Communicator (communicator) wrote,
Communicator
communicator

Breaking Bad and the critique of masculinity

This season of Breaking Bad has developed, as I expected, into a tug of war between Walt and Gus, over Jesse as the prize. Obviously I eroticise this rivalry, and I am comfortable with this reading being a personal one - my slash goggles - and not trying to argue that this is the real or central meaning of the story.

And yet, the use of language and the structure of scenes aligns very tightly to my idiosyncratic reading. And BB is a show where cinematic and script elements are carefully developed, so that meaning is conveyed at several levels in every scene. That's its distinctive characteristic as a show. So I feel tension which inhibits me writing about the show, because it seems ridiculous. It would be ridiculous to say 'This is a show written entirely around this crypto-erotic relationship which only people who agree with me can see'. But it would also be mistaken for a viewer hostile to my reading to say that 'You are reading too much into words and images which have no additional meaning.'

So, struggling with this tension, I conclude that the storyline aligns so well with my reading because the drama - like the viewer - is reacting to the exclusion and diminishment of the female role, by projecting everything onto male characters.

I am not speaking for all female viewers but I identify with male characters, and project sexual feeling onto male relationships, because the portrayal of female characters and m-f relationships is so unsatisfactory and unnatural to me. I think both men and women want equal relationship - or let me rather say a power-relationship that lives organically in the personal strengths and bonds of the individuals. Anyway, it's a big subject which I can't do justice to in a brief paragraph. Suffice to say: because of limitations in the role of women on TV most meaningful relationships have to be between men.

Amanda Marcotte wrote a piece recently arguing that the new ultra-quality TV drama which we are experiencing at the moment - Breaking Bad, The Wire and Mad Men - presents an account of masculinity in the context of the failure of the old ways of being male.

I agree, and yet these shows must develop that theme within an overall dramatic environment which dampens and cramps the female characters. How they deal with this tension is various.

In the case of Breaking Bad many of the characteristics of an abusive but intense relationship are dramatised and acted out between the male characters. I think this is deliberate. Writing in her own blog Amanda says:
My sense that they're being deliberate about their gender criticism was only enhanced in the most recent episode. It was implied in the final scene that Gus is gay, or at least bisexual, and that he was hardened when his partner and lover was murdered. It was simply implied; it may have been that they were just friends. But I don't think so. If I'm right, then they're doing something similar to "The Wire" in making one of the hardest characters on the show gay and queering the whole notion of masculinity. One that I'll point out that Walt is deeply invested in, both in the sense of his role as the patriarch who controls and provides for his family, and in his sense that by being a badass criminal, he's finally proven himself as a man in a way that he could not as a schoolteacher.

In the episode which has aired since she wrote this comment we have seen Gus invite Jesse to a private dinner, and Walt react with fury to this: 'Did you see Gus last night, did you spend the evening with Gus?' And this argument cuminating in Walt and Jesse fighting - kicking, biting, punching, bleeding. Virtually every review I have read concludes that this is the end of the relationship between Walt and Jesse. I don't think it is. I think it's an axe to the frozen sea inside Walt. If the relationship between Walt and Jesse were a conventional love relationship (regardless of gender) it would be impossible to free it and develop it through punching each other repeatedly in the face. It's only in the crypto-erotic context of the drama that these issues with violence and love can be worked through.

Or, taking it another way, here we have the anima - the symbolic female soul - embodied in Jesse - and the struggle of abusive masculinity to dominate and control that soul.

So, my conclusion is that Breaking Bad is big enough, and clever enough, to allow me my erotic reading, and not close it down. But more widely I think it is using erotic conventions as part of a complex palette of significators, to try to push drama further than it has gone before.

ETA and talking about the axe to the frozen sea, here is the full quote from Kafka, which sums up how I feel about it:
‘I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? ... What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.’
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