Masculinity in Breaking Bad

Breaking BadIf you happened to see me in September 2013, you might have had a hard time escaping a conversation about Breaking Bad. I came to the show late, starting it not long before the final half of the final season aired and catching up just in time for the antepenultimate episode “Ozymandias.” I was utterly wrapped up in the world of Walter White’s growing meth empire, not least because I was fascinated and unsettled by Walt himself and his relationship with his wife, Skyler. In my mind, the meth business was almost incidental to that central conflict.

Because Walt seemed to me to be a prime example of an all-too-common and extremely toxic type of masculinity, I was excited to see this essay collection about the show’s approach to masculinity offered in the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program. Unfortunately, Masculinity in Breaking Bad was mostly a disappointment.

The collection, edited by Bridget Roussell Cowlishaw, takes an academic approach to the show, analyzing it through, for example, the lens of Foucault or Machiavelli. Sometimes this kind of analysis is compelling, and sometimes it isn’t. As it happens, the book mostly references philosophers and thinkers whose work I don’t know well. That doesn’t have to be a problem if the writers are able to explain these thinkers’ ideas and broaden them out to be of interest to people who don’t find an exploration of their ideas enough on its own. Jeffrey Reid Pettis’s essay “Men in Control” does this well by considering how the characters’ behaviors are guided by their feeling of being in a Foucaultian panopticon, thus leading them to act according to the roles they believe society has set out for them.

Another essay that I liked was Susan Johnson’s “Family Man,” in which Walt is described as someone whose supposedly virtuous acts are all about maintaining his masculinity—or his view of what masculinity is. I particularly liked the way she contrasted Walt to Hank, who seemed on the surface, especially in the first few episodes, to embody the worst sort of masculinity. Eventually, however, it becomes clear that Hank is genuinely interested in others’ well-being in a way that Walt is not. He has all the machismo and all the tenderness.

Walt is the focus of most of the essays, but he is often considered alongside Hank, Gus Fring, Hector Salamanca, Mike Ehrmentrout, and, of course, Jesse Pinkman. Skyler gets a fair bit of attention as well, mostly in a series of odd roundtable discussions about fan reaction to Skyler. Saul Goodman, however, is almost entirely ignored, which I found curious, partly because he’s so different from the other characters and might make an interesting point of contrast. It was especially odd to me that one of the essayists, Ian Dawe, fails to mention him entirely when naming the show’s major characters. Including Mike and Gus but not Saul in that list seems odd. Is it because Saul doesn’t operate the way the other central men do? Would including Saul disrupt his rather compelling thesis about male interest in legacy.

Dawe also offers up the howler that all but one of the show’s major characters are middle-aged men. The exception? Jesse Pinkman. I’m not sure it’s reasonable to justify leaving Lydia and Marie out of a list of main characters, but omitting Skyler sends a very unfortunate signal about which characters matter. I have to wonder, however, if an editor didn’t let Dawe down by not pointing out that he might have meant to say all but one of the male characters are middle-aged. I know an editor let him down by not pointing that out, but the editing in this book makes me more inclined to blame the editor than I, an editor, would normally be willing to do. I try very hard to overlook typos and infelicities in wording when I read. Because my work involves a lot of copyediting, it’s difficult for me to stop editing in my head to Chicago style once I start paying attention at that level. But this book was ridden with so many howlers (Gary Grant, inconsistent italicizing of Breaking Bad) that I couldn’t block them out. I hate being a curmudgeon about this because I know an editor’s work only gets noticed when it fails—and because I know I’m guilty of typos all the time. But I was really distracted by these glitches. Maybe if the essays themselves had been better I wouldn’t have noticed. At least they spelled Skyler correctly throughout.

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4 Responses to Masculinity in Breaking Bad

  1. See, and I haven’t been spelling Skyler correctly this whole time. I watched a few seasons of Breaking Bad and then had to give it up — weirdly, what eventually frustrated me into not finishing was that Walt is so stupidly incompetent at his work. He has flashes of brilliance, but mostly, like, it’s just him floundering about! And I was expecting him to be really really GOOD at the meth business, and when he wasn’t I lost patience.

    • Teresa says:

      The entire internet was spelling it wrong, and I was irrationally irritated by it because I’d never ever seen it spelled with an A before.

      And, yes, Walt is not as brilliant as he (or some of his fans) think he is. He’s really, really smart about chemistry and could sometimes work out really clever and grandiose plans to foil his enemies, but day-to-day common sense and life management? Not his strong suit. I decided that Skyler nagged him because he needed it.

  2. Deb says:

    Don’t you know a woman is considered middle-aged once she’s 27? A man doesn’t become middle-aged until he’s about 60.

    //But only barely.

    • Teresa says:

      Heh, So true. Although I wouldn’t have had a gripe with him called Skyler middle-aged. She was 40 on the show, and I call myself middle-aged at 43. And the men on the show are mostly in their 50s. My beef is with saying all the main characters on the show were men, when Skyler had a larger role than most of the men he was discussing.

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