05 February 2013

thinking about


Skewed empathy in popular television

At first I avoided Breaking Bad, wary of its gut-wrenching violence (I always get way too attached to TV characters!) - but I eventually gave in, intrigued to watch what's being called one of the best television shows of our time. It's earned that moniker for a reason: I love that programs like Mad Men and Breaking Bad are so rich with deeply-layered meaning and pathos that the nerd in me wants to write an interpretive essay after every episode.

Yet articles like this one remind me how important it is to remain critical of even our favorite shows. Something can be well-acted and affecting while remaining imperfect.

Shows like "Breaking Bad" encourage viewers to relate to men who do truly unspeakable things (poisoning children) while judging their wives for much smaller transgressions (retaliatory affairs). If they stand up to the men in their lives, they're irritating obstacles; if they don't, they're hypocritical colluders.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who's been discomfited by this trend, particularly as seen on Mad Men. True, Betty has been hateful to her children, and that's enough to turn many of us off. But her adulterous one-night stand and second marriage are nothing compared to Don's womanizing - yet she is the one dubbed a "whore" while Don gets to traipse home when it suits him, still the beloved "Daddy" despite his myriad cruelties.

Even the creator of Breaking Bad, when interviewed for the article above, expressed confusion and dismay at the excessive vitriol Skyler garners. At first I was convinced that Betty and company only seem hateful because they're written and directed that way, but now I think maybe audiences are equally to blame for their lack of empathy toward female characters' decisions.

This article, another interesting read, is speaking to the whiteness of popular television, but it also reiterates to me just how many shows, though meant for co-ed audiences, feature male protagonists. Why if a television program, movie, or book has a female lead does it tend to be less popular, less desirable, or less acceptable for men to consume?


Keeping up appearances

An article about how ridiculous it is that Lena Dunham's physical appearance, and frequent nudity on her own television show, offend people more than her actions and words:

It makes me so angry that appearance is still such a qualifier for a woman's success - that people still think they can judge someone's worth based on their physical attributes. I'm just glad I was too young when Titanic came out to realize that people apparently criticized Kate Winslet's weight at the time. Considering elementary-school me thought her the most talented, beautiful actress in the world, what would that have done to my own sense of self-worth?

I wish it were par for the course that young adults grew up watching bodies of every shape, size, color, and persuasion on screens big and small. Something distinctly lacking from our cultural awareness is how different people can be under their clothes; it still surprises me sometimes how uniform the naked bodies in visual media are, which surely does more harm to self-esteem and societal expectations than can be traced.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second presidential term, and Michelle Obama . . . got bangs.

Again, a powerful woman - this time one who worked tirelessly for a year to effect policy change and her husband's re-election - has been reduced to nothing more than her physical qualities by the media's focus. So disappointing (though not necessarily surprising) in this day and age.


Rape culture and misplaced blame

Also so important to me lately are Hila's recent posts, particularly this one on rape culture. How devastating that women continue to be blamed for so many of the world's ills. That women are expected to change their personal behavior to compensate for the wrongdoing of others seems to me like putting a Band-Aid on a gangrenous limb, rather than getting to the poisonous root of the problem and hopefully making all of our lives safer, better.


Beauty hidden in plain sight

I'm always glad to find that I can still be surprised by the moving incandescence of words. Like when Odessa reminds me of this poem, and Rachel gently highlights the rich language latent in classic tomes. As W. B. Yeats said, "The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper."

And so I try to sharpen my sensitivity to wonder by diving into books again, particular those that transport me to quiet, sad lives in another time, another land, lovely-gray and far, far away.


Valentine's Day

1)  I still think it yields the best candy, no matter what else we love or hate about this holiday.

2)  It also happens to result in great love-themed fragrances from my favorite indie perfumers. One has created a line based on the mystery of untranslatable words; oh how wonderful that with a twist of the imagination, these phrases can be translated, into scent, onto skin:
Brazilian Portuguese: The act of running one's fingers gently and lovingly through a beloved's hair.
(Black tea, toasted sweet tobacco, Sudanese frankincense, cocoa absolute, black pepper and vanilla infused coconut husk)
Sounds divine.

3)  "How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard." —A. A. Milne


Image credit: "heaven on their minds 02" by Jonna7.


  1. Oh man. I have so many thoughts on everyyyyyything you brought up. This is going to be a ramble.

    I've watched Breaking Bad since it started and the Skyler bashing makes me so upset. I always argue with people who say "I hate Skyler" by saying - if the show was from HER point of view, you'd hate Walt. I mean, most people hate Walt now, but for awhile that wasn't the case. Back when he was only killing / harming 'bad guys' and before he got into the child poisoning game.

    I don't know if you've ever watched Dexter, but Rita and Deb are both sort of the same deal. The thing is, I agree with the way that Skyler / Deb / Rita are written, because to me - their actions / behavior accurately portray how someone would act when placed into the situations they are placed in, but it's just that Walt and Dexter are such great main-character anti-heroes, that it's hard not to get annoyed with the women's, um, wet-blanket-ness - even though you totally understand their behavior. The bad guys being bad makes for a good television viewing experience, you don't WANT their wives to stop the "fun". Although it would refreshing to see a WOMAN with a husband wet blanket for once. Then the Skyler hatred wouldn't be quite so problematic. It's just alwayyyyyys the lady.

    Anyway, the actress that plays Skyler just chose her next project for after Breaking Bad's over - she's going to play the character Rita in a show actually called.... Rita. So, she will no longer be regulated to the fun-ruining wife role.


    & I definitely think that the audiences are to blame. Because I honestly do think that the writers did a great job with the choices they've had Skyler make. The show could serve as a sort of test for me when getting into a relationship - if a guy has a very anti-Skyler opinion, we probably shouldn't be together.

    Not that this comment isn't already long enough, I don't know if it was just me, but I feel like Carmela Soprano never really received as much hatred as Skyler did, even though she sort of played the same character type. Of course, The Sopranos didn't air in such a blog-y / tv-recap-y era, so I wasn't really aware of the universal Carm opinion.

    And the whole woman-main-character being unpalatable for men - something else I could go off about for ten years. That all starts when boys are little kids. Girls so frequently read books with male main characters, while boys don't really do the opposite. That's actually something that's great about the popularity of the Hunger Games. I wish I could remember the link, but I read an article about how teachers / book sellers will very infrequently give a boy a book about a girl. My sister's a teacher and she tries to get all of her kids to read a combination of both.

    Ok finally - If I were Lena Dunham, every time someone made a derogatory comment about my decision to do a nude scene, I'd do ANOTHER one just to spite them. And every time someone made a comment about my weight, I'd be tempted to gain weight just to - once again - spite them. I'm obviously very spiteful, but I just can't even deal with all the comments I read about her "hideous" appearance. A. She's not. B. For decades we've watched tv shows based on men who are not, um, Brad Pitt.... but that seemed to be fine with everyone!

    Okay. This was basically train-of-thought-y gibberish, but. Yeah. I'm "thinking about" all of these things too, Sally.

    1. Thanks for the awesome response Mallory! I'm glad we're both "thinking about" these things, makes for a fun discussion :)

      I've only seen season 1 of Dexter but I get what you're saying. Also, it's interesting that there are so many anti-hero characters on TV right now...escapism from people's mundane, ethical lives in a sucky economy, perhaps? But nonetheless, murderers are being glorified, and murder is deemed okay because mostly "bad guys" are being killed. (Although - a lot of the drug dealers who die in Breaking Bad weren't inherently bad, they were just trying to make a living like Walt. "But not Tuco and Gus, they were EVIL! They deserved to die." Yeah, well - that's faulty reasoning at best, but I also never saw either of them poison a child...)

      I too would love to see a woman anti-hero character with a wet-blanket husband, just for the change.- though I wonder if the husband would be similarly hated, or sympathized with? I was about to use Prime Suspect as a "wet blanket dude" example, but when Jane ruins every relationship by focusing too much on her work - we're able to see when she's justified ("they just don't understand!") but also when she's in the wrong, and thus we DO empathize with her lovers. So I guess I'm not sure if the writers of Prime Suspect are just able to portray both sides of the argument better than Breaking Bad's, or if that's dependent on my own attitude as an audience member.

      Haha, I like the "relationship test"! I mean, the ability to sympathize with characters who you don't automatically "identify with" is relevant in real life, too. We'd hope most people would be able to empathize with others' situations, rather than assuming everyone is trying to "ruin their fun," you know?

      Good point about kids identifying with male book characters. I guess much of classic literature stars males - probably leading to my peers' obsession with Little Women, Jane Austen, and the Brontes - it was so unusual to encounter books about women in primary school! (And of course, every boy in class automatically had to hate Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights...hmph.)

      Funny you should say that about Lena Dunham, because now every season 2 review I see seems to mention the increase in nudity and speculate that she IS upping the ante out of spite. Like you say - if so, more power to her! Did you see the latest episode? 90% of the comments I saw were about how "unrealistic" the plot was. Why, because she walked into a stranger's house and, instead of getting arrested or attacked, found a perfectly nice guy willing to talk to her? No - because "a good-looking guy would never have sex with a girl like her." I knew those comments were unavoidable but they still managed to bother me. People on TV are too ridiculously beautiful, magazines are airbrushed - and now Dunham is bashed as "ugly" just because she doesn't fit those standards. And you're right, normal-looking guys have been TV stars for years (although it is still kind of sad that if they're not a certain kind of "handsome," they're relegated to the "funny guy" role...whole different issue though!)