Firstly I just want it known that I have not finished watching this series yet, and I am currently nearing the end of season three. These are my observations from what I have seen so far.
Earlier today I was trying to think how to explain what Breaking Bad is and what it’s all about, when it occurred to me that I could sum it up in two words: toxic masculinity. What is toxic masculinity? I would define toxic masculinity as a perspective on culutre and society that shows men as being aggressive, emotionally indifferent, and powerful. For me, the series is about men trying, sometimes succeeding yet often failing, to live up to these impossible standards.
When we meet Walter in the very first episode, he is clearly portrayed as weak. He has a loving family and a stable job (as a teacher, which is often seen as a more feminine job), though he feels seemingly inferior to other men around him. To Walt, being able to provide financial stability in excess for himself and his family is more important than the more ‘feminine’ ideals of a happy family life and steady job. Clearly, manliness is defined by money and power, and often money leads to power. Saul memorably says to Walt that a real man provides, whether he is respected/loved or not, just because he is a man.
When Walt is first diagnosed with cancer he tries to hide it from his family, so as to not be seen as weak. He later refuses charity from Elliot and Gretchen for fear of being seen as less of a man, and feeling inferior to his old friend. Walt feels as though he deserves a fortune similar to Elliot’s and makes it his goal throughout the series to achieve that, by whatever means. He does not want to feel as though he owes Gretchen and Elliot. He feels as though he has failed both himself and his family, by not having the same finances, and does not want to be in Elliot’s debt for fear of losing even more of his masculinity.
Hank’s character is used to counteract Walt’s, especially early on in the series. Hank is clearly physically stronger than both Walter and Walter Jr, both of whom suffer illnesses, and he also has a traditionally more masculine job in the police force. He is loud, and brutish, and commands more attention than Walter. Though Hank does not know who is behind it, he is in a constant battle for power – Hank uses his strength, and Walt his wit. Both Walt and Hank cannot have power at the same time. As “Heisenberg” gets more successful, Hank starts to lose power and respect. For Walt, gaining power means taking it from others, and I think this is an especially dangerous aspect of toxic masculinity because everything becomes a competition. To gain power means to take it from others. When Hank avoids death or injury in El Paso, he is seen as weak and vulnerable. When this vulnerability comes out his life starts to fall apart. Hank also never confronts or accepts the PTSD which he is suffering after having witnessied the bomb in El Paso (amongst other things) and his need to always convey a fully masculine front prevents him from recovering emotionally. This is also damaging and we see all the ways in which it affects Hank.
Arguably Jesse is the most feminine of our main male characters. He cares a lot for children, and is seen crying more than once. These are both feminine traits. Jesse is constantly trying to live up to the masculine ideals surrounding him but he is frequently suffering because of this. His inability to reach the impossible heights of the portrayal of ‘real masculinity’ here makes him unhappy and lose everything in the process of trying. Jesse struggles the most to inflict violence on others, and I think, because masculinity promotes violence when a quest for power is concerned, Jesse is seen by other men as weak.
Toxic masculinity is at its most obvious in a memorable scene with Hank, Walter and Walter Jr, where Walter is insisting that sixteen year old Walter Jr can drink tequila with them. Hank tries to stop him from drinking too much, but Walter, sensing defeat, encourages Walter Jr to drink more so that he does not lose face. It’s a power struggle between Hank and Walter. Ultimately, Walter Jr continues drinking – an apparent victory for Walter – but then vomits into the pool, showing once again how dangerous it is to try to maintain masculinity in this series.
I also want to mention language here in the form of Jesse’s favourite word – bitch. This word is often reserved for insulting women, but it gets thrown about a lot in this series. I wonder if this traditionally female insult is used to reduce the men to being more feminine? Suddenly their power decreases when they are compared to women. Men do not want to be compared to women here and it is clear that they see themselves as completely separate.
As the series continues, I am led to wonder if Walter is really doing everything for his family, or if he does it in order to fulfil his position as a man in society. I think he feels as though he is failing to be a ‘man’ when we first meet him, and I think this is more important to him than providing for his family. After all, his friend Elliot would have been able to help his family if they needed it. It is more about Walter’s ego than his finances. Is Walter a ‘man’ now because he is powerful? He is certainly more powerful but he is absolutely not a better person for it.
Finally, do you think that Breaking Bad is a critique or a celebration of masculinity?
I’m going to watch until the end and see!