The first episode of Breaking Bad shows masculinity in crisis, and how this affects the social status of the characters within the show.
The protagonist is Walter White, a middle-aged high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer and is left with nothing left to lose. In the first scene where we meet him, he is filming himself in a video for his family in the event of his death, though we do not know what he’s done at this point. While he is filming himself, he covers the camera with his hand and begins to cry. This shows how he is ashamed of himself but more ashamed of showing him breaking down emotionally. In the more stereotypical visions of masculinity, men are less prone to express their emotions so strongly or in this case cry. Walter wants to show himself looking strong to his family, not broken down. In a more stereotypical view about masculinity, it normally involves not being emotionally vulnerable. This is the first scene we see so it can be implied that Walter crying is means his vulnerability is getting the best of him and his masculinity is in crisis. Because of this, he doesn’t want his family to see him so weak.
Through out the episode, we see Walter feeling passive and out of touch with his family and peers. He feels he isn’t in touch with his masculinity which leads to people walking all over him. This depresses Walter. Walter’s depression with this issue causes him to neglect the people around him because he feels lost. It is his 50th birthday which gives Walter the fear of aging and losing respect. This is demonstrated in a scene where Walter is teaching his new chemistry class and no one is really paying much attention to him. He asks one student to sit back at his table to which the student responds by moving his chair slowly, causing a very loud screeching sound. The student has a sarcastic expression as he does this, showing no respect for his teacher. In this sense, masculinity is seen as the key to respect in this world. Walter feeling older and less important is due to him feeling he doesn’t meet the stereotype of being masculine. This stereotype is normally characterised as being physically strong, tough, in control of emotions and to be shown respect.
Returning to why Walter covered up footage of him crying, it’s all account of the masculine stereotype, a man who is not vulnerable. Walter wants his family to see him as a strong male figure and crying would show the weakness he’s always had around his family. In John Berger’s theory of gendered western tradition, he says that “men act and women appear.” This means that men are active and they are the ones who look at women while women watch themselves being looked at. Men take action while women see themselves as men see them, not as they actually see themselves. This does not apply to this case because Walter wants to appear to his wife like he is in control and not emotional. Walter knows people think less of him and that’s how he sees himself. He is always passive and does not take action to prove otherwise. When he does begin to take action, he subverts the expectations of others. Skyler on the other hand does take action in one scene where Walter is in bed and Skyler attempts to sexually arouse him. Walter, being too passive, does not respond or take action. This denotes the theory in that the show portrays that some men do not act and some women do.
In another scene demonstrating the respect that masculinity wins over, Walter is at his own 50th birthday party at his house. Walter’s brother-in-law Hank, who is a DEA agent is showing his friends his gun which gets him a lot of friendly laughs and people interested in him. A scene contrasting this is Walter’s wife Skyler talking to her friends about her pregnancy which in a similar way wins her the interest of others. This shows the different kind of ways the two genders win respect from their peers but the females in the show are given a more stereotypical reason, in this case it’s pregnancy. Hank does not exactly fit the more classic masculine figure as he is bald, quite short and chubby. His lifestyle, his proximity to death seems to be what people like about him. He’s also seen as the stronger male next to Walter as he is more risk taking and wields a weapon. Hank hands the gun to Walter who holds it passively and tentatively. Walter says he has never held a gun before and Hank replies, “That’s because it’s usually held by a man”, laughing. Hank is poking fun at Walter’s dominance and Walter does nothing about it. He lets Hank step on him that way. Walter is at his own birthday party, yet no one is actually respecting him.
Whenever Walter does assert his dominance, it’s explosive. It happens after Walter is diagnosed with cancer which might be why. Walter figures he has little life left now and if he doesn’t start asserting himself, he’ll die unnoticed. Whenever Walter does lash out, people get off his back. What masculinity being the key to respect here says is how in an older society, men have always had the pressure or expectation of having to be stronger, emotionally and physically. In older times it was more common for fathers to tell their sons to ‘man up.’ Walter is already a father, yet, it is he who needs to be stronger. In a modern social society, assertiveness and dominance can be seen as a way of winning people’s respect. It shows that a person has some self-respect, is confident and can assert their dominance when necessary. This applies to all genders but in this show, we focus on Walter coming to terms with that fact.