) As the one character who consistently opposes Walter and calls him on his lies, Skyler is, in a sense, his antagonist. So from the beginning, I was aware that she might not be the show’s most popular character.
But I was unprepared for the vitriolic response she inspired. Thousands of people have “liked” the Facebook page “I Hate Skyler White.” Tens of thousands have “liked” a similar Facebook page with a name that cannot be printed here. When people started telling me about the “hate boards” for Skyler on the website for AMC, the network that broadcasts the show, I knew it was probably best not to look, but I wanted to understand what was happening.
A typical online post complained that Skyler was a “shrieking, hypocritical harpy” and didn’t “deserve the great life she has.”
“I have never hated a TV-show character as much as I hate her,” one poster wrote. The consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an “annoying bitch wife.”
I enjoy taking on complex, difficult characters and have always striven to capture the truth of those people, whether or not it’s popular. 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. He and the show’s writers made Skyler multilayered and, in her own way, morally compromised. But at the end of the day, she hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter.
As an actress, I realize that viewers are entitled to have whatever feelings they want about the characters they watch. But as a human being, I’m concerned that so many people react to Skyler with such venom. Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or “stand by her man”? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?
It’s notable that viewers have expressed similar feelings about other complex TV wives — Carmela Soprano of “The Sopranos,” Betty Draper of “Mad Men.” Male characters don’t seem to inspire this kind of public venting and vitriol.
At some point on the message boards, the character of Skyler seemed to drop out of the conversation, and people transferred their negative feelings directly to me. The already harsh online comments became outright personal attacks. One such post read: “Could somebody tell me where I can find Anna Gunn so I can kill her?” Besides being frightened (and taking steps to ensure my safety), I was also astonished: How had disliking a character spiraled into homicidal rage at the actress playing her?
But I finally realized that most people’s hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives. Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.
I can’t say that I have enjoyed being the center of the storm of Skyler hate. But in the end, I’m glad that this discussion has happened, that it has taken place in public and that it has illuminated some of the dark and murky corners that we often ignore or pretend aren’t still there in our everyday lives.
Anna Gunn is an actress. She wrote this article for the New York Times.