ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Bloody Handprints: What Comes After Domestic Violence in Television and Life

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Bloody Handprints: What Comes After Domestic Violence in Television and Life

nullIn episode “Fifty-One” of Breaking
Walter White buys Walt Jr. a
gorgeous, fast-moving and expensive red sports car, even though Skyler has expressly
asked him not to. It’s a subtle move of dominance. Walt has already made it
clear that he is the one who will be calling all the shots, and this is another
way to drive a wedge between Walt Jr. and Skyler by painting himself as the
better, cooler parent. A few scenes
later we cut to Walt and Skyler in bed together, Skyler turned away from Walt
as they spoon; the camera affording us a view of a close up of Skyler’s face,
as Walt gently strokes her arm and tells her that everything is going to be
okay, putting in a coyly worded request for a chocolate cake to celebrate his
birthday. Throughout this monologue, Skyler’s eyes remain dead and far away.
She knows Walt’s gestures of affection are not meant to actually open a warm
dialogue about the future; they are about quietly asserting Walt’s dominance
and control. Skyler is no longer an equal partner to a man she loves; she is a
prisoner in her own home.

As TV dramas that focus on male antihero protagonists have
become increasingly in vogue over the last 10 years, the women who
bear the brunt of their specific brand of male entitlement and rage have become increasingly noticeable. Female
characters in shows ranging from Mad Men to Game of Thrones are constantly subjected to verbal, sexual and physical violence, sometimes from the
male characters we admire and love. Male-on-female violence is portrayed as
normal and is often sexualized or depicted as romantic or glamorous. While I’m
a fan of all three shows I just mentioned, I also worry about the ubiquity of the
victimized woman in many of these programs and how the attitudes towards women
presented in these otherwise nuanced, intelligent shows might bleed over into real

I’ve been thinking recently of Breaking Bad in light of
the recently released footage showing Ray Rice punching his now wife, Janay
Rice, in the face. After all, at its heart, Breaking
is a story about family and
violence, the family that Walt continues to claim to love, even as he selfishly
destroys it in order to become a drug kingpin. Walt’s transformation from
gentle chemistry teacher to leader of a drug ring comes at the expense of his
wife and children. He goes from being a protector to being someone who controls
every aspect of his family’s small suburban life, continuously putting his
wife and children at immense risk. 

The fact that Walt wants to provide for his family is often
listed as the most sympathetic excuse for his actions. In reality, it is
probably his most evil trait. Walter White’s transformation into a formidable
antihero is complex and rife with important moral questions, but Walt’s bad
behavior is often presented as less menacing than edgy; the newly evolved
Heisenberg, after all, has his fast sports cars and pork pie hat, his pithy,
brilliant one-liners. While clearly Walt is intended to be a villain by the end
of the series, many people still view Walt as a sympathetic figure and, while
Walt’s actions are never forgiven, they often do seem to be lionized. By the
end of the series Walt is presented as a flawed and tragic hero who did what he
needed to do in order to save the person he loved most: himself.

Skyler, who goes from being a strong, smart and willful
protagonist to a kind of cowering shadow of her former self, is never portrayed
as a hero. Her story is swallowed up by Walt’s. Indeed, many viewers took
tremendous joy from her slow collapse under Walt’s thumb. Often feminists cite
hatred of female characters under the broad, nebulous heading of “misogyny,” but the specific reason that Skyler was such a maligned character may have less
to do with a general hatred of women than with a specific discomfort at seeing the
White household descend into domestic violence and not wanting to blame Walt
for the deterioration. Skyler’s defiant attitude towards Walt, her refusal to
be willed into submission and go along with his egomaniacal plans, were
initially what inspired fans rooting for Walt to hate her.
Others criticized her when she began to become more desperate, give in to
Walt’s demands and eventually align herself with him after being worn out,
terrorized, and brainwashed by a person who was once her loving partner.

We spend a lot of time criticizing victims of domestic violence,
but we also spend a lot of time talking about them as victims, rather than
seeing them as whole people who are forced, by circumstance, to make a series
of genuinely complex and heartbreaking decisions. When footage is released of
Ray Rice knocking out his fiancé, we rush to see the evidence but don’t really
know what to do with it. A few commentators have struggled to excuse or defend
Rice’s actions, while others have complained that we simply don’t have context
to understand why he would do such a thing. Most mainstream discussion has
rushed to Janay Rice’s defense by pointing out the ways that she was an
innocent victim of a horrible crime.

But when Janay Rice herself responded to the public distribution
of this footage, she was primarily angry that she had been directly embarrassed by the
sudden media exposure. And why wouldn’t she be? When discussing Janay Rice, many
commentators rushed to criticize her choices, or simply left her out of her own
story. While the term “victim” is meant to put the blame on the perpetrator, it
also serves to flatten the person who has been hurt. We may feel sympathy for
victims, but we don’t see them as full people, with rich life stories, with the
combination of triumphs and mistakes that comprises each of our lives. In the
case of Breaking Bad, the
audience often could only think of Skyler in absolutes: either a shrew or a
victim, a bitch or a victim, a ball-buster or a victim.

We have plenty of stories where male protagonists fight
adversity and triumph over it, with dedication, with fists, with spiritual and
intellectual epiphanies that nurture individual growth. For female survivors of
domestic violence, we don’t tend to offer a similar opportunity for triumph. I
admire the number of women who have come forward to share their own stories
about how they experienced partner violence, but I also resent the fact that the
media still often presents these stories like a series of broken sighs and
resignations, rather than a deeply heroic act.

Even when leaving is presented as strategic, it is still
presented as a victim’s last decision, the path of least resistance, the thing
the weaker animal does when it knows it lost. The Skyler at the end of Breaking Bad is a
shadow of her former self, forced to support herself off the ugly drug money
she swore she would never take. Walt meanwhile is given his swan song, his
bloody handprint a signature stamp on the top of his baby blue.

We forgive a lot of male bad behavior. We are primed to see male characters as awash in their own hero’s journeys,
where the choices they make fundamentally matter, where they are leading the
charge of their own destiny. When Walt bellows at Skyler, “I am the one who
knocks,” late in the series, audiences applaud how Walt has been utterly
transformed. We see him as both menacing and brave, badass and brutal. In
contrast, in the world of the antihero, women have never been the ones to knock. We’ve been the ones to respond to that
knocking, the girls who end up dead in bloody bags washed to the shore, the
women condemned to stand by their man, or the women finally saved by a good

This isn’t necessarily true in all media representations of
women. One of the reasons Buffy the Vampire Slayer succeeded as a feminist T.V. series is that although Buffy was
sometimes victimized, she was never ultimately portrayed as a victim. Her
response to trauma was complex and multifaceted, but she was consistently
portrayed as someone who is a survivor, rather than a victim of circumstances
beyond her control. In the same way, The Hunger Games’ Katniss’s greatest asset was not simply her skill at using a
bow and arrow, but her sheer resilience in the face of evil. 

Of course both of these stories are the domain of fantasy,
rather than the gritty realism we are supposed to see on any number of
antihero-centered T.V. dramas, genuinely brilliant, riveting shows, where,
nonetheless, female characters are often created in order to be broken. It’s time for women (and men) to start pushing back harder against narratives
that flatten female characters into either villains or victims of circumstances
beyond their control, and demand that female characters
are afforded a chance at redemption. I want a story that doesn’t end with death or leaving,
a world where we expect female protagonists, even those who experience violence
and pain, to ultimately carve out a new future.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
. She is currently writing her first book.

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