According to the calendar I possess, Monday of this week, August 26, was Women’s Equality Day in the U.S.
Indeed. The day was preceded by two interesting blasts in the entertainment world relating to women, how they are perceived, how the personae they use are presented and how the public reacts to them. The two figures in question are the character Skyler White on Breaking Bad and the actor/singer Miley Cyrus.
Combine the two and there is a whiff in the air, I think. The whiff of hypocrisy, some might say. I ask you: Why is the actor Anna Gunn being praised for calling out sexist haters of her character on Breaking Bad, and yet Miley Cyrus is condemned for being as raunchy as she wants?
Writing in Saturday’s New York Times, Gunn, – who plays Skyler, wife to central Breaking Bad character Walter White – described her horror at discovering so much online hatred for the character, which has been transformed into an unsettling hatred aimed at Gunn herself. She says that Skyler has “become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women.” Gunn also says that the haters tend to express themselves with outright misogynistic language.
Mostly, as Gunn notes, the vitriol exists because Skyler is a complex figure. Initially submissive and merely wary of Walt’s secret life of drugs and violence, she began to find her backbone and eventually stood in the way of Walt’s more outrageous acts and antics. This, as some haters see it, means she’s a “buzzkill.” As Gunn notes, “Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.”
Fair enough. Gunn has been widely praised for raising the issue, and it has become part of the conversation about an important, era-defining TV series that’s largely about male anti-heroes. Too many female characters are background figures, much less complicated, angry and tortured than the leading male figures. That’s the gist.
Gunn’s piece in the Times was still being hotly discussed online when along came Miley Cyrus, 20 years old, to the MTV Video Music Awards, performing a rollicking, camp-sexy rendition of her song We Can’t Stop. She simulated various sex acts solo and then disrobed to a flesh-coloured bikini and simulated other sex acts with Robin Thicke.
Apparently this was a sign of the looming apocalypse. The shock and awe expressed by everyone from the live audience to those arbiters of cultural complexity, the Parents Television Council (PTC), beggars belief. What’s even more outrageous is the fact that even those commentators who mock the PTC’s fulminations tend to describe Cyrus’s performance as “weird.”
Yeah, it’s weird that a 20-year-old woman would have some cheerful, surging self-awareness about sex and pleasure and feel free to express it. Stone her!
You have to wonder if those who are perplexed by Cyrus ever leave the house. Have they ever seen a gaggle of 20-ish young women out on the town for the night? Do they know that a 20-year-old woman can express her sexuality any darn way she chooses?
Here’s the thing: There’s a consensus that the character of Skyler White should certainly be complicated, difficult, strong and free, and that the online hatred is wrong-headed. At the same time, there’s a consensus that Miley Cyrus is weird or disturbed or a fool to express herself as she pleases.
Much of this strange, hysterical and hypocritical thinking happens online It’s a lesson to us that no matter how often Twitter tells us that it has revolutionized communication, it really just enables a mass of blockheads to bleat incessantly.
And it also reminds us that, in American culture, there is a deep-seated discomfort with strong women, a discomfort that deepens when a woman’s sexuality is involved. Women’s Equality Day is on August 26 because women in the United States were given the right to vote on that day in 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was signed. Almost a century later, a lot of other issues remain unresolved.