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Fans join in wife-bashing on 'Walking Dead,' other AMC series

On 'The Walking Dead,' 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad,' unpopular first wives are treated cruelly, and followers of the shows apparently enjoy watching the women suffer while their antihero partners commit worse behavior.

December 06, 2012|By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times

The phenomenon frightens and perplexes series creator Vince Gilligan. "Skyler compared to Walt is Mother Teresa. She's the hero of that duo, yet so many viewers are saying, Man, I wish she could get bumped off, killed off or otherwise get out of his way so he can really break bad," he told The Times in an interview earlier this year. "I want as many people as I can to watch the show, but wow, I hope I'm not living next door to any of them."

On "Mad Men," the disconnect between writer and audience is less clear. In interviews, series creator Matthew Weiner has expressed a measure of sympathy for the emotionally stunted housewife played by January Jones, describing her as a "wasted resource" and a tragic product of her time. But in practice, Weiner seems less charitable to Betty, rarely portraying her in a flattering (or even sympathetic) light. This unforgiving attitude stands out all the more given how sensitive "Mad Men" is to the struggles of its other female characters, Joan Harris and Peggy Olson.

As a result, there was something almost cruel about the "Fat Betty" spectacle. "They've designed Betty as a character you're supposed to react against. Even if you wanted to be sympathetic, it triggered in you as a viewer this kind of 'Ha-ha!' Nelson reaction," says Nussbaum, referring to the bully from "The Simpsons."

Like Skyler and Betty, Lori is guilty of sleeping with a man other than her husband, although her dalliance with Shane hardly qualifies as infidelity: At the time it occurred, she believed Rick was dead. Nevertheless, it was enough for some fans to label her a "whore" and to interpret her death during childbirth as an act of divine justice.

Ultimately the biggest problem for the wives of AMC may also be the most intractable: "Women are socialized to identify with both male and female protagonists, but I don't think men are socialized to identify with female protagonists. When they are asked to do so, they rebel," argues Holmes.

While this may be true, women are among the most vocal AMC wife-bashers out there, especially when it comes to poor old Betty. And with the rise of troubled female leads like Carrie Mathison on "Homeland" or Hannah Horvath on "Girls," the language of television is gradually beginning to change, Nussbaum says.

"It doesn't have to be this kind of toggle switch between somebody who's empowering and somebody who's annoying. Once you open up the floodgates to bad female behavior, it's good for everyone," she adds.

meredith.blake@latimes.com

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