August 26, 2013


Breaking Bad actress Anna Gunn penned an op-ed for the New York Times remarking on the whole "I hate Skyler White" phenomena:

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.

There are other similar Rorschach tests around. Maureen Dowd specializes in it. Certainly, we see criticisms of female reporters not based on the job they're doing, but on their looks or guesses as to what sexual favors they had to perform to get their seat.

But it also put me in mind of Hillary Clinton and her media crowning as the presidential candidate to beat in 2016. I remember the ugliness of the 2008 primary. I actually had a liberal activist say "bros before hos", unaware of how offensive it was.

As it turned out, a recent study showed that Hillary Clinton was subjected to very gender-biased coverage in 2008:

The New York Times coverage of the 2008 presidential race was "decidedly stereotypical," according to a new study, whose author fears a similar "gendered agenda" may occur in the 2016 race.

"At the aggregate level, what I found was that Clinton's gender was mentioned much more so than her male competitors and that she also received less issue coverage than her male competitors," said Lindsey Meeks, whose study appears in the September 2013 issue of the Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly.[..]The University of Washington study discovered that the Times applied gender labels 6.5 percent more often to Clinton than to male candidates. It also said Clinton received significantly more gender label coverage than Barack Obama and John McCain. "Notably, the Times provided similar volumes of gender coverage for Clinton and Palin, 17.5% and 18.8%, respectively," the report said. "Thus, despite running for different offices, their gender was emphasized similarly."

Meeks concluded from the data that the Times was "upholding the news norm of focusing on how women are deviant in politics" and that while the emphasis "could be interpreted positively... news coverage of women's gender often sets a more negative tone and communicates to readers that women simply do not fit."

Like the vitriol over Skyler White morphing into threats to Anna Gunn, I expect that the vitriol over the notion that a female can be the leader of the free world to morph into some seriously horrifying rhetoric against Hillary Clinton.

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