For about a year now I've been toying with the notion of a blog post about the show Chuck and the way it treats its female characters and viewers. I kept putting it off because I could never quite convince myself that Chuck--whose title character, a nerd with a dead-end job, somehow ends up with a CIA supercomputer in his head and is recruited to fight bad guys--is worth my, or your, mental energy. Chuck is a silly show, but not in a good way--not in the deliberate, meticulously crafted way of shows like Pushing Daisies or The Middleman, which commit wholeheartedly to their silliness and create an alternate world in which it is the norm, nor in the breezy way of frothy confections like Leverage or Castle, which skate by on charm and sharp plotting. Chuck is silly because so little about it actually makes any sense--not its premise, which relies on a definition of spying that out-Bonds Bond for unreality but continually denies its own campness, insisting that the spy characters Chuck meets represent the world's real workings; not in its characters, whose behavior and choices seem motivated mainly by the writers' need to maintain the show in its status quo of Chuck as a hero with a pathetic life and his handler Sarah as his perpetually unresolved love interest; most of all, not in the reactions it seems to court from its audience. This is a show whose writers, in their second season premiere, sent Adam Baldwin's Casey, the heavy in the lead trio, to kill Chuck, only for him to turn back at the last minute not because of loyalty but because his orders were rescinded, and apparently do not expect us to draw any negative conclusions from this about Casey, nor to care that his actions were never addressed or brought up again. The impression I get from Chuck is that its writers don't expect me to apply much thought to it, and it's therefore hard not to feel a little like a chump for doing so.
What finally did persuade me to write this post--aside from the fact that the show recently began its third season and has thus been on my mind--is how surprisingly popular Chuck seems to be in my corner of fandom. On one level this is perfectly understandable--Chuck is a Triumph of the Geek story and we're all geeks here, but I tend to think of the fannish writers I read as being rather savvy about depictions of race and gender, and yet the same fandom which has (with, it should be noted, some justification) a seemingly limitless supply of vitriol for shows like Supernatural, Stargate: Atlantis, and Dollhouse, is giving Chuck a free pass. And, if on the race front the worst that can be said of Chuck is it is depressingly in line with most of the other shows on TV--the only non-white characters in the main cast are one-note comic reliefs, the spy world is almost uniformly white, and people of color show up mostly in guest roles, which usually means that they are villains--when it comes to gender Chuck may very well be the most regressive genre series of the last few years.
Chuck is a Triumph of the Geek story, but that geek is always a man. The show doesn't quite plumb the lowest depths of No Grils Allowed geekish misogyny (except in scenes involving Chuck's colleagues Jeff and Lester) but it certainly buys into the notion of geekdom as a male space, where women are neither wanted nor welcome. The closest Chuck has ever come to depicting a female geek was Chuck's ex-girlfriend Jill, but she was both evil and significantly less geeky than any of the show's male characters. Chuck's writers would presumably try to spin the absence of female geeks--and the bewilderment and exasperation that most of its female characters display when confronted with geekish interests--as a compliment. This is a show that laughs at geeks as much as it laughs with them, and it portrays women as being 'above' that pathetic state. The problem is that that elevation is only skin-deep. Ultimately, Chuck is the geek's story, and though it may mock them, at the of the day it is on the geeks' side--to the extent that it often seems to equate geekishness with humanity, as opposed to the spy characters' inhuman detachment from normal life and normal relationships. This leaves women who aren't spies with no roles to play except the supporting, caretaking ones.
Chuck is a series in which the second most important female character, Chuck's sister Ellie, though ostensibly a doctor, spends most of her screen time concerned with domestic matters. She cooks and makes house for her brother and husband (also a doctor, at the same level of training as his wife, who is never seen cooking or making house), nags Chuck about getting a better job/girl/apartment, and spends most of the second season obsessing about her upcoming wedding. It's a series in which the third-tier female lead (Julia Ling's Anna, now removed from the series) started out as a fun bit character and was then relegated to the role of the much too hot girlfriend of an immature loser, and thus spent most of her screen time trying, for the most part in vain, to wring some semblance of a commitment out of a guy who never quite seemed to get how lucky he was to have her. On the one occasion that she wised up and traded up to a handsome, successful, and most importantly emotionally available man, he turned out to be a villain from whom Anna needed to be rescued. It's a show that has its own underwear-cam before which the female lead and any statuesque, former model guest stars (Tricia Helfer, Mini Anden) seem obliged to parade. A show where a major plotline in the latter half of the second season involved Chuck tracking down his abandoning father because, despite that abandonment, Ellie wanted him to walk her down the aisle, and yet neither sibling seemed to desire the presence, or indeed bothered to mention, their similarly abandoning mother.
Fans of the show might now point to Sarah, its female lead--a kickass superspy capable of felling men twice her size--as a counterpoint to all these complaints, but to my main Sarah is actually the crowning achievement of Chuck's misogyny. It's very nice that she's such an imposing fighter (and the show does on occasion give her some impressive fight scenes in which both the character and the actress appear to be breaking a sweat) but it's no longer the early 90s and it takes a bit more for a female character to be noteworthy or laudable. In more than two seasons, Chuck's writers have done precious little to develop Sarah beyond this type. Her sole defining characteristic is that she's in love with Chuck and he with her, though it's not entirely clear why beyond the fact that he's the male lead and she's hot and saves his life a lot. They've had hardly any conversations that don't revolve around their work or the thinly disguised fact that they love each other. Beyond wanting to be together, they don't seem to have any interests, wants, or desires in common, though that's mainly because Sarah doesn't seem to have any interests, wants, or desires at all.
Unlike the hyper-patriotic Casey, Sarah isn't a spy because of love of country, or the desire to help people, or even a fondness for kicking ass and taking names--she seems to take none of the pleasure that Chuck and Casey do in her physical prowess--but because she was blackmailed into it while still in her teens. Sarah's entire life, in fact, has been defined and proscribed by men--her father, who taught her to lie and grift and took her on the run when she was only a child (like Chuck, Sarah's mother has never been mentioned, was apparently absent from her life from an early age, and appears to have had no lasting effect on her daughter's personality and direction in life), the CIA agent who coerces her into joining the service, and Chuck, whose happiness and well-being are the only motivation powerful enough to spur Sarah into disobeying orders and making an independent choice.
The opening episodes of the third season take some small strides towards giving Sarah a personality (albeit one that still revolves around her love for Chuck) when they have her express a desire--she asks Chuck to run away with her--and then freeze Chuck out when he refuses her, but it's a rather nasty, selfish personality. After two years of mixed signals and stalling, Sarah says 'jump' and is furious that Chuck doesn't ask 'how high?', and seems genuinely affronted that Chuck, who turns her down because he wants to train as a spy, wants to make something of himself instead of spending a life on the lam with her, cut off from his friends and family. There is, of course, a story to be told here, about a person who has spent her life tamping down her true self and sublimating her desires to the needs of others, who suddenly finds herself wanting something and possessing power over someone, and has to learn in a hurry how to use that power and express that desire honorably, but Chuck doesn't seem interested in telling that story. It won't even pay Sarah the respect of recognizing how flawed she is and giving her room to address those flaws.
The show nearly gets away with this because Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have great chemistry, and on those rare occasions when the interactions between them are allowed to extend beyond he pines puppyishly/she's aloof but secretly wants him, there's an exciting crackle and pop between the two characters, but the fact remains that this is a relationship between two people who don't know each other, want different things, and aren't ready to be in a serious relationship. Again, there's a potentially interesting story to be told here, but instead the show keeps piling artificial obstacles in the characters' path--she lies about her feelings, he breaks up with her because he wants a real relationship, an ex-boyfriend or -girlfriend shows up. The implication being that as soon as Chuck and Sarah cast off their inhibitions and the fraternization rules that are keeping them apart, their happily ever after is assured. This is insulting to Chuck as well as Sarah, but he at least has a storyline and a purpose on the show that don't involve her. Sarah's sole function is to be Chuck's love interest--a task to which she is apparently perfectly suited despite the fact that he doesn't know her, or that there may not be anyone there to know.
I've been pondering for a while the grim possibility that when it comes to depictions of women in genre film and TV, and particularly the kickass action chick types, we've spent the last couple of decades moving backwards. In films, we've gone from heroines like Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley to love interests like Megan Fox and Neytiri. On TV, we moved from characters like Buffy and Aeryn Sun (who in themselves might be called a step backwards, following as they did in the footsteps of professional, adult women like Kira Nerys, Susan Ivanova, and Dana Scully) to Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck, who had to justify her fighting skills and devil may care attitude with a history of child abuse, and eventually collapsed into a black hole of need and selfishness. And now we have Sarah Walker, who doesn't even have enough of a personality, or enough of a presence on her own show, to work up even this kind of ugly, reactionary portrait of a woman with physical skills and the will to use them, and whose life revolves around and is driven by the desires of men. Meanwhile, female-centric efforts like The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and well-intentioned, interesting failures like Dollhouse, are cancelled. I'm used to thinking of genre as the place to turn to for interesting depictions of women, for stories that let them be skilled professionals or warriors without losing their femininity or their ability to define it as they see fit. Looking around the (admittedly rather depleted) genre scene today, I'm not seeing those characters--just personality-free blanks like the entire casts, male and female, of shows like V and FlashForward, or professional love interests like Sarah. The best show for depictions of women as people in their own right these days is The Good Wife, with a wide cast of varied, smart, interesting women, all with their own agenda and their own personality. Perhaps the writers of Chuck should be taking notes.
 Though it should be noted that shows like these have a very short half-life, and tend to collapse like a soufflé the moment their plotting slackens. I don't watch Castle regularly so I don't know how it's doing, but Leverage reached this point after a mere season.
 Ironically, Casey's own life was spared in the second season finale because the colleague-turned-traitor who had him in his gunsight wouldn't take the life of someone who had saved his.
 Though for my money, if you're looking for shows for and about geeks, you'll get a lot more bang for your buck from (the unjustly canceled) The Middleman, or (the soon to be unjustly canceled) Better Off Ted, or even Leverage.