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Breaking Bad and the critique of masculinity - The Ex-Communicator

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September 13th, 2011

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12:54 am - 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.’

(8 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2011 08:40 am (UTC)
I love this post.
[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2011 09:10 am (UTC)
Oh thank you. I couldn't sleep last night and I had to get it off my chest.
Date:September 13th, 2011 11:40 am (UTC)
I haven't watched the last episode yet, so I skip the spoiler part as best as I can, but I you nailed something I keep thinking ad saying: BrBa is a tale of men and of relationships among men. I don't think it's about diminishing female characters, it's just, it's a men's world. Jesse's journey -my favorite story of my favorite character- is a journey toward manhood. What kind of manhood, that's the question for me. Granted, he's also the prize between two wannabe alpha males. And I cannot help noticing how Max and Jesse share the same kind of beauty: boyish, delicate and vulnerable. Personally, I'm not bothered by the erotic subtext. One of the show's references is obviously Reservoir Dogs, and in terms of relationships Jesse is more and more Mister Orange and less Mister Pink. Tarantino admitted the homosexual implications of the White/Orange relationship. It's still the world of western movies, the world of Greek and Latin warriors... Women can be used for reproduction sex but love and eroticism - that is, trust-, that's a matter between alpha and beta males.
BrBa's world may be less openly and less harshly macho than that, but it is a detailed study on testosterone and its -ominous- consequences nonetheless.

Excuse me for being so lengthy!
[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2011 12:53 pm (UTC)
It's great. I can read forever on this subject.

I agree Jesse is definitely more Mr Orange than Mr Pink, in terms of the Reservoir Dogs characters. I think 'Pink' is used to identify him even more clearly as the femme (whereas 'Mr White' is 'Mr White' as you say). Colour is a major signalling tool in Breaking Bad isn't it - some people find it annoying, I personally like it. It's so upfront that you can't feel manipulated. Like Marie's compulsive purpling of everything.

On what you say about the Greek or Western model of male relationships. I agree. I would say that some societies are distorted by the impossibility of equal relationships between men and women, putting all the emotional eggs into m/m bonds. Breaking Bad is set in a society which is more complex, and in flux, but as you say it concentrates on the relationships between men.
[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2011 12:58 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen S4 yet but I've been reading about it. I think that the women play a smaller part because BB is an aquarium view of exotic stuff tht only men are stupid enough to get themselves mixed up in.

Also, an intense involvement between men can be non-sexual (or not just sexual) if one man sees the other as having a chance to replay his own life, so Jesse is, along with everything else, Walt's and Gus' MarySue.
[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2011 01:08 pm (UTC)
I think partly the concentration on men is a reaction to the intolerance of some of the audience to female characters. On the BrBa discussion forums there are a lot of comments bemoaning any scenes with Skyler in them, as a waste of precious time. Tough on Anna Gunn.

In Mad Men the response to the hatred of the wife was to make her worse. I think in BrBa she has got better, and more interesting.
[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2011 01:24 pm (UTC)
Betty Draper (ummm, can't remember her new husband's name) became more conventional and adopted societal norms even further than before, whereas Skyler now Aims to Misbehave.

I find that Anna Gunn's wandering-around-in-a-fog performance makes it hard for me to sympathize with Skyler, but that's my reaction to one actor rather than to Womanhood as an institution. I don't really like Bonnie Bennett on VampDi, not because I believe women of color shouldn't be witches, but because I think the actor is very bland.
[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2011 02:27 pm (UTC)
Yes. I think female actors more than male are recruited to a narrow type, and that means they can be dull. It is difficult, because I want to root for the female characters but they are often so bland and conventional.

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