Friday, September 20, 2013

Masculine Identity in Breaking Bad

When Breaking Bad began its story, Walter White was a meek, under-achieving everyman who teaches high school chemistry to uninterested kids and who is diagnosed with lung cancer. We sympathize and we like him. Even when discovers a way to leave some money for his family (he assumes the cancer will kill him sooner or later) by cooking methamphetamine, we still like him because we sense a man pushed to the brink who is desperate to be a good husband and a good father, and that means, in part, taking care of his family financially.

As a fan of the show, I was horrified (for lack of better word) when Walt stood by and did nothing while Jesse’s girlfriend Jane died (end of the second season). Jesse is Walt's partner in cooking the meth, and until Walt decides to go big with his pure blue meth, Jesse handled the street side of things, setting up a ring of dealers to peddle their chemistry project.

Hank and Walt

Jesse is a former student of Walt's and for most of the now five seasons he still calls him Mr. White, and this simple act serves to support and reinforce the power differential between the two men. In large part, Walt (and later Mike) are surrogate fathers for Jesse. We learn a while into the show that Jesse comes from a well-off family where he has been the scapegoat or the exile - the one who holds most of the pain and raw emotions and often acts out as a form of rebellion against being exiled.

And Jesse is literally exiled from his family, who appear to have put him in rehab a couple of times, but have largely asked him not to come around. Which is why he looks to "Mr. White" as a kind of father figure, and also why he is the one of the two men who is capable of feelings and feels horrified by some the things they have done (especially the killing).

Gus, Jesse, Walt, Mike

I could go on and on - and one day I might. The relationships between the men on the show is interesting and worth exploration. The main dyads are Walt and Jesse, Walt and Junior (his son, Walter, Jr.), Walt and Hank (Walt's hyper-masculine, DEA agent brother-in-law), Jesse and Hank (enemies, who find common ground as the show draws to a close), and Jesse and Mike, (an enforcer for Gus, who was a major player in the drug trade, and who Walt eventually kills in his first power-grab - he also kills Mike, which is devastating to Jesse). Even the relationship between Gus and Walt is interesting for what it says about men and power.

For those who are interested in this topic, the below article was first published at Huffington Post and then at the Good Men Project. Also check out this article from NPR on Death and Walter White.

‘Breaking Bad’ and the Foolishness of Masculinity

September 20, 2013 by Pete Strauss

The male characters of AMC’s hit series deconstructed. Is male pride a destructive influence?

Breaking Bad is but a few episodes from completion and it’s hard to say anything about it that has not been said, but I bravely intend to do so anyhow. In recent weeks, there has been much discussion of the lack of strong female characters (which I personally think does the show a bit of a disservice), but not enough has been made of the show’s persistent and fierce criticism of masculinity that has permeated the show throughout the five-season run.

Walter White’s descent (or ascent depending on how you view it) from a justifiable anti-hero to a loathsome villain has been gradual. Vince Gilligan described the character’s transformation as “protagonist to antagonist,” and when we first meet Walter as the protagonist, he has lived a life forever repressed and stripped of the limited power available to him. His family affairs up until this point have been predominantly controlled by Skyler, he teaches chemistry to a largely indifferent group of teenagers and his brother-in-law Hank represents a cliched hyper-masculinity that serves to diminish Walt’s already lowly status further.

So when he finds an area in which he can assert dominance and power, his ego grows exponentially. The decreased empathy that we feel for Walt runs in tandem with his acts being less about selflessness or basic self-preservation and infinitely more to do with retaining power in an industry in which callousness and violence are prerequisites. Walt becomes obsessed with his manhood, even going as far as to purchase a car wash in order to spite the owner for a perceived slight that occurred sometime beforehand. The zenith of Walt’s egomania is perhaps typified with the memorable “say my name” scene. This scene exemplifies the transformation from the timidity and nervousness of Walter White into the arrogance and ruthlessness of Heisenberg; the conversion from protagonist to antagonist is complete.

Hank’s character starts life as a stereotype of masculinity, a jock. He subscribes to a largely outmoded but still prevalent criteria of what it means to be a man. At family gatherings, he frequently takes the time to emasculate Walt and assert a dominance within the family that had previously gone unchallenged in Walt’s pre-Heisenberg days. However, as the show develops, the characters develop as well, and before long, Hank becomes much more than a caricature, but rather a rounded, three-dimensional character. Perhaps more than any other character in the show, Hank is obsessed with the projection of masculinity; from his home-brewed Schraderbrau to his job at the DEA, he seeks to emanate a brashness and confidence. However, rooted in his masculinity are deep-seated insecurities and anxiety attacks that impede his judgement.

Hank’s sense of himself is almost completely based around basic tenants of what he views to be essential to being a male. His own masculinity is perhaps at its most destructive when refusing money for treatment that would enable him to walk again, which echoes Walt’s own refusal of monetary help for his cancer treatment from his former business partner. Masculinity in these instances is associated with a detrimental desire to be self-sufficient. Indeed, had Walt swallowed his pride at this early stage, then he would have saved everyone a lot of bother.

Jesse is by far the most tragic character in Breaking Bad. The initial projection of youthful overconfidence and independence gives way to a lost boy desperately in need of the father-figure that has been sorely absent in his turbulent life. At different stages of the plot, he comes to see Walt and Mike as paternal figures, but it’s his persistent reference to Walt as Mr. White that gives an indication of the perverse and manipulative relationship between the two. It is no coincidence that the character that seems most troubled with the morality of his actions is also the character that has long eschewed the facade of masculinity. Jesse is also one of the few male characters that seems willing to discuss his feelings and not act with the apparent indifference or stoicism of which Hank and Walt are both guilty.

As the series hurtles to a close, it is becoming very apparent that its creators seek to portray male pride as a destructive influence. The large yet fragile egos of all of the male characters at some point or another leads to miscalculations or seemingly needlessly vindictive acts. Time and again, the damaged pride and vanity of the male characters cause them to act without logic and—at their most destructive—extreme violence. Between Walt’s angry desire to be a “pursuer rather than pursued” and Hank’s desperate need to create the illusion of self-sufficiency, it becomes clear that masculinity is twinned with the wholly negative traits of the male characters within the show.

Originally published at The Huffington Post

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