Who’s the Man?

by Adriana Reyes


Julie D’Acci investigates the relationship between three important aspects in today’s culture in her article titled, “Television, Representation, and Gender”. At end of her essay she concludes:

“It is in social and cultural institutions like television that specific representations are generated day in and day out and circulated as tacit or not so tacit norms to millions of viewers the world over (based, of course, on the different beliefs and interests that undergird both the norms and the shaping of the television programs). And it is for this reason that gender, representation, and television need to be thought together and examined ever more fully for their specific interrelations in all television systems throughout the world” (385).

This passage captures the basic concept D’Acci goes after in her argument; that is, that our definition of gender and what it means to be either masculine or feminine is a social construction. Since the world is full of things humans will never be able to understand, we must somehow turn the incomprehensible into something that we can make sense of, even if in the process things may diverge from the truth (especially when the idea gets bounced around from one brain to another). Therefore, a social construction, such as gender or race, may be real in the minds of those who created it or accept it but that does not mean that it actually exists.

This process of social construction seems to have taken a different spin in this era of television. According to D’Acci, the television scene has become more varied in the genres and the representations that it provides to its viewers; therefore, it seems to have become more fragmented. They realize that its not just black and white anymore, but that there are shades of gray to consider in order to better understand how to live in this world. This idea leads to a more passive audience in television. When people begin to think of things in terms of more moderate perspectives, the struggle between right and wrong becomes evident. Since viewers are supposedly beginning to see more than just the binaries, they seem to be gaining a “better” and more well-rounded perspective on the world, but they become somewhat distant from the idea that they may be unwillingly lured into the world of consumerism through the notion that they are gaining a better understanding of the world when in reality they are only seeing what the television producers want them to see. They become passive viewers who accept the ideas of the producers with the mindset that they are “understanding the world better”.

A great example of this can be seen in the television series Breaking Bad. The producers are able to construct the impression that men are almost always in a power struggle involving a multitude of things while the women’s struggles primarily come from the responsibilities they have to their husbands or children. This is primarily done so with the character development of Walter and Skylar (Walter’s wife).

One specific instance that I believe conveyed a strong sense of the power struggle that existed between the women and men of this series is when Skyler decides to have a “family meeting” in order to confront Walt about his refusal to go to chemotherapy in season one, episode five. One aspect of the scene that stood out was the use of the ‘talking pillow’. It seems that this ordinary pillow of no real significance to anything besides giving comfort when sitting on the couch is turned into something that represents the power to speak over the group. This shows that women, like Skyler, are the sensitive and passive wives that always look out for the family’s best interest. This can be paralleled to the future Skyler in season four where she goes into the business of money making with the car-washing business. It seems that the producers of this show intend to represent Skylar as a passive housewife who stands up for herself and thus becomes an independent and strong-willed woman, but is that the true representation they forge?

The power struggles Walt experience through the series is very different from the ones Skyler goes through. In episode five of season one, the entire family is having a poker game in which Hank, Walt’s brother, makes a comment along the lines of, “man up or puss out”. Hank made this comment in an attempt to hurry Walt into a decision about the game, but the comment had different implications to Walt who was thinking about some of the struggles that were highlighted in this particular episode, which included the pressure from his family to take the chemotherapy treatment that he did not want, the lines he draws with Jesse about their responsibilities in their partnership, or even the guilt he feels for the wrongful conviction of Hugo, the janitor at the high school, for a crime that he committed. These are only a fraction of the struggles Walt faces throughout the series, and even with just these examples it can be illustrated that the main struggles for Walt expand over different areas of his life while most or all of Skylar’s seem to be revolved around Walt’s life and well-being.

With this representation in mind, some implications can be made apparent. It seems that although the series portrays Skyler as a woman who overcomes the stereotypical housewife role in an attempt to make herself fully independent and strong-willed, but is this what she is represented as in the end? For example, when Skylar takes the kids and finally leave Walter after finding lie after lie about him at the end of season two but then Walt decides to move back into the house without her consent. Does this not say something about the true sense of power given to Skyler’s character? Eventually, even though she does not fully forgive him and accept him back into her life as her husband, the viewer gets a strange feeling that she is somehow still attached to him because he is almost always a part of her life. This, in turn, makes Walt seem like the protector and the one who has the big struggles that do not always have to do with his wife. He is allowed to do his own thing, and so it gives off the impression that he is the dominant character (as he is).

Therefore, it seems that the viewer may run the risk of falling into the tacit methods of the producers, in which they see what they want to see. The viewer may stop actively and critically thinking about the implications a series, such as Breaking Bad, may have about the representation of something like gender. It has become accustomed to think that because the times have changed so have the ways of thinking, but if you take a closer look at things you can see that it may not have changed at all.

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