Chuck Versus Professionalism

My latest favorite tv show is NBC’s sci-fi comedy Chuck, which delivers some of the things I love most in a show: an ensemble cast of quirky characters, wacky hijinks, pithy dialogue, and Adam Baldwin getting into fistfights. From a feminist perspective, the show gets points for interesting, well-developed female characters – but there are plenty of problems.

One of the main characters, Sarah Walker (played by Yvonne Strahovski), a female CIA agent and one of title-character Chuck’s handlers, spends a lot of time getting dressed and undressed on screen, and the camera work makes it clear that the audience is supposed to be appreciating her body rather than her disguises. This makes a certain amount of sense within the context of the show – Chuck (Zachary Levi) is the central character in most plots, and it’s clear that he is infatuated with Sarah – but it’s still objectifying and gratuitous.

Sarah is also in the middle of a love triangle (I know how much y’all love those!) which highlights a serious problem with her professionalism. She used to be romantically involved with her former partner, Bryce Larkin, and it’s clear (to the audience, and to her colleagues) that she’s falling for Chuck. There’s a big suspension of disbelief problem here. It doesn’t make sense that Sarah would keep working with Chuck. She knows there’s a problem, her partner, NSA agent John Casey (Adam Baldwin), knows there’s a problem, and with national security on the line it doesn’t make sense that these two professionals would compromise their ethics.

Of course, the Chuck/Sarah (/Bryce) dynamic is clearly meant to be one of the central concerns of the show, so the audience needs to just ignore the logic problems there in order for the show to work, the same way we need to ignore the ludicrous science behind the more sci-fi-esque concepts in Chuck.

But professionalism is behind another aspect of the show that I have been finding problematic. Sarah Walker is gorgeous, and she often uses her looks as part of her cover for various operations – which only makes sense. But Chuck’s reaction is consistently scornful. When she arranges to spend the night in Chuck’s room in order to hold up the cover story that they’re a couple, and dresses in a sexy nightgown – what a girlfriend would wear to seduce her boyfriend, in case Chuck’s housemates should see her, as she points out – Chuck reacts by suggesting that she’s practicing “the oldest profession.”

Casey is generally more pragmatic, reminding Chuck that being seductive is often part of Sarah’s job, but he isn’t above making off-color comments that will get a reaction from the jealous and disgusted Chuck when Sarah is working her wiles on someone. And in the episode “Chuck Versus the Undercover Lover,” where a former flame of Casey’s, Ilsa, makes an appearance, Casey is clearly revolted by Ilsa being willing to sleep with her target if that’s what it takes to get the job done.

Why is it, I wondered, that we only see the female spies doing the seducing, and why is it that behavior which is required by their job is met with such scorn?

So it was with considerable relief that I watched the latest episode of Chuck, “Chuck Versus the Seduction.” In this episode, a legendary spy played by John Larroquette, Roan Montgomery, must teach Chuck how to seduce a woman in order to retrieve an important item. For the first time, it becomes clear that seduction is one of the tools that all spies use, men as well as women, when Sarah teases Casey about having failed the “infiltration and inducement of enemy personnel” – or, “seduction school” – course twice while in training. And when it looks like Casey might have to be the one performing the seduction, he responds to the potential assignment with a simple, “well, duty calls,” with no hint of either lascivious interest or embarrassment.

Chuck, of course, is deeply uncomfortable with trying to seduce someone, and he only really throws himself into the effort when Sarah unintentionally hurts his feelings. He clearly sees the job as a way to act on some of his frustration and make Sarah jealous. But that’s Chuck, the civilian. In this episode, it’s finally clear that to the professionals, this aspect of the job is just another kind of work.

So way to go, Chuck! There was opportunity in this episode to indulge in a few more derogatory references to prostitution and slut-shaming-style comments from the male characters, but you didn’t go there. Now, can you address the love triangle thing…?

Comments

  1. Dom Camus says

    Regarding the Sarah Walker dressing/undressing scenes:

    You’re clearly right that the audience is supposed to be appreciating her body rather than her disguises. But whenever this objectification issue comes up in a feminist context I find it difficult to see how best to improve matters.

    See, here’s the thing: When a person of any gender and any sexual orientation is watching a visual medium they are going to want to see people they find attractive wearing as little as possible. And because this is something people will continue to enjoy regardless or how much improvement we may one day see in the levels of sexism on screen, movies will continue to feature it for purely commercial reasons.

    I suppose what I’m saying is: instead of being concerned at scenes of Sarah undressing, maybe we should focus on the sorry lack of scenes of Chuck undressing?

    That might sound like I’m advocating male objectification, but I honestly think objectification and nudity (even with a sexual aspect) are not the same thing. If a character of any gender is depicted as a whole person, with character and depth, I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with letting the audience enjoy their physical appearance as one aspect of that whole.

  2. says

    I’m pretty much in agreement with you, Dom, and I think that if there was equal screen time focusing on any of the male characters in their skivvies (personally, I’d advocate for Casey over Chuck…), the parts with Sarah wouldn’t feel as exploitative as they do now. I suspect that there’d still be some differences in the way the scenes are shot – compare any of the many sequences of Sarah in bra and panties, with the full lighting and slow camera pans, against the scene in “Undercover Lover” where Casey is sitting in near-darkness in his boxers and the camera focuses on his or Chuck’s face throughout the scene – but if the creators were really keen on making a show with equality in nudity, it’s certainly possible.

  3. says

    Also, it’s that there are so few shows that aren’t from some straight guy’s perspective. If we had more shows about straight women or gay men – and the powers that be got over their stigma against showing men as sexual beings rather than forces of sexuality – you’d have a more equal balance of these types of scenes, and the line between “objectification” and simple appreciation would be more clear.

    Another possibility is that we need more non-sexual nudity. If we more often showed nudity as just a fact of life, not always something for the camera to linger over in That Certain Way, it might help break down the connection TV always seems to make between nudity and sex. Nakedness can also be for putting on your unsexy PJs, getting into your unsexy shower, and even visually appreciating the body for reasons other than sexual (i.e., showing off the results of exercise or the scars of battle).

  4. says

    There may be something wrong with the formatting of your latest post. I couldn’t get the page to load past the headline at work earlier (IE 6 + weird firewalls), and now at home, the entire front page is formatted as a title (Google Chrome).

  5. Izzy says

    One of the few things Lois and Clark did right, back in the day, was devote a whole lot more time to Dean Cain undressing/half-naked/otherwise exposed than it did to Teri Hatcher likewise. At least in the first half of Season 1: I haven’t gotten much further because that show bugs me on so many other levels.

    I quite like gratuitous nudity myself, and I hardly think you morally have to give a damn about someone’s personality to appreciate his tight little ass (otherwise my morning T ride would be faaaar more boring than it is) but it’s the imbalance that’s the issue. If the world had more slow-pans up men’s exposed torsos, “oh it’s so hot in here let me take off my shirt so my muscular chest can glisten,” and so forth, I wouldn’t have a problem with showing off women’s bodies either. Everyone’s kind of an object to people who don’t know them well, and that’s normal and fine in theory (as long as you keep the “kind of” in there, because otherwise things do get bad) but the disproportionate female-to-male ratio, coupled with the “if she shows off, she’s actually a slut” thing for women, makes it a problem.

  6. says

    Tablesaw, the post was copied and pasted from Word, which apparently likes to throw in a mountain of garbage code for reasons I can’t imagine (which renders just fine in some browsers but not others). Once we became aware of the problem, Revena fixed it and now we know how to avoid it in future.

    Now back to our regularly scheduled comments. :D

    @Izzy, yes, that. Because of the imbalance, women are still getting clearly defined as the sex class. Without the imbalance, it would be a whole new ballgame.

  7. Kit Kendrick says

    Don’t we see an awful lot of Captain Awesome showering or semi-dressed? There was the shower scene in the season 2 pilot, as well as the tango lessons and the halloween costume in season 1. It seems primarily in the context of making Chuck uncomfortable, though, as much as courting the straight female gaze.

  8. says

    Kit – I was pondering whether to discuss Captain Awesome in this piece, but since I was trying to focus more on the seduction thing than the nudity, I decided not to go there.

    I think the way his body is treated in the show is an interesting borderline. As you say, many of his semi-nude scenes are about making Chuck uncomfortable, but the actor is so attractive that I can’t imagine anyone writing that material without intending to titillate viewers who are interested in men just a little (particularly in the case of the tango sequence, which struck me as both delightfully silly and pretty hot – and I’m sure I’m not the only viewer watching with my slash-goggles on). However, the lingering pans that Sarah’s body gets still aren’t present with Awesome.

  9. says

    After watching this week’s episode, I was really disappointed. We all know Chuck and Sarah like each other – no biggie. Maybe it’s not professional, but as you said – it’s part of what the show’s actually about.

    Except that now, Chuck is pre-dumping Sarah, for the job. Huh? Bryce convinces him to do it as some kind of be-the-bigger-man/do-the-right-thing crap, and all of a sudden, Sarah’s getting tears in her eyes. I was really ticked about that.

  10. says

    jen* – meeee too. Poor Sarah came off in that episode as ridiculously emotional, with all new lows of incompetence in her job. Blah. I think she has potential to be a really interesting character, but it’s like she’s stuck in a romance while all the other characters are in a caper film.

    I had lots of love for most of the supporting cast in that episode, though, particularly Awesome and Anna.

  11. says

    it’s like she’s stuck in a romance while all the other characters are in a caper film

    YES. This whole post spoke to many of the things I’ve found bothered me about Sarah’s character and treatment. Thank you for making it.

  12. Mary-Anne says

    Izzy:
    I’m glad you brought up Lois & Clark. One thing I really liked about that show (at least early on) was the reversal of gender stereotypes: the driven career woman vs. the smart, shy, sensitive boy-next-door; the fact that she was sexually experienced and he wasn’t. It was refreshing; the fact that it was the female character who had to let go of the fantasy of the perfect guy (Superman) to see the person right in front of her. But then, I was in my early teens when it aired, and my critical faculties weren’t what they are now :-)

    I think my problem isn’t just that there aren’t enough shows featuring male semi-nudity, it’s that any show with an action or sci-fi premise defaults to a male audience. All women seem to get is Desperate Housewives or Grey’s Anatomy, which annoys me because that’s not where my interests lie.

  13. says

    Fia – Thanks for the link! I’ve been reading your meta for a little while and really enjoying it. :-)

    Mary-Anne – YES. The assumption that the audience for any speculative show is going to be straight dudes is really obnoxious.

  14. Mel says

    it’s like she’s stuck in a romance while all the other characters are in a caper film

    Very similar to Sam Carter’s treatment in Stargate SG-1 after about season 2 (though, more with the romance and less with the nudity). It’s kind of appalling, actually the way that writers have so much trouble writing something other than sex vixen (with stigma attached) or lovestruck innocent.

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