I finally caught the “Breaking Bad” bug.
If I still kept a wall calendar above my desk, there’d be a thick Sharpie line drawn through this week because, thanks to that show, my productivity yield has been somewhere between very little to zilch Since Sunday, I’ve been making like General Sherman and torching my way through season after season and, to tell the truth, it’s been awesome.
Out of respect for those that haven’t watched the show yet but intend to, I assure you there are no spoilers in this article; well, none that are plot-related. For all current purposes, I’m more interested in a certain way in which several characters, uh, communicate.
Watching so many episodes in such a short amount of time does expose certain tropes that the writers use over and over. Jesse will always mess up. Skyler increasingly struggles against Walter. On a scale of one to ten, tension perpetually hovers around an eleven.
These details become apparent when you crunch so many episodes into a few days. Given I’ve been watching “Breaking Bad” in hyper-drive this week, another recurring detail has become apparent: what’s with all the crotch grabbing?
The crotch grabbing doesn’t have a grab-per-episode quota or anything like that but, again, cramming so much of the show into a short period makes some repetition like this very apparent. Walter breaks out a junk-clutch in the pilot and repeats the gesture in later episodes. Jesse does it at least once that I can recall (sorry, I can’t really commit more of my life to going through the series again and properly documenting all the crotch-grabs—not that I wouldn’t mind rewatching the show, but still) as does Walter’s brother-in-law, Hank, so I expect that the writers of the show get some kind of kick out of having the characters resort to this masculine physical retort.
“Breaking Bad” in no way is the first cultural touchstone to employ the crotch-grab as a means of communication. For the past thirty or so years, you could hardly watch Michael Jackson perform without him putting a hand or two on his privates. Albeit, the guys on “Breaking Bad” commit to the crotch-grabbing with significantly more gusto than Jackson; watching Walter violently grab at his package when he’s pissed makes me cringe because it’s as if I’m suddenly watching a man trying to auto-vasectomy himself.
It’s an odd thing to have the show’s male characters regularly resort to grabbing their respective crotches because I’m not sure I’ve seen another show where this gesture was in the common vocabulary. I didn’t even think guys still did this. Then again, maybe “Breaking Bad” is accurately reflective of how often guys grab their package as a means to communicate in a dispute.
Whether it’s Walter White or Michael Jackson or just that irate fellow who can’t figure out the U-Scan at your local grocery store, what is a man saying when he includes in a verbal response—if he says anything at all—a hard grab at his loins?
For one, it’s not a warm way to greet someone. I can’t think of an instance where the gesture wouldn’t be construed as a mechanism of anger intent on insulting someone. At once, it packs the punch of a middle finger but manages to include a more physically menacing message.
More than being a nasty way of expressing your disagreement with somebody, a crotch-grab in this context carries along the threat of sexual violence. It’s as if a man’s genitalia becomes weaponized when clutched in a moment of anger, an open declaration for the potential of violence. The act isn’t all too different from someone unsheathing a knife or opening up a jacket to flash a holstered gun: it’s meant to intimidate and dominate.
Staking one’s dominance with a public notice that, yes, I’ve got a dick and I’m not afraid to use it is a terrifying reminder that masculinity teaches men to expect pleasure without having to return the courtesy. Worse, masculinity also informs men that they’re guaranteed pleasure and it’s okay to resort to assault in order to secure it.
Returning to the example of “Breaking Bad” crotch grabs, characters tend to direct their interlocutors to their handful of genitals by typically saying something along the lines of “I’ve got it right here for you.” This doesn’t just happen in TV shows, though, as non-fictional men are also wont to say something along these lines. Again, masculinity demands pleasure and directs the target of the crotch grab to provide the pleasure.
As if that wasn’t gross enough, a further implication is that the target of the gesture has an unfulfilled need to provide pleasure to the prick-happy prick. A dude angrily grabbing at his junk serves as a reminder of his unchecked virility and what violence may ensue should he decide to, so to speak, unzip his aggression upon someone. Whether or not fisticuffs follow the crotchly affront, the goal of making the gesture is to feminize the person to whom it was directed. It might be a woman or it might be another man, but either way the angry crotch-grabber seeks to make others submissive by force.
While it might be easy enough to dismiss a man’s tantrum-born crotch-grabbing as juvenile—and this is certainly the case with some of Walter White’s more animated fits—the gesture has a more troubling and complex message. Whether or not the show’s writers intended it, the deeper levels of aggression and suggested violence inherent in the gesture fit nicely into the arching theme of “Breaking Bad.” That’s the nice thing about fiction: you can package lots of meaning into characters’ behavior.
In our real world, though, gestures like an offensive crotch-grab aren’t mere developmental devices so our viewers can deduce a truer nature of our character. Sexual violence might not be imminent with every grabbed crotch, but the specter of such a vile attack will always accompany the gesture.
We may be tempted to laugh off Walter’s desperate crotch-grabbing because he looks so ridiculous when he does it but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the real-world connotation of this gesture is not anything to chuckle about. Instead, each wince-inducing occasion that he or another character returns to this gesture perfectly illustrates how some of the most powerful things we say to each other don’t require words at all.
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