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September 06, 2013 - Image 7

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The Michigan Daily, 2013-09-06

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The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com

Friday, September 6, 03-7

The Michigan Daily - michigandailycom Friday, September 6, 2013 - 7A

Tread lightly.
A character study
of Skyler White

Waiting for that Xanaxto kick in...
Blanchett dazzles as
crumbling Jasmine

Analyzing the
divisive woman of
'Breaking Bad'
Daily Film Editor
Note: Spoilers ahead. This arti-
cle was written before Episode
13 of Season S "To'hajiilee" was
In the center of today's cul-
ture war is a woman, a TV char-
acter whose divisiveness has
come to define the unanswered
problem of gender in show busi-
ness. Her name is Skyler White.
When the talented actress
who portrays Skyler, Anna Gunn
came to the defense of that very
"Breaking Bad" character in an
op-ed for the New York Times,
she asserted that the unequal ire
Skyler endures from the show's
fans is due to her strength and,
most importantly, to her gender.
This is the gross generalization
I wish to re-examine, but this I
write with great unease.
Among my concerns, which
include being presumptuous or
prejudiced, my gravest still is
the possibility I might strip this
issue of the gendered elements
that are very real.
The vitriol aimed at Skyler -
and now Gunn - is some of the
ugliest stuff Generation Troll
has managed yet. It's blind to
say there resides no misogyny
in those sentiments. But Gunn's
op-ed and other similarly writ-
ten pieces preclude the possibil-
ity that there are other reasons
besides sexism underlying the
bitter disdain Skyler attracts.
And so we have sanctified Sky-
ler. We have sanctified her and
established her as a feminist
figure walled off from any legiti-
mate criticism.
I'm not here to bully or to
diminish the feminist debate,
but to complicate it. I want only
to test Gunn's argument and to
re-imagine Skyler as an object
for analysis.
Many legions of fans would
in fact refute Gunn's claim that
Skyler is a woman of steely
resolve or any type of feminist
hero at all. They'd say she's help-
less, hypocritical and passive
aggressive. (Who else cringes
when she gives her husband,
Walter, the "silent treatment?")
She shares her bed with her
oppressor and cooks his dinner.
For five seasons now, she has
done nothing to turn in Walter.
* believe they loathe her for
her helplessness because they
have no empathy. They're unable
to identify with victims and they
blame Skyler for her problems.
In this way, she is more Fanny
Price than Elizabeth Bennet,
more desperate than efficacious,
more crazed than delightful
(and rightfully so).
It's now her lot in life to over-
come her victimization. She's
trapped in an abusive marriage
- in her own home - with no
way out. So how are we to expect

her to climb out of the dangerous
world Walter has imposed on his
family? Lack of empathy is the
beginning of all prejudice, but
here helplessness (some would
say willful helplessness) is the
key factor and much of that has
to do with how the story was
The characters with which
the viewer empathizes rely on
the craft of storytelling, on what
function to which the character
is relegated, what the storyteller
wishes to show us of him or her.
In short, I won't empathize with
a character unless the storytell-
er gives me good reason.
We naturally identify more
with Walter as the protagonist,
who used to be the one suffer-
ing silently, not Skyler. Some-
how, they both let the other
down: They never realize just
how much they need each other.
It makes you wish that, after all
this time, Walter's first "confes-
sion" in the pilot, before he ever
had Heisenberg delusions, will
find its way back to his fam-
ily. That would be the way they
remember him. Just as sympa-
thy for Walter endures for once
being a powerless high-school
teacher, fans' hatred of Skyler
endures because of the way she
was initially framed.
Walter is a monster. He endan-
gers all his friends, his family,
all he loves. He never wanted to
hurt anyone, but his tragic flaw
- his hubris - compels him to
continue down this road. And
therein lies the difference on
which everything depends: Wal-
ter is our tragic hero. Not Skyler.
William Brennan of Slate calls
Skyler the "moral grounding" of
the story; I call her a moral irri-
tant. Personally, I have no affini-
ty for moral arbitration in stories
as these. Skyler's function in the
story as an adjudicator of values
simplifies morality in a complex
story about the thrill and trag-
edy of crime, family and pride.
Her proclivities for that time
of unshifting morality, which
now rapidly crumble, make her
Walter's natural antagonist in
more ways than gender. Truly,
it's only until she reveals the
darker depths of herself, when
she finally breaks bad, that I was
more drawn to her.
And still, however much the
need for survival has whittled
down the list of good things in
their world, there are two ideals
they have kept: family and loy-
alty - and those, too, have their
corruptions. Walter poisons a
boy, lets Jane die, manipulates
his son's adoration, nearly gets
Hank killed and more, but he
never does the unthinkable yet
really altogether logical: He's
Machiavellian, but he hasn't
killed Hank. And who knows?
He just may yet.
For the sake of argument, let's
contrast that to Skyler's infidel-
ity. Opposed to Walter's utter
devotion to family that first pro-
pelled him into the drug world
and the pride that trapped him,
Skyler's disloyalty proves to be

a big barrier for many people. I
don't want to weigh the moral-
ity of actions, to judge Skyler.
I want only to understand her
image and to understand why
Walter is not judged as harshly.
And this, as a fan, I understand
well: Loyalty is paramount to
our feelings of likeability.
Somewhere deep down - and
this has been reinforced again
and again - Walter is unable to
break some bonds. Skyler is the
love of his life. Junior is his big
man. Holly is the innocence he
wants to preserve. Hank and
Marie happened to be on the
wrong side. Jesse is the young
man he regrets having hurt and
yes, he loves him. And however
unpredictable the finale will be,
we know already it is too late for
Walt to cherish those things as
they should be cherished when
his end comes. We can only hope
Skyler and the children, Hank
and Marie, and Jesse escape his
Again, however, we come back
that fundamental principle that
guides all character analysis:
empathy. It took both Whites to
ruin their marriage. And I think
we can all agree it was Walter's
reign of terror that drove Skyler
to Ted for revenge - out of spite.
That said, we must still pon-
der further on empathy: Is it the
responsibility of the storyteller
to frame his characters in such a
way to evoke empathy and love?
Or is it the responsibility of the
viewer to read beyond the frame
of the story itself?
Much has been said about ide-
als, but nothing of superficial
dislike. Skyler has my empathy,
but not my love. Because she has
one and not the other. Because
the blogosphere has simplified
the discussion to feminist and
anti-feminist positions, whatever
reasons I have for disliking Skyler
are deemed invalid.
Gunn presents Skyler as a new
way by which we can measure
societal progression just as aca-
demics and critics use cultural
pieces to track our values and to
hold their failings accountable.
The problem is that Skyler is a
faulty measurement. I could very
well dislike her for something as
simple as her attitude.
But I can't say that. I can't say
her melodramatic displays are
repulsive, that she's spiteful and
downright obnoxious. I can't say
her steep, cutting angle of con-
descension was grating to my
ears. All that and more would
insinuate I dislike her for inhib-
iting not only Walter's but every
male's "masculine" urges. We
have simplified the discussion
rather than opened it.
My question is why she has
to likeable. Her function, how
she was written into this tale,
her trajectory from veggie-
bacon-cooking housewife to
crime affiliate and Gunn's deft
performance - that is the sin-
gular achievement that arrests
my attention. It's a fascinating
study. And really, it can be just
as simple as that.

Daily B-Side Editor
"Blue Jasmine" is more than
just Woody Allen's latest procla-
mation to the world that at 77, he's
finally figured it all out ("In1942, I
had already discovered women.").
It's more than just a character
study of a has-been socialite torn
between denial and an ever-fad-
ing notion of absolution. More,
eventhan Cate Blanchett gesticu-
lating. At onlyslightriskofhyper-
bole, I'd go as far as saying it's
more than just a movie - it's an
unanswered question, thought up
by Allen and posed in Blanchett's
thistle-honey voice.
It is, for no lack of a better
phrase, The Shit. Most people
who've seen it have echoed simi-
larly fawning sentiments, albeit
in slightly better wording. Yet, I
find myself frustrated. Frustrated
because so much of what I've read
about the film in the month since
its release has made the exasper-
ating generalization that Jasmine
Francis is another one of Allen's
one-note characters, smugly
drawn to glimpse reality through
a pair of binoculars. Is she darker,
less neurotic? Yes, but ultimately
etched in our psyche by perhaps
the best piece of work by any actor
or actress in five years.
Don't get me wrong - I
wouldn't have seen this movie
four times had it not been for that
gargantuan performance, and
Cate Blanchett deserves all the
praise she will ever get and more
for what she's accomplished in
this film. Simply put, it's the type
of portrayal that inspires other
actors to be better, one thatwillibe
remembered years down the line
for its near-flawless examination
of mental decay.
But at the same time, it's wrong
to assume Jasmine was meant
by Allen to be a horrible person,
festering towards the madness
she's brought on her own snob-
by, perfectly coiffed head. No.
This movie is better than that. It
leaves you with something more
meaningful than the bitter after-
taste that accompanies tongue-in-
cheek simplification.
In truth, it's a refreshing
change of pace considering Allen
has erected a prolific, sto-
ried body of work around the
pervading (some would say
annoying) idea that any char-
acter, no matter how complex,
can be caricatured to occupy
unapologetically sheltered
environments: either Park
Avenue havens or wherever
the people who occupy Park
Avenue havens think the other
side lives. Here, Allen under-
scores the aloof irony of those
caricatures, and through that
isolation, gives us an engrossing
study of the complicity of weak-
ness and amorality.
The key word is complicity.
One cannot exist without the
other. Jasmine is rarely if ever
truly amoral. Think about it:
Is there ever a point in the film

to hur
ly, ever
or stor
a vain
of con
ders at
back d
with h
she ha:
our pr
ing hit
ting su
in my
an alm
she me
Hal, an
tries tc
her eff
only to
rape. S
how tc
out the
"We N

she intentionally attempts ies show us a woman's struggle to
t someone? She calls Chilli find meaning in lives destroyed by
thing except "greased-up personal tragedy and are both pre-
ad" and lies to anyone and sented in an analogous intermit-
ng within earshot, but real- tent-flashback structure. But they
ry single insult she heaves fall on opposite ends of the spec-
y she spins is, at inception, trum in their treatment of conflict.
attempt to fool herself - a In "Kevin," Swinton's character
erk reaction at the notion is buffeted by public backlash,
fronting reality. She shud- harassed and tormented for a per-
the idea of being dragged ceived role in her son's delinquen-
own to the confines of the cy. She's never in denial of what's
class so she jaunts around happened. She's in shock, unable
her nose so far up in the to think of anything other than
,you're left wondering why where she may have gone wrong
sn't already suffocated. But with her son, and the film excels
the only person who really in the deliberate buildup to their
to care is Jasmine. final, mutedly cathartic confron-
SPOILERS Unlike "Blue Jasmine," "Kevin"
never caters to any notion of vul-
most of the reveries she nerability. The only driving force
ites toward when cornered, is fear, and because Swinton's
otagonist ends up babbling character is merely reacting - try-
'Blue Moon," a jazzy, croon- ing her best to not cave to outside
from a simpler time (when pressures -we never blame her for
could moon each other at what's happened. Jasmine's story
chool dances without get- isthe same, justmarred byher own
aed). The song throws out perceived weakness, a weakness
y lines like, "You saw me thatmakesher pushoutwards.And
ng alone / Without a dream because she's responding in a more
heart /Without a love of my tangible, futile manner, we incor-
These are lyrics thatconvey rectlythink she's a bad person.
ost naive sense of vulner- Vulnerability comes from love.
- vulnerability that latches Jasmine figures out early on that
onto Jasmine the moment her husband has always been a
Bets her con-artist husband crook, but she keeps herself in a
nd persists in her decompo- state of denial because the feelings
throughout this film. She she has for him are genuine. Real-
o make it on her own, and ity strikes in the form of Hal's dal-
orts are feeble yet earnest, liances, and forthe first time in her
be cut short by a hard-to- life, Jasmine goes out of her way
scene featuring attempted to do something right: She turns
he falls because, as the song him in. She's hated for it, aban-
ts, she's only ever known doned by her own son, who at first
o be supported, and with- expresses horror atthe realization
at crutch there, she has no thathis father could be a fraud, but
but to revert back to look- in the film's heart-wrenching cli-
another. max, admits he holds his mother
more accountable for everything
that has happened. Why? Because
ive her all of everything could have been fine if
she kept her mouth shut.
he aw ards. It's a sad revelation, but one that
reaffirms the nuance behind this
third act and gives us a glimpse at
the scale of Jasmine's real predica-
first time I saw "Blue Jas- ment. And when she finally sits on
I was reminded of the film thatcbench, babblingto nobody, the
eed To Talk About Kevin," question that Allen set out to ask
ned by a similarly absorbing finally presents itself: Does amo-
h subdued) performance rality breed weakness, or is it the
Tilda Swinton. Both mov- other way around?

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