Sunday, March 14, 2010

Chuck vs The Women

My monday evening routine is to wait anxiously for 8 o'clock to roll around so's I can watch some Chuck goodness on NBC. Typically, I then go on-line and look up all of the music I want to get that I heard on Chuck, get it, load it onto my Chuck playlist, and then stare and my iPod in confusion when, on shuffle, one of those songs is independently played. Because, sometimes, hearing Hall & Oats without any explanation is just odd. Actually, that should be an "always".

However. Loving Chuck is problematic. It's problematic for a multitude of reasons. Chuck had ten characters credited during the theme for its first two seasons, and then nine in its third season. Three of the ten were women in the first two seasons. Two of the nine are women in the third season. This isn't good. For me, and in general. Sure, one of the central three characters is a woman, and she gets a decent amount of attention focused on her. And yet, purely by the function of who she is and what her character brings to the series, we know very little about her. And so, we're left with 3 women who function as accessories to the male characters, as love interests and, for one, simultaneously as a sibling.

Because there are, at most, three women on the show, they don't often interact. And when they do interact, the moments don't typically pass the Bechdel Test. Sarah and Ellie discuss Chuck; sometimes, Sarah and Ellie discuss Devon (aka, Captain Awesome); Sarah and Anna discuss Morgan; a couple of times, Anna flips out on Ellie about Morgan. They talk about weddings and boys, and once, how Sarah had never been close to a gun before. But they don't talk about anything else, and thus we learn almost nothing about them. We know that Jeff and Lester enjoy playing in their band, Jeffster. We know more about Morgan than is necessary, including that he sleeps in the nude. But we don't learn much of anything about the women that does not in some way connect to the men.

But there is another issue with Chuck, almost a more serious issue. A lot of shows don't have great male-to-female ratios. A lot of shows don't have the women talking about much else but the men in their lives. It wouldn't be great, but I would be able to live with it. But Chuck fails women far more egregiously than simply not being able to pass the Bechdel Test.

Chuck, as a show, suffers from an almost chronic urge to delegitimize threats women face in the world and the workplace. It often uses stalking as an impish thing these specific guy characters do. And no other character calls these stalkers out on it. In Chuck vs Tom Sawyer, we (and Chuck) are given witness to Jeff's music video dedicated to Anna Woo, complete with stalker-footage from when Anna is leaving the women's bathroom. Later in the episode, Jeff's request that Anna fan him while wearing a hula skirt is granted. And both Chuck and the store's manager Emmett make no mention to Jeff about the completely illegal and inappropriate actions he has taken. No one mentions the tape to Anna, so she can press charges (not that she would, because stalking is totally cool!). Later in the season, Morgan begins stalking Anna as well, in vs The Best Friend. And although Chuck calls him out on it after both Anna and a group of mobsters discover him, Chuck's reasoning is less about shaming Morgan for his actions toward his ex-girlfriend than trying to save his life. Afterward, he even complains that he had to sacrifice Morgan's dignity in order to protect him. Chuck doesn't even begin to contemplate that stalking your ex is a pretty solid way to demonstrate you've given up much of your dignity anyway.

Stalking isn't just relegated to the creeps of the show, either. Chuck, himself, has been known to stalk his fake girlfriend Sarah. The one day she has off, he follows her as she goes to meet her father, because she had the temerity to not alert him to her plans. And when she discovers him, she doesn't yell at him or give him the cold shoulder. She doesn't discuss how following her is completely ignoring a boundary she has set for her own personal reasons. She invites him to stay.

And the stalking is just one part of the equation. From Morgan and Jeff and Lester using the store's electronics to get video footage of various (faceless) girls' butts and cleavage, to Jeff and Lester setting up a casting couch and then exposing various models to Jeff's penis, the show takes a light-hearted "boys will be boys" mentality when it comes to violating the various women who make the mistake of working, shopping, or knowing someone at the Burbank Buy More.

It is that light-heartedness that makes this all the worse. If the behavior was seen and treated as wrong, as being a violation of these various women's autonomy, if it were called out as being inherently disrespectful to women, then the show may be something other than regressive. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Morgan, Jeff, and Lester are seen as weird, losery guys, but they're also portrayed as lovable (in the case of Morgan), unthreatening (in the case of Lester), loyal (in the case of Jeff (and Morgan)) guys. These guys, the show demonstrates, are doing little wrong. After all, the women don't complain about it! These guys, the show demonstrates, are impotent geeks that girls don't have to worry about!

And then that is the other edge of this sword. There have been two girls who have been Nerd Herders (the Geek Squad of the Buy More). Both of them have been subject to sexual comments and what would be, in the real world, sexual harassment. They were Herders at two different times, so women have never made up more than 1/4 of the Herder staff. But what really seems to be happening here is the show doesn't only go for the "boys will be boys" and "stalking really isn't that serious" and "harassment is just playing", but is either negatively commenting on the nerdish men among us or - and I think it is the second one - giving one nerdish perspective on women and men. Perhaps it shouldn't be that surprising that only two of the nine writers are women.

A large portion of the Chuck series has been full of geekish and nerdy delights, too many to count. And that, along with Chuck being absolutely adorkable most of the time and zany writing, is one of the things that makes me love Chuck oh so very much. Well, that, and a propensity of the writers to rip off whole scenes from their other series, The O.C., and have those scenes play for more often than not comedic value. And that makes the marginalization of women within their world even harder to bear. Because it isn't just that women are absent, or that women get to discuss parts of their lives other than the men; if that were the case, this post could have (and almost was) been called Chuck vs The Bechdel Test. No, it goes deeper than that. It goes to having geeky guys consistently treat women as sexual objects, and as something other than the norm. As a girl, as a geek, and as a nerd, it feels less than welcoming to have that play out as a theme on this show that I love.


Connie, Orlando said...

I love Chuck too. I can't disagree with any of the points you made, unfortunately. I guess I've been guilty of just ignoring them. Zach Levy, as Chuck, is just so terrific in the lead that I think that's part of reason I've overlooked the way women are treated and talked about. Also love Casey/Adam - the Whedon thing. I'd throw in the gratuitous barely clothed scenes for Sara, that have ticked me off - too many, too often & I wish she'd object to doing those scenes. I'll be viewing the show tomorrow night through a different lens.

petpluto said...

Also love Casey/Adam

I freakin' love Casey!!! I hope tomorrow night we learn more about him!

I guess I've been guilty of just ignoring them.

I had been overlooking them - ie, feeling annoyance during the moment, but then quickly forgetting about it - until I had a Chuck marathon last weekend. Until then, I could ignore a lot of the stuff because it only happened every couple of episodes, so it didn't seem that egregious. Then, what with all of them being viewed in a 48 hour span, the pattern jumped out at me like a big neon pattern. Which was sad.

Zach Levy, as Chuck, is just so terrific in the lead that I think that's part of reason I've overlooked the way women are treated and talked about.

Oh, totally. He's absolutely adorable, and I love him to bits!

I'd throw in the gratuitous barely clothed scenes for Sara, that have ticked me off - too many, too often & I wish she'd object to doing those scenes.

Blarg, I completely forgot about those scenes! Grr... You know which scenes I had mentally misplaced but are now flooding back that I really hate? The '80s music video scenes with the girl in question doing some sexy pose and her hair blowing all around in a sexy way!

MediaMaven said...

Good post.

I haven't seen Chuck in a long time, so I can't comment specifically on the show. However, the gender imbalance was always something that bothered me, even as a kid--I never understood why girls just didn't get more parts. I want to be the lead! I want to do the cool stuff! I want girls to identify with!

The sad thing is that we--not just us, but we women as a whole--have gotten used to this, used to having the women in subservient roles. So much so that when it's reversed, it's commented on, good and bad (see my posts on Julie & Julia). One thing I disliked about Sex and the City was that, with rare exceptions, the women only talked about men--true friends talk about men, but that's only a fraction of the topics that are discussed. There are many problems here, stemming from that the show (and Hollywood as a whole) needs more female directors, writers, and producers, and that well, on shows, there is a time limit and things are often cut or sacrificed for time or consistency.

Stalking has become one of those things that is almost acceptable on television. Reading some of the plotlines in Chuck here, I can tell right off that they're meant to be funny and very "boys will be boys" (the whole camera zoom on cleavage and butts of faceless girls, the penis thing)...but a lot of times they aren't. It's just creepy and lewd, and yeah, a total turnoff if the show was enjoyable and offer such an appealing lead. (House wouldn't work if Hugh Laurie wasn't so enormously enjoyable, either.)The thing is, you know the writers aren't going to change their tune unless they are hit with a massive wave of backlash, or the actors say something. You bring up Sarah gratuitous near-nude shots, and that's something that usually bothers me--it only works if it services the plot, and that should be thought out at least three times before incorporating. But unless Yvonne Strahovski objects, they will continue to use her body objectively.

Connie, Orlando said...

Monday's show rocked. **SPOILERS AHEAD***

Have to say that Awesome's support for Ellie in the end surprised me and made me smile.

Casey/Adam - what can I say? Super patriot will betray his country for the woman he loves - didn't see that coming. And, I have to say, that he's nearly always treated Sara as an equal and not as an incompetent "girl" spy. Maybe he's treated Chuck the way he has to keep him from making the same decision he (Casey) had made - country instead of woman he loved.

And, regardless of how many others may feel, I adore Morgan. He cracked me up at the beginning with his spying on Casey. Joshua Gomez has nailed his portrayal of Morgan.

petpluto said...

Casey/Adam - what can I say?

Casey... ...made me cry. I love him.

I adore Morgan. He cracked me up at the beginning with his spying on Casey.

My feelings on Morgan are entirely dependent upon the episode. I think he's rocked the last two though, and his spying on Casey was hilarious. I especially liked it when he was playing the tape back for Chuck:

CHUCK: Is that static?
MORGAN: Carrots. I get hungry on a stake out!

Totally died laughing.

Have to say that Awesome's support for Ellie in the end surprised me and made me smile.

I think it symbolizes the true return of Captain Awesome. Awesome's lost his mojo of awesomeness ever since he actively interacted with spy life, and it was good to see him choose awesomeness and Ellie over fear and Doctors Without Borders. I mean, if that had truly been something he'd wanted to pursue instead of using it as a way to get Ellie out of danger, it would be different. But since his goal had ulterior motives, I'm really happy that Ellie got her dream and her guy.