Accomplished or Strong?


I read a blog post by Anna Gunn, the actor who plays Skylar White on Breaking Bad. For those of you who’ve never seen it, it’s a show about a high school chemistry teacher who finds out he’s dying from lung cancer and, to spare his family a huge financial burden, hooks up with a hood he had in class once to sell meth and save his family from financial disaster. Skylar is the main character’s wife, and the actor’s post was about her character and how people respond to it, plus her take on it. Read it here.
            I read the post with great interest because I really like the show, but what struck me was the discrepancy between the character the actor thought she was projecting and the character that I see as a part of the story as a viewer. She seemed to think that viewers didn’t like her character because she was a strong female, gutsy and a role model for women. Her idea was that viewers couldn’t handle a strong female character and thus didn’t like her. I honestly don’t like the character, but what was so interesting is that the reason I don’t like her is totally different from what the actor perceived to be the issue. Whereas she thought it was about a strong female people didn’t understand, I felt her character was completely self-absorbed, selfish, and unsupportive of her life mate. I’m a feminist, so certainly if this “strong” character had some quality that I could translate into something I could relate to, I would. However, she doesn’t.
When Skylar's husband tells her he’s dying, it becomes all about her and their family. She never once acknowledges that what he’s done was because he wanted to take care of them, and, instead, does nothing but chastise him for bad choices and putting the family in danger. Yes, he has done this; however, he’s also protected them from every attempt made to draw them into the underworld and even risen to the top of the drug world to make sure he’d not lose them. Skylar’s view of her husband, however, is that he’s a milquetoast, and she never gives him credit for his being the badass that he’s become. So, while the actress thinks she’s projecting a strong character, the way Skylar is written feels more like a woman who liked her husband weak, which he was before the cancer, so she could be in charge. That’s not a strong woman; that’s just a controlling person who spends more time looking out for herself than loving her husband.
I tried to like this character. I really did. And there were moments she was kind of engaging. However, even when Skylar has an affair, she treats her lover just like she treated her husband. Everything is all about her and no one else. That’s not a strong woman. That’s a selfish person, no matter what gender.
So, I guess I find it fascinating that the actor who plays Skylar thinks she’s portraying some kind of poster child for the modern woman when so many people don’t see it that way. It makes me wonder about my female characters. I know for a fact that at least one of them draws the ire of readers because of her low self-esteem, which is awesome because that’s the way I wrote her. She;s not strong at all, though she’s accomplished. She’s a mess when it comes to relationships and feels unworthy of being loved. She’s annoying because of this, but in the end she takes a risk on her lover and wins. With Skylar, you get the feeling that she never has loved anyone, except herself.
I guess the tricky part to writing engaging female characters is to make sure to not confuse accomplished and capable with strong. It’s a struggle all writers face. What do you think as a reader or a viewer or both? What makes a female character strong? Likable? Please do share!
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