Review: Masculinity in Breaking Bad

Masculinity in Breaking Bad edited by Bridget R. Cowlishaw
Masculinity in Breaking Bad
edited by Bridget R. Cowlishaw

Title: Masculinity in Breaking Bad
Author: edited by Bridget R. Cowlishaw
Published: 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0-7864-9721-8
Publisher: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers

Watching Breaking Bad was one of the most entertaining times in my life.  Such fantastic story-telling about a wimpy high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer and needs to find a way to support his family after his death.

Walter White goes from chem teacher to badass drug kingpin in the course of the series.  There are no truly likable characters in Breaking Bad, but there are sympathetic characters.  Characters with which we can identify in some way because of their circumstances.  Sympathizing does not mean liking, it’s the simple recognition of, “Yep, been there.  Understand what you’re doing bro.  My choice was different, but you be you.”

Masculinity in Breaking Bad is what happens when a bunch of liberal arts Ph. D.s, each with a particularly granular specialty, look deeply at the male characters.  It can be a dense read.

This is not to say it’s not an interesting read.  There are multiple ways of exploring the themes of Breaking Bad, and masculinity is an obvious one since the story is male-driven, and centers on one man who is forced to redefine himself because of his diagnosis.

Eight essays, and two round table discussions, cover the topics from Walt’s fatherhood, manhood, business acumen, and legacy to my favorite, “Men in Control:  Panopticism and Performance.”  Basically, Jeffrey Reid Pettis uses French Philosopher Michel Foucault‘s theory of panopticism (in Discipline and Punishment) to the use of surveillance, and reactions to surveillance, in Breaking Bad.

Panopticism is a fascinating concept in which a prison is built in such a way that everyone (including staff) can be under surveillance at any time.  When there is no way to know when an individual is being watched, he begins to perform as though being watched.  Here, Pettis delves into the performance art which comes out of the knowledge each character has that he may be watched.

It is a rich essay, dense and chewy.  But the concept of always being watched is one of which none of us is completely unaware.  How does Walt react to knowing this?  What lengths does he go to show those he imagines watching that he is “the one who knocks?”

While I did find Masculinity in Breaking Bad interesting in many ways, I can only recommend this book to those truly interested in this type of close reading  and, who don’t mind working for their read.

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