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…?