Fans of NBC’s “Chuck” (Mondays, 8 PM Eastern/Pacific) know that it is one of the more insightful looks at modern romance, love, and relations between men and women to come out of Hollywood in a long time. Certainly, “Chuck” is the only Hollywood production that reflects our Science Fiction World, with massive changes in how men and women relate, driven by the Pill, the Condom, and anonymous urban living, far from family and friends and stable neighborhoods. The series is, of course, as light as a souffle, and amusing but not profound. That in itself is what makes “Chuck” so revolutionary — it is the only Hollywood production to spill the beans on “female empowerment” and how it affects most men.
Which is to say, create a very few winners, and mostly losers.
“Chuck,” some episodes still watchable on Hulu.com or NBC’s own website, shows what happens when society tilts radically to unrestricted freedom of choice, absent any social controls, for both men and women. Both lose, though in different ways, and loneliness, distance, and unhappy isolation results. While superficially a fun, spy spoof, “Chuck” is all about a modern man looking for romance and career, in short a family. Detailing his frustrations as he is continually derailed in that quest, despite his best efforts.
Unlike the half-hearted, clownish attempts by Judd Apatow, or the comedy “Wedding Crashers,” the title character of “Chuck” (played by newcomer Zachary Levi) does not fear commitment or chose slackerdom out of any real motivation. Rather, he’s unable, in a status-heavy world, to attract any significant and lasting interest by women, after his career opportunities were derailed, and he found himself in retail hell, hilariously depicted as a Best-Buy spoof “Buy More” retail outlet (itself constantly in competition with nearby “Large Mart.”) Chuck’s problem is that in a world of empowered females, he’s the head geek of the “Nerd Herd” at the “Buy More.” Hardly attractive despite his good qualities.
The series opens, in a “Mission Impossible” style spoof, in harsh contrast, black and white cinematography. Chuck and his friend, uber-slacker and bad influence Morgan Grimes, are attempting to escape his bedroom, when Chuck’s sister, Ellie, interrupts, and everything switches to color and normal contrast. It’s Chuck’s birthday, and his sister, with whom he lives, has invited all her attractive, female doctor friends. Chuck wants to leave, as he explains, because he knows he’ll be a wallflower even at his own party, and he knows very well his sister’s friends will have no interest in him. Ellie’s boyfriend, “Captain Awesome,” so named because every thing he does is “awesome,” tries to coach Chuck in the finer parts of conversing with attractive women. To no avail. Chuck explains to a friend of his sister’s noting he went to Stanford, and asking after sexy Big Man on Campus, Bryce Larkin, that Bryce had been his friend, framed him for cheating and got him kicked out of Stanford, stealing his one and only girlfriend, Jill. Inter-cut with the explanation are shots of said Bryce, breaking into a secret facility, downloading all sorts of secrets and blowing up a computer. Bryce escapes, sends an email loaded with the secrets, and is shot just after the email. Chuck, everyone long since having abandoned him, at his own party, goes back to his bedroom to play computer games. Noticing the email from Bryce, he opens it, and sees a series of hypnotic images that implant all the nation’s secrets into his brain. This is the set-up for the series.
Eventually, Chuck finds himself with a “pretend” girlfriend named “Sarah,” a beautiful secret agent played by Australian import Yvonne Strahowski. Sarah is the ex-partner and lover of Bryce, who was himself a secret agent for the CIA. [Yes, it’s fantasy.] Also on board to protect Chuck and the secrets he alone now holds, is NSA agent John Casey, played by the excellent Adam Baldwin (“My Bodyguard,” and Firefly/Serenity) and played with brilliant, comic timing, a tough secret agent frustrated by going undercover as Chuck’s co-worker at the Buy More.
What’s interesting is how the attitudes of everyone around Chuck changes when they think he has a girlfriend, and a beautiful and intelligent one at that. All of a sudden, his sister has new respect for him. His co-workers, at the “Buy More,” marvel at him. His uber-slacker buddy, Morgan even thinks he himself can become more than what he is (a man with “mad work-avoidance skills.”)
Chuck himself of course, was derailed in life. Intelligent, but not exactly risk-seeking, he was on track to become a software executive in Silicon Valley. Now, as a guy kicked out of Stanford, for cheating (he was framed by his friend Bryce to stop his recruitment into the CIA, out of Bryce’s fear that Chuck lacked the aggressiveness to survive), he’s drifted into subsistence living and depression at the retail hell of the Buy More, populated by slackers, idiots, and petty tyrants. Until of course the secrets in his brain, which he alone possesses, and can access only randomly, prompted by outside stimuli, brings the beautiful, aggressive, and tough secret agent who has to play his girlfriend, while carrying a major torch for her in-and-out of her life ex-partner and boyfriend, Bryce Larkin.
Chuck’s protector, Sarah, is a very empowered woman. Tough, aggressive, often engaging in physical combat, with a take-no-guff attitude and often hilariously humorless approach (Strahowski is a very funny straightwoman), Sarah is the closest thing to Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Wonder Woman currently on TV. And while it’s clear that she likes and in her own way respects Chuck’s intelligence, and bravery, as an ordinary, though smart guy, involved in the bizarre spy world she lives in, it’s not enough for her to really fall for him. Even though she does indeed have feelings for Chuck, whenever her former partner and on-off boyfriend Bryce reappears, it is not enough to compete with the aggressive, high testosterone presence of uber-macho Bryce. Sarah is the ultimate tough female workaholic, who is often lonely, and unable to relate to anyone but her on and off boyfriend Bryce, and that on only a superficial leve.
Chuck is a very odd show, it’s as if Buffy the Vampire Slayer were remade, and “Xander” was made the star, with Angel a bit player who comes in and out to remind the hero of just where he sits in the world of female empowerment. Which is not very high, indeed.
In fact, comparing the show with the two shows most like “Chuck,” which would be “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and 1980’s sci-fi comedy “Greatest American Hero” is instructive. In the latter, the hero “Ralph Hinckley,” is a put-upon, mild mannered teacher of at-risk kids (played by unintentionally hilariously over-aged twenty-somethings channeling the Dead End kids). Given a super-hero suit by aliens that turns him into a, well, superhero, he has a girlfriend (the always excellent Connie Selleca). Who is a smart, competent lawyer. With the help of super-conservative, often funny, veteran FBI agent “Bill Maxwell” (played expertly by Robert Culp), all three tackle various villains and bad guys to save the day. Written by TV legend Stephen J. Cannell, and presaging many of the squabbling hero devices he used to great effect in the “A Team” the show “Greatest American Hero” was in one very important respect, far different than that of “Chuck.”
“Ralph Hinckley” already had a girlfriend. His life was complicated by the arrival of the suit, and the responsibility of the powers it gave him, not to mention that he lost the instruction manual and could use them only inexpertly. But he already had a middle class life, even his own home, and merely wanted to hold on to that life balanced against his reponsibility. He didn’t need super powers to get his girlfriend, even though she was a lawyer, and a skilled one who made good money, more than himself, at that. He already had the life he wanted BEFORE his superpowers.
Meanwhile, Buffy’s own life was centered around various vampires, ordinary guys like Xander, no matter how brave, just could not compete. Not even the “Captain Awesome” like super-soldier “Riley Finn” could keep Buffy’s affections against a vampire, once he lost his super-soldier abilities. Even Xander himself lost the affections and love of his girlfriend to one of Buffy’s vampires, and very pointedly, all the ordinary men were nothing but props in Buffy’s female empowerment. Which echoing many of the female-oriented vampire novels and TV series, was all about a “special” girl using her “unique” powers of sex appeal and “goodness” to “tame” some dangerous, powerful, bad-boy vampire, and live outside of society. As detailed in the post Vampires and Women, this is the basic plot-line for the “Twilight” series to the HBO Series “True Blood” based on the “Sookie Stackhouse” novels.
In the world of Cannell’s 1980’s show, “Greatest American Hero,” female empowerment meant, well earning a living doing whatever one wanted, and being treated with respect. Selleca’s character, “Pam” was often the brains of the trio, and within the storylines, given just as much insight and importance as the others. Her relationship with the hero “Ralph” (played by William Katt) was complicated by the arrival of the suit and it’s responsibilities, but it was an adult one, and traditional. Ralph’s relative lack of money, status, and power as a High School teacher didn’t matter to her before the suit’s arrival, and her attitude towards him didn’t change after the suit entered their lives. She viewed him as the same man before and after he had superpowers. You could not have a more traditional, middle class attitude, towards the relationships between men and women. Based on respect and love, not power.
Move to the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The dirty secret there was that female empowerment meant actual powers, and living outside society’s strictures, just like all the other vampire fantasies aimed at women. One of the dominant themes of the show was a rejection of middle class values, rather than it’s protection (as in the Cold-War era “Greatest American Hero.”) Buffy, particularly after the show left her outside any real social controls (her mother died, she dropped out of College, she lived in her own closed world without any interaction with ordinary people), cared only about her relationships with vampires, power for it’s own sake, and pointedly chose men based on their power and social dominance, rather than character, compassion, decency, loyalty, etc. Unsurprising, since her vampire boyfriends lacked any of those qualities. No matter, Buffy didn’t care about that, merely power. A view shared by all the other female characters regarding men.
Now, move to 2007 (when”Chuck” premiered). Chuck, no matter how brave, smart, loyal, compassionate, and insightful, still can’t achieve a steady relationship. Crushed when he’s kicked out of Stanford, and his girlfriend Jill dumps him for Bryce, he drifts into Buy More and spends years there. It takes literally gaining “superpowers” for him to have any chance at even the illusion of romance (as opposed to the reality), and while the beautiful, and literally empowered secret agent who pretends to be his girlfriend likes him and even admires him, it’s clear she’d rather “let’s be friends” with him than want him as a boyfriend. That status is reserved for Chuck’s arch-rival and former friend Bryce. Who is everything Chuck is not: heedless of personal risk, good at fighting, indeed enjoying it, and a natural with women, confident of his attractiveness to them.
Which gets to the heart of the matter, how female empowerment has changed. Rather than merely a matter of income and personal equality, wishing to be treated as equals, female empowerment in popular culture, seems to be a function of living outside the old social rules and indeed society as a whole, and choosing the most socially, physically, dominant men. Which leaves most men outside, stuck in the “let’s be friends” zone. Even with the nation’s secrets in your head.
“Sarah” herself lives alone, in a ritzy hotel room, in a downtown high rise. A far cry from the homey, ordinary, middle class tract house of “Greatest American Hero’s” Ralph Hinckley. She drives a fancy car, while hero “Chuck” drives the company “Nerd Herd” car, complete with corporate paint job. Her life is lived anonymously, “Sarah” is not even her real name, and the hero “Chuck” knows next to nothing about her. Her past is a subject she’s made clear is very, very closed to him. And far from the casual equality of the main characters in “Greatest American Hero,” Chuck Bartowski, who has all the secrets, struggles to prove himself again and again to the spies who protect him, Sarah, his pretend-girlfriend, and John Casey (a hilarious echo of Culp’s character in “Greatest American Hero,” right down to the Reagan worship).
Chuck’s sister asked Sarah, unknowingly, how a girl could choose Bryce over Chuck (referencing Jill, Chuck’s only genuine girlfriend). And as the show makes clear, it’s easy. Sarah, like Buffy before her, lives a largely anonymous life outside of normal society. While it’s clear she envies the emotional closeness Chuck has to his sister and his friends, along with their mutual support, she relishes the absolute freedom her anonymity gives her. Freedom to be anyone, and do anything, since any people she knows can be dropped like excess baggage for the next mission. Only fellow uber-spy Bryce is her equal in fighting, in penchant for taking risks, for subterfuge, and courting danger, willingly. Chuck cannot compete, and in the anonymous life Sarah leads, has little to offer. When everything is done, she will go on with mysterious, dangerous missions, and Chuck will be left behind at the Buy More.
Interestingly, the Alpha and Omega of men around Chuck are his slacker buddy, Morgan, and his prospective brother in law, “Captain Awesome.” A fellow doctor, alongside Chuck’s sister Ellie, “Awesome” has a splendid physique, is often exercising, and is enamored of high-risk adventure sports like whitewater kayaking. He is however, very careful never to embarrass Chuck or Morgan, both obviously less successful than himself with women, and offers helpful, positive advice to both whenever he can. Awesome is just as impressive as Bryce, but mindful of how advantaged he is compared to the men around him, and shows a compassion that Bryce, engaged in danger even more than Awesome, lacks. Meanwhile, Morgan spends most of his time avoiding work, and his girlfriend Anna, a rebellious slacker type herself, often has to encourage Morgan to stand up for himself. It’s clear in the antics at the “Buy More” that Chuck, regardless of formal authority, is the only thing keeping the store running, amidst the slackers and idiots found in the retail hell. Boss “Big Mike” retreats to his office to eat dough-nuts and sleep. No one else shows any leadership, and it’s up to Chuck, reluctantly, to keep things running and often, bail out his slacker buddy Morgan, who’s work avoidance has him often in trouble. At home of course, it’s the fake relationship with his protector, who must dial down her aggressiveness in her role as the “girlfriend” that makes Chuck more respected by his sister, and Awesome. Both assuming that Chuck, in a relationship, plans to move out of retail and into something more reflective of his intelligence and possibilities. Viewers are shown, over and over, that Chuck even at the Buy More, just can’t help doing a good job.
Chuck is clearly shown to have leadership potential, just not leadership in the style of Bryce Larkin (a clever play on the poet Philip Larkin, notorious for his dalliances). Unlike Bryce, and like his prospective brother-in-law, “Captain Awesome,” Chuck is careful not to embarrass or humiliate his often idiotically clueless co-workers. Unlike either Bryce or Awesome, Chuck spends his days in tedium relieved with boredom, in the retail hell that is the Buy-More strip mall store where he works. Even with his potential obvious, and his technical and leadership skills applied in odd ways to his covert missions with his handlers, Chuck still doesn’t fit in with his more experienced fellow spies.
In part that’s a stylistic choice, a departure from the Cannell 1980’s team of oddballs, but it is also a commentary on the more challenging environment of the post-modern, Science Fiction world of today, as opposed to the certainties of the 1980’s. Female empowerment leads not to demands for equal respect, treatment, and pay, but for well, more power, and more powerful men.
It is made clear, to the viewers and Chuck, that while he would like to have a relationship with his protector, she demands the kind of man, that he literally cannot become, and that he has no future with her, since he does not want to be a spy, even if his lack of guile and being just exactly what he is, an everyman, gives him protective coloration amidst the hardened killer enemy spies he deals with on missions. Chuck cannot become his arch-nemesis Bryce, his attempts at a cool spy persona are played for laughs, and he knows that the very empowered female who is his protector demands an even more empowered man. A man both higher in status and importance (i.e., a cool “real” spy not a real life member of the “Nerd Herd”) and just as if not more so, able to deal out violence and take risks.
In this, “Chuck” is a good exploration of our Science Fiction world. Author Richard Whitmire, and his site “Why Boys Fail” explores the gender gap in College. Fully ten percent more women graduate from college, and that’s a reversal of the 1980’s generation. Indeed, the empowered women of today’s college age face, outside elite schools like Harvard or Yale, about 10% or more women than men in their schools. This means far fewer educated men in their peer/age group. Meanwhile, the competition for for women ages 20-30 is fierce. Boys outnumber girls in births, by about 105 to 100. While not having the horrific gender-specific abortions that characterize China or India, with the resultant “Bare Branches” and “excess” men who will never find wives, numbering about 40 million alone in China, nevertheless the better medical care resulting in far fewer infant boy’s deaths, has led to a gender imbalance of around 117 to 100.
Let’s put that in simple terms. That means for every 117 boys, randomly selected, there will be only 100 girls in their age group. Let us ponder that for a moment.
Now consider “Chuck” and his predicament. In College, he was able to find a girlfriend, despite being smart. Which is a turn-off to women, associated as it is with lower testosterone, unless men demonstrate, like Chuck’s rival Bryce, high testosterone by doing athletic things and undertaking lots of risky behavior that signals higher testosterone, despite the smarts. The science blog Gene Expression has a link to several studies showing how higher IQ in men is associated with much higher rates of virginity. Everyone knows women do not like smart men. The technical term for these guys are nerds. They do not like them due to lack of testosterone, and this can be a problem. Chuck while in Stanford, was able to find a smart girl, who shared his interest in old text-based computer games, and have a relationship with her. As soon as he was kicked out of Stanford, she dumped him for Bryce. Ever afterward, Chuck like most guys outside of college, had no real ability to find and meet a girl he could form a relationship with.
It’s interesting that both Ellie and “Awesome” are doctors, it’s easy to see how their romance began, meeting in the same hospital where they work. Chuck works in a Buy More, lacks any status or power, and doesn’t have any opportunity to meet women. Even if he did, he still works at the Buy More. Chuck doesn’t take the kind of risks, as a matter of course, that impress women. He’s not a band member, or an amateur X-games athlete, or anything like that. He likes computers and technology, and that’s it.
The problem for men Chuck’s age is that after College, the ability to meet women of similar background and interests is severely limited. Many like Chuck have the same sort of dry spells, after College. Instead of an institution that serves to bring men and women of the same age and interests together, they face brutal competition. Perhaps not a Bryce Larkin, lurking around, but men ages 22-40 all competing for the same group of young women, ages 22-30. The women who are out of college, in the workforce, and have men in their twenties and their thirties both competing for their favors. Made worse of course by the changing demographics that produce about 17% more boys than girls for each peer group.
All these factors, combined with the urban, highly mobile, and anonymous living make the demand for men far more like Bryce, than like Chuck. It’s the world of female empowerment. Which makes losers out of guys like Chuck.
And intriguingly, the same dynamic makes losers out of women like “Sarah Walker.” Sarah is portrayed as lonely, her boyfriend is often away, and she lacks any real emotional support. The excitement of the Alpha Male that her boyfriend Bryce provides, comes at a cost. No emotional support, no social network, no everyday life. Not much of a future, either, since his highly charged testosterone risk taking will last longer than Sarah’s beauty, and ability to influence her male targets, which is a big part of her abilities as an agent. She is of course, unable to break away from a lifetime of habits, and cannot resist her old boyfriend, Bryce.
But Chuck’s dilemma, how to compete with the Bryce Larkins (he really can’t) in a world of empowered women demanding just such men, is instructive. As more and more men and women live apart, for far longer, and romance becomes not commonplace, but rare, how will society change? Perhaps part of the reason for the high rate of divorce is that men and women get married far later, when women have run through their string of Bryce Larkins, and obviously “settle” for the “nice guy” who well knows he is the last, not first choice. Both with too many partners, and not enough connections through shared intimacy of physical and emotional, during their key twenties. In a rush to have one child before infertility becomes irrevocable. Unable to spend time bonding together when both are at their peak attractiveness.
Perhaps also, the rise of single motherhood by choice, with women seeking their own Bryce Larkins on their terms, as absent fathers, and choosing lives of isolation, lead to more guys like Chuck on the outs. Absent even a pretend relationship with a beautiful secret agent, instead living the life of say “Jeffrey,” the aging singleton of the Buy More stash. Intriguingly, Chuck’s series suggests that Chuck’s years-long tailspin is due to despair. Despair of finding any girl, and therefore just drifting through life at the Buy More.
It’s telling that the main drama of today, as opposed to the 1980’s, is simply finding a mate. A sad comment on how isolating modern life has become, and how lonely the current model of female empowerment really is, for both men and women.