Chuck vs. Half the Human Race

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[1].  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trio, to kill Chuck, only for him to turn back at the last minute not because of loyalty but because his orders were rescinded, and apparently do not expect us to draw any negative conclusions from this about Casey, nor to care that his actions were never addressed or brought up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[2].  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[3], 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.

[1] Though it should be noted that shows like these have a very short half-life, and tend to collapse like a souffl√© 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.


Kate Nepveu said…
I haven't watched _Chuck_, but I will say that I thought the most recent episode of _Leverage_ ("The Bottle Job") was really quite good.
Anonymous said…
Thank you. You have articulated exactly why I stopped watching Chuck two or three episodes into the second season.

Oddly enough, while I'm certainly used to being hit with the way writers and directors (seemingly) unconsciously use the male gaze to tell their stories, I'd never felt so smacked in the face with it as I was by the point I stopped watching the show. And I'm not surprised to learn that Anna is gone. I loved the possibilities of her, but am not surprised to find TPTB didn't have the slightest idea what they had or how to utilize such a character.
Anonymous said…
I watch Chuck occasionally, but mostly when it's the only option, and have found that while it's on, I'm mostly enjoying it, but it fades from memory really quickly. None of the characters seem to have much staying power.

As for Castle, I think it's getting better and better, and is a pretty good example of a female lead who knows her job, knows she's good at it, enjoys that fact, and isn't constantly being one-upped by the male newcomer/sidekick (he's allowed to be clever, but not at her expense). I like the way the show does its secondary characters, as well.
Anonymous said…
I was wondering if you were going to mention Better Off Ted, which pretty much manages to pass the Bechdel Test every episode, and manages to have a major black character whose colour is completely irrelevant - except when it's the focus of a very funny episode that shows the writers actually think about this stuff.
Anonymous said…
"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."

You're not alone.

I would be really interested to read your take on "Mad Men" (should you have been watching).
Anonymous said…
I think this show is silly in a delightful way, and I loved the lead character. But I quit watching after the first season because of precisely the issues you raise here, and mostly because Sarah was completely blank.


P.S. Neat post title!
ibmiller said…
As much as I enjoyed the second season (because it answered my problems with Chuck), I have to agree about Sarah. I have immense respect for Yvonne Strahovski's talents as an actress, but wish she could get a role worthy of her talents (part of me wants to see if she could get a part in a BBC show or miniseries). And much as I love Adam Baldwin (and he is the reason I both started and kept with Chuck for a long time), I think he deserves more to work with as well.

I don't know exactly what I feel about the show now - I loved the last five episodes of the second season, but my interest has kind of supercooled in the intervening extremely long hiatus, and I'm not sure when I will get around to catching up with the third season.
Kevin said…
Strong and varied female characters abound on Showtime- Nancy, Celia, and Pilar on Weeds, Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon on The Tudors, Jackie on Nurse Jackie, Tara on the United States of Tara... and Sookie Stackhouse in HBO's True Blood as the anti-Buffy, forced to use her psychic gifts and charm in lieu of superpowers.
Red said…
thank you for such a well thought out post. I want to like Chuck but never really got around to watching it. Sad that Anna Wu was cut. She's smart, showed she could kick ass and Casey called HQ so say he found a potential agent. And she's short and not-skinny and sexy and desireable; kind of how I like to see myself :) now, a show about Anna is one I'd like to see.
Anonymous said…
Y'know, I never really got into Chuck and I started to give it a try this season because I'd heard a lot of good chatter about it recently, and I just kept wanting it to be Jake 2.0, so I decided to rewatch that show instead. I don't know if you've ever seen it; it had one short season and didn't really get too deep in terms of plot of character development but to my memory it was much, much more satisfying on a fannish level. The premise is basically the same, with a nerdy guy getting superhuman powers, but the love interest is a geeky scientist and the no-nonsense boss lady and badass spy dude are POCs. It's geek on geek love! Who doesn't like that? The show still had its flaws, and it's entirely possible that it's just as iffy as Chuck and I'm just remembering it as being a decent sci-fi show, but I do feel like all the characters were pretty compelling. It's just weird that they're such similar shows, and one failed and the other lingered and had success.
William B said…
Terrific analysis. I think the most recent episode--"Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler"--continued the trend. Certainly there's more than a little fanservice for the main demographic of straight male geeks (and I am a straight male geek, so I am not excusing myself from the show's target audience), with scantily clad women with giant guns at a gun show and Sarah at different points wearing a tight-fitting "Frak off" shirt and next to nothing in attempts to seduce guest star Manoosh. The latter has an in-story reason, although it seems as if the story, which draws explicit parallels between Chuck's attempts to befriend Manoosh and Sarah's attempts to seduce/befriend Chuck back in season one, would have been better served by having the Manoosh character be a lonely nerdy *female* genius for Chuck to seduce, which would have required the acknowledgement that girls can be geeks besides on top secret missions.

Hannah, in her first episode after moving to Burbank, CA more or less entirely based on a friendship/possible romantic attachment to Chuck on an airplane, has the all-important role of having the various male characters, including the guest star Manoosh, be attracted to her, as well as being apparently the way Morgan finds out that Chuck went to Paris. And I think we're supposed to take Jeff, Lester, and Morgan's stalking of her as, if not "normal" behaviour, certainly "cute." The paternalistic attitude taken by both Chuck and Devon in trying to find covers for their spyness (Chuck actually touches Hannah on the nose, Devon pulls out the "obey" clause of the marriage) were acts of desperation, but Hannah more or less accepted it. Ellie's take on Devon's assholishness is harder to be sure of right now, as she is at least seeming to take an active role in the narrative at the end of the episode by looking into Chuck with Morgan, though it's the latter who still takes lead. On all of these there's the potential for the show to actually confront the implicit assumption of the characters, but so far there's been little indication that will happen.

(This reminds me of the show's treatment of Casey's and the spy world's violation of basic human rights. Last week, in a move that made no character sense whatsoever and seemed to exist in order to provide an admittedly amusing THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE reference, Casey brainwashed Lester to be a better Buy More employee. This is treated about the same way the show always treats the Buy More material, or Casey's gun fetishes, but usually this does not involve breaking into someone's house and brainwashing them.)

Ironically, in this episode Chuck and Manoosh bond over "Y - The Last Man," in which a plague wipes out the male population of the planet (save for the protagonist and his pet monkey)--a narrative mostly driven by women.
Richard Morgan said…
Good call, Abigail. Never seen the show, will make strenuous efforts to avoid it now, but you're right about it being just one symptom of a massive retrograde slide in female roles in popular fiction (Twilight/True Blood anybody?)

Have you read Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream? Pretty incisive analysis right there of how women in the post-9/11 world were put on notice; get back to home-making right now, lest we lose our masculine sense of self.

Some scary shit.
Anonymous said…
I've watched the majority of Chuck, but there had always been something that bothered me. Your post summed it up nicely: the show does not embrace its own campiness, and as a result the balance between drama and comedy is just not there. The characters and situations are not real enough to care about, yet not zany enough for parody; Chuck is in a weird no man's land.

You've also nailed the Sarah/Chuck relationship. Obvious chemistry, absolutely no meaningful substance behind the infatuation. Perhaps that's what the writers, or the self-professed geeks who love it, think constitutes the perfect relationship? The more that I think about it, the more annoyed I actually get.

As for your despair concerning the TV landscape when it comes to genuinely strong female characters, I have encountered one show in recent times that gives me hope. It comes in the form of an animated series titled Avatar: The Last Airbender (not related to the Cameron flick). It is primarily aimed at a younger demographic, but the show, through its three seasons, is not only a showcase for consistent, deep, meaningful, epic storytelling, but also boasts no less than SIX female characters playing crucial heroine and villainess roles with their own personalities and motivations, and are equal to or better in physical and mental prowess when compared to their male counterparts and companions.

The show, in my opinion, stands up to any live television shows, in character development, story arc, mythology construction, and thematic exploration. Check it out. You won't regret it.
Anonymous said…
I believe that most of the "flaws" in the show have been answered in later should check back up with Chuck. Also, I believe this show is more for kids; therefore, the show is not going to be that intellectually pressing. You may be to old for this show or you are just reading into it to much.
Anonymous said…
I encourage people not to take someone else's word and to find their own opinion. This show may be satisfying to you...

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