Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

How To Survive Playing A Divisive TV Character

This weekend, Breaking Bad's Anna Gunn wrote movingly about the experience of being hated online. We have some career advice for her going forward.

Anna Gunn may not be a seasoned blogger -- she has another pretty good job playing Skyler White on Breaking Bad, in which capacity she's been twice nominated for an Emmy -- but this weekend she took to the craft of blogging like a natural. How do you ensure that your post will get reblogged all over the internet? Write about the internet.

Gunn wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which she described what it was like for her to go online and discover the animosity that fans of her show harbor toward her -- not just isolated comments but multiple Facebook pages devoted to hating her character. "The consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an 'annoying bitch wife,'" she writes. Later on in the piece, she comments, "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."

Maureen Ryan has already written a sharply argued response to some of the points Gunn raises about the character of Skyler -- primarily that Skyler has only turned into the character Gunn describes over the past couple of seasons. If it really was Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan's intention, as Gunn writes, to make Skyler "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 has taken some time getting there. In the early going, Skyler couldn't really do anything particularly noteworthy because she was pregnant -- and the slow progression of events in the show over its many seasons meant that she was pregnant for a while. Once she started to have an inkling of what her husband Walt (Bryan Cranston) was doing, one of the first things she did was cheat on him and tell him so -- not that anyone could blame her, really, but getting revenge on one's murdering drug dealer of a husband by using sex as one's weapon hardly makes one the office Tina Turner. Gunn's claim that Skyler "is, in fact, Walter’s equal," certainly seemed true after last week's episode, when he suggested confessing and she told him he couldn't if they wanted to keep all the ill-gotten cash, in the sense that she is equally culpable of the crimes committed in the course of constructing and maintaining his drug empire-building conspiracy. But she did a lot of typical TV-anti-hero's-wife stuff before that. (I mean, why would you stop counting the cash? That's just dumb.)

My point isn't to re-litigate Ryan's argument, which stands beautifully on its own. Instead, I would suggest to Gunn that she stop reading about herself on the internet. "When people started telling me about the 'hate boards' for Skyler on the Web site for AMC, the network that broadcasts the show," Gunn writes, "I knew it was probably best not to look, but I wanted to understand what was happening." First of all, who are these idiots telling her about being the subject of hate boards at all? "It's so funny running into you like this, I was just reading that TigerBlood92 thinks the character you have played to great acclaim on an award-winning show is a bitch!" "...Oh. Cool?" Second, maybe AMC wants to exercise some checks on its own forums so that the stars of its shows don't go blabbing to the New York Times about how mean their members are.

Third, as I already argued elsewhere on a different but somewhat related topic, my personal view is that the people who create content for TV should focus on their work and assiduously ignore what fans have to say about it online. As I wrote in that earlier post, I understand that this is growing harder every day, but that's all the more reason to block out commenters -- even the very intelligent, thoughtful, and insightful ones who post here and who we adore. The fact, as we all know, is that most online bulletin board posts and comments are totally unmoderated, so there is no repercussions for anonymous haters to loose their bile as freely as they choose. Furthermore, under such circumstances, there's no point in making a comment that's nuanced or even-handed, because there's probably no one else in the thread with whom to engage. In an upvote environment, there's no middle ground: if you're into Skyler, she'd better be the best character on any show you watch right now, and if she isn't, say something like "I have never hated a TV-show character as much as I hate her" and someday you might get quoted in the New York Times! (Gunn's article is for sure the classiest meal anyone ever served up to their trolls.)

I do empathize with Gunn; reading shitty, unfair stuff about yourself online is not a fun time. I also understand her impulse to find a positive in it -- to wit: "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." I guess I'm just skeptical that...that's what Gunn's article did. Those of us who work on the internet know that almost all of it is made up of "dark and murky corners" -- so many corners, like a room in the shape of a trillion-sided die. Gunn's not wrong that a lot of online commentary about TV is gross, because a lot of online commentary about everything is gross. Even if the Times readers who saw Gunn's article this weekend didn't know before they read it what the online consensus about her Breaking Bad character was, they probably had an idea of how the seemingly consequence-free context the internet provides can bring out the worst in people, because they've probably seen slap fights break out in the comments on their own Facebook streams. I mean, we all did just live through a presidential campaign.

If I didn't know that production had already wrapped on Breaking Bad, I'd say that Vince Gilligan should take Gunn aside, give her a hug, and tell her that reading what faceless strangers think about the role he wrote for her or about her performance of it is in no way part of her job. The growth of social media and the increasing willingness of some showrunners and actors to make themselves available to fans may have given Gunn the impression that participating in this stuff is part of her job, but that's just feature creep. And since I don't think that Gunn's article, eloquent though it may be, will actually have the effect of changing any online commenters' hearts with regard to her or any other actress they think plays a bitch on TV, I will instead hope that, before she gets a job on another TV show, she learns that living (and working) well is the best revenge and that she must tune out the online din.

And, of course, if I get my wish, Gunn will never see any of this.

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