“Live Free or Die”

In The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels and Stuart Rachels begin the chapter on “Feminism and the Ethics of Care” by pointing out that the assertion that men and women think differently has historically been used to subjugate women:

Aristotle said that women are not as rational as men, and so women are naturally ruled by men. Immanuel Kant agreed, adding that for this reason women “lack civil personality” and should have no voice in public life. Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to put a good face on it by emphasizing that men and women merely possess different virtues; but, of course, it turned out that men’s virtues fit them for leadership, whereas women’s virtues fit them for home and hearth.12

They go on to point out that while a “principles” (justice) perspective and a “caring” perspective are not, of course, inherently male or female, they are typically framed in that way. As mentioned before, the “caring” perspective, as illustrated by Amy’s response to the Heinz dilemma, was seen by Kohlberg as evasive or lacking in development according to his Stages of Moral Development, a fact which itself proves the bias toward traditionally “masculine” approaches to ethical dilemmas. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler points out that “gender proves to be performative.”13 Breaking Bad does not fall into the trap of constructing characters out of tired molds. Archetypes are present, yet the characters’ complexities and motivations suggest a dismantling of the framework by which we normally view male and female characters. The feminism of Breaking Bad exists in examining the ways patriarchy is destructive and how an ethic of care is ultimately the triumphant way to approach public and private life. Gilligan and Richards say:

Patriarchy’s error lies in wedding us, men and women alike, to a false story about human nature and then characterizing our resistance to this story as a sign of pathology or sin. ... But it is by looking through a gender lens that we are able to see the problem whole: not as a problem of women or men, or of women versus men, but rather a problem with the framework we have used in thinking about these questions.14

Skyler’s aforementioned ethic of care—her focus on communication, details, connectivity, and selflessness—is accompanied by intelligence and logical thought. She has a sense of justice, certainly, but not the blind mathematical justice that is so often fueled by pride and revenge. These qualities that represent an ethic of care are often delineated as “feminine” qualities, yet these qualities are not reserved for women. Feminist philosophers suggest that abilities for justice and for care are not opposed to one another, but can work together as a more robust approach to moral reasoning. 1 5 The patriarchal demand to separate and subjugate the feminine has historically diminished this approach, in which traditionally masculine qualities—in personality, behavior, and thought—are regarded as superior. Rachels’ commentary on the historical de-valuing of women’s voices (or feminine thought in general) contrasted with Skyler’s characterization help illuminate the abject hatred that many male fans directed toward Skyler.

Other characters offer more complicated combinations of justice and care. Mike Ehrmantraut is most alive with his granddaughter, Kaylee. While he attempts to make sure she’s financially taken care of, he also spends a great deal of time with her, caring for and playing with her. This is what is exemplified as love. Lydia Rodarte-Quayle’s actions—her attention to detail and her willingness to have anyone in her way killed (though she will hide her eyes)— are framed as being driven by her role as a mother. If she dies, she wants her daughter to find her body so she knows she didn’t abandon her (“Madrigal”). Lydia makes Walt swear on his children’s lives that she won’t be hurt, because she refuses to have her daughter go to some “group home” (“Dead Freight”). Walt, unmoved by her pleas, kills her eventually. The marriage of justice and care in these characters illustrates the attention that we must pay to the interconnectedness of lives—especially, in their cases, their care of children.

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