The Walter White Sliding Scale of Sympathetic Villainy and the Tony Soprano Litmus Test for Morally Dubious Main Characters

Imagine two characters.

One of them is a white dude. The other is a woman who may also be of color and/or LGBTQ. Both of them are doing dirt that involves morally dubious activities such as murder, theft, lying, abuse of power, or just being a jerk.

Guess which one is called bitch, evil, crazy, whore and stupid. Guess which one is interpreted as a layered portrayal of the complexities of human nature.

Yeah, thought so.

Why do you think that is?

Here is the point where I would prove how intelligent and articulate I am and give a long, drawn-out, non-threatening explanation without using scary words that end in “-ism” and “-phobia.”

But I didn’t make Ars Marginal just so I can beat around the bush and coddle people’s fee fees when the sure don’t give a crap about mine when they perpetuate this garbage.

Why does this phenomenon exist? Why does it happen so much?

Because sexism and misogyny, that’s why. With an added layer of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and/or ableism, depending on the woman in question.

“RVCBard, are you saying that sexism is the reason why people call Regina evil and crazy and say nothing about Rumplestiltskin?”

Uh, yeah.

“Are you saying that people call Cersei a bitch or a whore while not saying a thing about all the men doing the same dirt is just because of misogyny?”

Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

Rather than waste my time trying to convince people that gender does have something to do with this, I want to give people who already have a clue a little something to work with.

The first is what I’m calling the Walter White Sliding Scale of Sympathetic Villainy. You can check out Breaking Bad for yourself on Netflix or Hulu or whatever. The basic premise of the show is a chemist and family man who quits teaching to manufacture crystal meth. Despite this, he is the protagonist. The audience is meant to sympathize with him and, in many cases, root for him to be successful at manufacturing one of the world’s most addictive and harmful narcotic substances.

So when you find yourself disapproving of or repulsed by a female character, ask yourself: does she make crystal meth?

I mean this quite literally. I don’t care if crystal meth doesn’t even exist in the setting of the story. The question is the same: does she make crystal meth?

If you find yourself unable to sympathize with or relate to the humanity of a female character despite her wrongdoing, and she’s not making crystal meth, you need to examine your gender baggage.

That’s not to say you have to like or love every female character, or every portrayal of a female character, to avoid being sexist or misogynist. It does, however, mean you pay attention to gender, and not just to dismiss the likelihood of your responses to a female character reflecting the same sexism and misogyny that is part of the social atmosphere we breathe.

The question is not whether gender impacts how you respond to a female character, but how.

The second is what I’m naming the Tony Soprano Litmus Test for Morally Dubious Main Characters. I don’t think I need to introduce Tony Soprano or explain what The Sopranos is. But for the purpose of this post, I’ll just describe Tony Soprano as a mob boss who does mob boss stuff in the gritty, grimy real world instead of in glamorized Hollywood films.

The Tony Soprano Litmus Test for Morally Dubious Main Characters is pretty straightforward. If you see a female character doing something morally dubious, and you are about to call her bitch, evil, crazy, stupid, whore, etc.: STOP. Ask yourself: did I say this when Tony Soprano did it?

Even if you’ve never watched a single episode of The Sopranos, you know how popular the show is and how the lead character is a guy who has murdered people in cold blood, had people murdered on his orders, cheated on his wife a lot, treated women like crap, and didn’t like Black folks all that much either. A deeply flawed man who makes horrible life choices with varying degrees of remorse, or lack thereof. Tony Soprano was no saint, but people loved him or at least cared what happened to him anyway.

So if you see yourself labeling female characters in these simplistic ways, but had nothing to say about Tony Soprano, you need to examine your gender baggage.

When Tony Soprano betrayed people, when Tony Soprano killed in cold blood, when Tony Soprano did messed up mob boss things, nobody came out their mouth with how evil or crazy he was. When Tony Soprano had panic attacks, he wasn’t called weak, and he wasn’t called whiny when he went to therapy.

But when a female character does the same dirt that he did, she’s an Evil Crazy Bitch Cunt Whore. When she shows vulnerabilities like Tony Soprano does, she’s Weak Whiny Stupid Useless Just Go Away Already.

As I said before, you don’t have to like a character who makes a habit of doing morally dubious or just plain nasty things. That said, it’s always a good idea to look at how gender impacts the way we respond to characters who do things that are morally dubious or just plain messed up. Because if it’s “understandable” when a man does it but “unforgivable” when a woman does it, there is something to unpack there.

37 thoughts on “The Walter White Sliding Scale of Sympathetic Villainy and the Tony Soprano Litmus Test for Morally Dubious Main Characters

  1. or Dexter.

    Or you don’t even go that far to actual crime. Brilliant but arseholish male protagonists are set up to wow us at every turn – part of the “charm” of the various incarnations of Sherlock out there is that they have the social skills of a honey badger. The Moffat Doctor is similar. An intellectual genius who is “quirky” or outright rude is hardly unknown among male protags – but no way could a female protag pull it off without being stoned and pilloried

    • ^right? As soon as he comes back, Molly just needs to drop him off of another rooftop and make it stick this time.

  2. Reminds me of Rorschach from Watchmen. Paranoid libertarian vigilante nutjob who narcs on people with cancer over misuse of their cancer medications who is completely wrong about everything that’s happening, murders people instead of going through due process whenever he feels like it, and generally barges into places he hasn’t asked permission to.

    Oh wait, I just described a white male power fantasy, didn’t I? Shit.

    • Yeah. A friend lent me their copy of the book a few years ago. I ended up liking it, but I kind of hated this character. Such a needless asshole. luckily JEH was entertaining in that role.

      • Not entirely sure, but wasn’t that originally the intent, though, for him to be an unlikable character? Unfortunately he proved unexpectedly popular with people who didn’t understand how wrong he was, and spawned decades of imitators.

      • They were probably both meant to be unlikeable. I don’t think it’s the same thing as with Rorschach as much as fans seeing how much he “loved” Sally Jupiter and thinking that that ~redeemed~ him somehow.

  3. These guidelines are pretty straightforward, to boot. If people give drug dealers and mob bosses passes on being murderous thugs working the evil that men do, they really are in a glass house that means they shouldn’t throw stones.

  4. Oh, the humanity! (eyeroll) Complexity is the domain of whiteness and masculinity – particularly when the two are paired together. It’s the same old crap. They get to be human AND to be a “person” (and no, the two are not the same) even, or perhaps, precisely when they are their most inhumane. And their humanity and personhood are both inherent qualities AND guaranteed rights. Simply put – they never have to prove or validate their human status and personhood to anyone else, which means they are free to do what they like while everyone scrambles around to legitimise their integral humanity blah, blah. (The greater the brutality, the longer the screed of justification.) It must be nice for that kind of thing to be inalienable. Conversely, not only are the rest of us obliged to prove our humanity or the fact that yes, we are people, but we’re even offered the chance to ‘earn’ it…. usually via martyrdom or by being ‘magical’. (Then of course, we get dismissed for not being fleshed out or sufficiently realistic.)

  5. I find it depressingly easy to believe that there are people out there who have continued to view Walter White in relatively good terms, and thank my lucky stars that the people I watch it with and community I discuss it in recognise him for the asshole he is (and are just waiting for the cathartic thrill of everything blowing up around him).

    Although I do occasionally hear from my sister about certain… alternative perspectives that some of her friends have.

  6. Being a white male isn’t always enough to save your ass from all kinds of nasty hate though. One of my favorite characters is a white male villain who, over the course of the series goes insane and does end up murdering some people. However, he’s also very mentally ill and quite likely doesn’t even fully understand what he’s doing in the end. I find him sympathetic because of this.

    However, the fandom treats him as the worst thing ever and can get really nasty to anyone who dares say he’s anything other than Satan incarnate, DESPITE the fact that they treat other characters who’ve done similar and worse things with much more forgiveness (and sometimes even try to justify what they did or blame their victims).

    The problem with my guy, I believe, is that despite being a white man he’s also physical and mentally ill (he’s actually dependent on his sister as a caregiver) as well as being pretty effeminate. The other characters whom the fandom is more forgiving of are fairly active, masculine, and able-bodied. His failure to live up to what a man is “supposed” to be is what I believe induces such the knee-jerk disgust the (mostly male) fandom has for him that they don’t have for characters who’ve done just and bad and worse.

        • You mean besides the fact that you just made a defense for how white male characters get hated even though this post explains in detail why that isn’t the case, oh i don’t know.

          • Yes, and? Because like I said, sometimes being white and male isn’t enough to save a character from ridiculous, unfair hate. Considering the character in question is one I’ve loved for over 11 years I’m pretty familiar with all the hate he gets. I’ve been flat-out insulted more times than I can count for my opinions on him.

            Like I said, I’m pretty sure the reason why he’s treated with such a double standard is still because of ist things, because he isn’t able-bodied and doesn’t live up to masculine ideals. Ableism and heterosexism are very much things, yo (i.e. racism and misogyny aren’t the only forms of bigotry).

            • And who is this mystical character that is soooooo hated for being a white boy?

              “Because like I said, sometimes being white and male isn’t enough to save a character from ridiculous, unfair hate. ”

              and that right there is why i’m calling BULLSHIT.

              • But you did say: Because like I said, sometimes being white and male isn’t enough to save a character from ridiculous, unfair hate. ”

                Okay so now that you’ve wasted our time with your BS and derailing. Have a seat.

              • I know you didn’t bring up homosexuality or disability HERE of all places and expect it to help your point. and this post was here to talk solely about racism and misogyny, but clearly you were here on a mission from the get-go. STFU

              • because it’s something that’s frequently discussed here. and it’s pretty obvious what you’re actually here for. because if you really cared about the homophobia or ableist issue, you would have brought it up as a separate topic. but what you actually did, is come here, where we were already talking about certain isms and how it leads characters to be bashed for all the wrong reasons, and started talking about “well NO! THESE isms instead!”. nobody was saying that white people don’t suffer oppression for different things. but the whole racetrack analogy is a 101 discussion and you’re just mad that nobody wanted to stop what they were doing to cater to you.

              • oh and you wanted an example of why people think you came here to troll and derail? the whole “you guys said that white guys don’t suffer hardship” is a VERY common strawman that you’ve been throwing all over your comments. in every case of one of you using it, you never find any “SJW” actually saying it. but because they’re talking about an issue that isn’t yours, or in this case, talks about it, but not exactly when and where you want it talked about, then you get mad because you’re not the center of attention.

              • BOOBOO we’re talking about white male privilege here. So you trying to derail and evade with some other bullshit just pretty much proves our point on your white supremacy. And I noticed you’re not bringing up mental illness on posts where we actually discuss it, just on the while male privilege one.

                So have a seat, and I must insist, STFU!!!!

              • Yes tell me of all people about having disabilities and dealing with homophobia.

                I’ve never have had to deal with that in my day to day.

                And no we won’t be answering your questions. Because you refuse to read the guidelines which already break down why you’re fucking up. So seeing as you continue to derail, you are engaging in some full on white supremacy. So please kick rocks and go STFU.

              • Yes and It’s NOT ABOUT WHITE PEOPLE, has never hit a Bingo Board.

                And for all of your whining about our space.You’re still here. Because clearly no one else wants you. Imagine that.

                And yes, an aversion to educating your damn self, white supremacy,full stop.

  7. I’ve watched none of these shows, but it doesn’t matter one bit. This post is amazing…and I’m already finding myself saying, “But does she make crystal meth?” EXCELLENT, RVC!!!

  8. Somehow you continue to have an overinflated value of your opinion or what other people think.

    You complain about your opinion not being liked but you whine when someone counterargues yours.

    You tried to derail the discussion with cries of homophobia and ableism and when that didn’t work, you tried googling LIvejournal to find dirt on people.

    You attempted to derail the discussion here again and again.

    It’s too bad you didn’t bother reading other articles on this site, because we debunked that nonsense you’re linking YEARS AGO.

    We’re so 2008, YOU’RE SO 2000 AND LATE.

  9. This post is everything I’ve ever wanted whenever people are being dumb about females. I was in the fandom of a fantasy book series which has 7 engaging female characters whereof 3 are very minor, compared to a cast of 89782947382 men. I had to see some people talking endlessly about how the books would’ve been shit if there were more female characters, and harping on about how some of the female characters were “useless” and “stupid” and “bitches”, all the while showering especially one of the male leads (misogynic, racist, and just An Asshole) in praise and love for being so very complex. Basically ALL of this fandom was female. Needless to say, I ended up noping out of that.
    So yeah the next time I end up seeing this kind of stupidity in ANY FANDOM EVER, I am just going to link to this article and feel better about life.

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