Breaking Bad and the male gaze

The nature of a sequence #3

By Ana Maria Sasu, Nicoleta Talpes, Kim Toft Hansen, 3 June 2024

Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-2013) is an American television series that has continued to captivate audiences since its premiere. Originally broadcast on AMC, the series is now available on Netflix, making it accessible to a global audience, including Romania. Romanian high school students in recent focus group interviews expressed a keen interest in the series, particularly boys, who cited it frequently. This blog entry introduces Breaking Bad as a series and explores its potential as a pedagogical tool in high school teaching to discuss gender dynamics and complex character portrayals.

For pedagogical purposes, it is beneficial to apply the “one series, one scene, one issue” approach, which helps facilitate focused discussions on gender issues through a specific scene from a particular series. In this case, we have chosen a pivotal scene from the third episode of the third season, which not only introduces key gender dynamics, including masculinity and family dynamics but also integrates these with the broader themes of the series. This scene highlights what has been termed “toxic masculinity” in addition to the complex portrayal of gender roles within the narrative.Breaking Bad tells the transformation story of Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer. To secure his family’s financial future, Walter turns to producing methamphetamine, embarking on a journey that transforms him from a dependable family man into a ruthless criminal mastermind. The show frames critical gender-related issues, including toxic masculinity, family dynamics, and traditional gender roles. Walter’s transformation is a central narrative arc, showcasing how a character can shift from morally upright to morally corrupt.

The male gaze perspective and structures of sympathy
Originally pitched by creator Vince Gilligan as a transformation from “Mr. Chips into Scarface,” Breaking Bad offers a unique narrative journey. Despite containing female characters, the series predominantly aligns viewer sympathies with male characters, particularly Walter. This male-dominated perspective, combined with the drug-dealing setting, creates a potent exploration of masculinity. The show has been described as a “fierce portrayal and criticism of masculinity,” presenting male and female propensities for criminality differently.

Interestingly, while Walter’s character garners sympathy despite his moral failings (through cinematic style and sympathy structures), his wife Skyler becomes an unpopular figure among viewers. This phenomenon highlights an “undercurrent of extreme sexism,” as noted by actress Anna Gunn. Skyler’s portrayal and the negative fan reactions towards her character serve as a critical point for discussing gendered character sympathy in the series.

Image 1: In the final scene of a third season episode of Breaking Bad (S3:E3), the perspective and the sympathy structure change from the female lead Skyler to the protagonist Walter White, indicating a male-dominated gaze on the problems addressed.

Pedagogical use of Breaking Bad in high school teaching
The chosen scene from Breaking Bad is especially suitable for pedagogical purposes, as it confronts difficult issues within a familiar family setting, offering a nuanced approach to gender dynamics. The scene shifts focus from Skyler to Walter, emphasizing their complex relationship and the underlying gender tensions.

In this final scene from the third episode of season three, Skyler arrives home after initiating a love affair, pressured by Walter’s emotional absence. The scene initially presents Skyler’s perspective, highlighting her psychological dilemmas. However, as she enters the house, the atmosphere shifts, with Walter cooking dinner and their son watching cartoons. This reversal of traditional gender roles places the female partner in a typically male role and vice versa. The scene ends with Skyler’s terse confession, “I fucked Ted,” leaving Walter bewildered and detached from his family.

Image 2: Breaking Bad presents an opportunity for high school teachers to address how structures of sympathy in serial drama are motivated by style and narrative presentations of characters, producing unintended gender biases in the reception of the specific series.

This scene provides an opportunity to teach various aspects of media literacy, including the concept of focalization, which refers to how a scene can manipulate viewer sympathies through cinematography and editing. The scene demonstrates how Breaking Bad playfully employs the “male gaze,” a term coined by Laura Mulvey, which describes how males in cinema are often portrayed as active agents, while females are passive.

Despite its male-centric perspective, the series offers moments that challenge traditional gender roles and expectations. Compared with Skyler’s assertiveness, Walter’s role as a “housewife” in this scene provides a platform for discussing the complexities of gender representation in media.

Breaking Bad serves as a valuable tool for teaching gender issues and media literacy in high school settings. By examining specific scenes and their stylistic elements, students can engage in meaningful discussions about gender dynamics, the portrayal of masculinity, and the unintended gender biases that may arise in storytelling. This approach not only enhances their understanding of cinematic techniques but also fosters critical thinking about societal norms and stereotypes.

Breaking Bad‘s nuanced portrayal of characters and gender relations makes it an exemplary case for exploring how media can reflect and influence perceptions of gender in contemporary society.

Parts of the above text has also been presented in the GEMINI report “Understanding young adults and gender equality through serial drama” (D3.1). The report will be available through the GEMINI website very soon.

Watch the full sequence from Breaking Bad through the GEMINI Facebook page.