Not Just an OTP: Skyler Whites, Girl Fridays, and Taylor’s Problematic Lyrics

The Skyler White and the Girl Friday occupy different positions in the narrative. The Skyler White is there to remind the hero that he is not perfect, to offer a moral balance to whatever he’s doing, and to remind him that his actions have consequences. Skyler herself had to point out how dangerous selling meth was, express anger about the fact that he’s subjected their family to such danger, and demand that her husband think about what he was getting himself into. In genre stories, the most important characters are often the Love Interest and Villain. They, in their own ways, push their heroes to develop in different ways. Sometimes, then, the Skyler is going to be the antagonist for a little while. The problem is that Walter is the hero, and we identify with him. We want him to keep selling the drugs, not just because the plot would be kind of terrible if he didn’t, but because we see ourselves in him. We live vicariously through him, succeeding where he does and failing where he does. Skyler gets in the way of that. She is the moral compass, yes, but she’s also stopping all the fun.

Therein, as they say, lies the rub.

Betty Draper and Carmela Soprano also received considerable hate for not being “supportive” enough.

The Skyler White punctures the fantasy. She reminds him that instead of a badass drug kingpin building an empire and providing for his family, he is a terrifying, brutal man who is quickly losing his morals and endangering his family. She’s reminding Walter that he has responsibilities, which isn’t something he wants to hear when he’s beating up drug dealers or taking out Neo-Nazis or giving thrilling speeches stating that he is “the one who knocks. Well, the same can be said of Laurel and Iris. Laurel reminds Oliver that he caused her long-term emotional pain for years, that he cheated on her throughout their relationship, and that he is the reason her sister is dead. She dislikes the Hood – because he’s a violent vigilante breaking the law and murdering people. Iris also punctured that fantasy. She called Barry out when he made her promises and let her down. She pointed out that it was very obvious he was lying to her and demanded to know the truth, refusing to back downWhen the Flash endangered her and Eddie, she told him to never contact her again. Laurel and Iris reminded Oliver and Barry (and therefore the audience) that, despite transcending their previous lives and becoming the saviours of their cities, they were not perfect.

So, to sum up, Laurel and Iris suffered from the Skyler White Effect, were at a disadvantage because they didn’t know of the heroes’ secret, and they were denying them affection and physical love. (It doesn’t matter that neither Oliver nor Barry resented them for this, or that Iris especially provided every other kind of emotional support. All that matters is that they denied the male protagonists something). These women had to walk the fine line between woman with emotions and superhero love interest, which in a genre that’s not as progressive as it likes to think, is no easy feat.

If you think about all this, it’s no wonder Olicity and Snowbarry were born. Felicity couldn’t remind Oliver of the person he was before the island – she didn’t know him then, so there was no emotional baggage. He didn’t lie to her about being the Arrow, so she understood his actions. She went along with whatever Oliver told her to do, while Laurel went ahead and did whatever she wanted. She was an attractive woman who did his bidding and promptly developed feelings for him as the seasons progressed. So even though he didn’t demand affection or sex from her, by virtue of her being an attractive heterosexual woman who spent most of her time with him, the promise was still there (and if you think I am exaggerating when I say that there were male viewers who most definitely thought this, please send me whatever you’re smoking).

Caitlin offers an almost identical example. She wasn’t lied to or let down by anything that Barry was doing, so she couldn’t judge him for it. Even though she doubted whether he could do certain things, she always worried about him and looked after him when he got injured, indicating again that she was always going to be there for him. Of course, Caitlin was mourning Ronnie at the time, but the nature of television meant we, as viewers, could just turn off her feelings because we didn’t see him much. Instead of just being written (or received, in Caitlin’s case, as Barry didn’t rely on her as much as Oliver did Felicity) as the Girl Friday, the woman in each ship was the anti-Skyler, both because they were explicitly written to support to the male hero and because of their position in the narrative.

Again, I have to say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Girl Friday trope. Who doesn’t want to be the Donna to someone else’s Harvey? She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s talented, and she’s often the most important person in the male protagonist’s life. And, of course, I have no problem if you identify with that kind of character and that’s why you shipped them with the hero. My problem is how it can turn sexist. Or, in the case of Caitlin, how the character isn’t really the Girl Friday at all – but is treated that way by fandom because they are the anti-Skyler.

The reaction to Skyler, Laurel, and Iris always surprised me. Of course, they were at times reckless, selfish, self-destructive, hypocritical, and made terrible decisions. But…isn’t that what it means to be human? To be a flawed character? Endless sympathy is found for Oliver, who cheated on his girlfriend and got a woman pregnant, cheated on her again with her sister, resulting in her death, and then came back to become a vigilante who straight up kills people, while telling her to stay out of it even though it’s her job to stop crazy men who shoot people with arrows. We can sympathise with Barry, who not only lied to his best friend for months but also literally bussed in other people from other shows to do the same thing. I sympathised with both of them.

Oliver had changed on the island and truly did not want to put Laurel in any danger, and he was trying to do right by her and the promise he made to his dead father. He felt remorse for his actions towards Laurel, and was trying to be a hero in the present. Barry watched his mother be murdered and his father go to prison for it. Joe and Iris were his only family, and Joe made it clear that he thought that Iris knowing would put her in danger. I’m going to ignore how mind-blowingly sexist it was that Joe kept making decisions about Iris’ life and concentrate on the fact that I strongly empathised with Barry wanting to keep her safe. Not only is she his best friend and his family, but she’s the love of his life. Plus it was nice seeing someone want to protect a Black woman without needing her to do magic or save a vampire. So even though I thought it was the worst decision he could make in that situation, I understood why he did it.

But people hated Laurel as if she’d put him on that island herself, not stopping to consider that she was in a near-impossible situation and reacting in the most logical way a person could. Instead, she was decried as whiny and selfish, as someone who got in Oliver’s way all the time. The same can be said for Iris, who was lied to by just about everyone in her life and prevented from trying to find out about it. She was called selfish for pursuing her interests, nosy for doing her job, and whiny for demanding respect.

When Arrow (which I stopped watching during early season 3) started, many were disenchanted with the Lauriver ship because of Laurel’s aversion to Oliver and the discovery of how he cheated on her with multiple women during their relationship. Many called it toxic and could not see how they could be together when their feelings were this complicated, at least at this point. However, there was also another factor at play. When Felicity came onto the scene and that ship was born, it was not uncommon to see justifications that Felicity deserved Oliver because she didn’t whine at him, she was nicer to him, and she never got in his way.

A similar thing happened on The Flash, where people decried Iris’ intent on writing about The Flash as being nosy and disobedient when she was told by her father, best friend, and boyfriend to stop. They said that she did not deserve Barry after she rejected him, and that because of what Caitlin had been through (losing her job and her fiancé, and then seeing him become someone else not in control of himself), Caitlin did. They also said that Barry and Caitlin had more in common, that Iris was not intelligent enough to be with Barry, and that her constant demands to be told the truth were abusive.

The problem is not disliking Laurel or Iris because you didn’t like their personalities. And it’s not liking a female character who was close to the hero and supported him, thus building up a platonic relationship that could turn romantic. The problem lies in the pattern that emerges, where one woman is decried for not being nice enough to the male hero even though she has no obligation to him, and the other is romanticised for literally revolving around him.

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