There is a scene in 5.09 Kept Man where Casey complains about the ridiculous speedos he has to wear for Gertrude and Sarah retorts about all the ridiculously skimpy outfits she’s had to wear over the years. This truth raises a good question—does the show over-sexualize Sarah and women in general? Think about all the scenes with Sarah and/or Carina in lingerie, or Sarah running around in four-inch heels during missions. Was that really necessary? (Fitzroy would say, “No.” If you catch this reference, you know who you are.)
Some fans of Yvonne Strahovski even say that this over-sexualization of Sarah in Chuck negatively affected the way her acting skills were perceived in her casting for The Handmaid’s Tale (THT) and conclude that she had to prove her acting mettle in that show because of her role as a bimbo in Chuck.
Now, I can’t speak about THT because I haven’t seen it but I can say this: Yvonne is the best performer on Chuck; she’s a great actress who emotes very well. The writers and the cast make Chuck good. Zach and Baldwin make it great. But it’s Yvonne who makes it special. Now, it’s true that the show does focus on her appearance (as well as Devon’s) because it’s a commercial enterprise and sex appeal sells but, in this case, and this is part of the beauty of Chuck, the focus on her appearance works on a meta-level, too because this is a story about appearance vs reality, and viewers who focus on Sarah’s appearance miss on the reality of her persona and on the fact that, yes, if we just look at the appearance, Sarah is out of Chuck’s league but, if we look at the reality behind the appearance, it’s Chuck who’s out of Sarah’s league.
In many ways, Chuck is like Frodo and Sarah is like Boromir. Most humans focus on appearance and would pick Boromir over Frodo any day of the week and twice on Sundays, but the reality is that it’s Frodo who’s chosen to carry the burden of the ring. Same with Chuck and the Intersect. Bryce Gandalf looks at the heart, not at the appearance, and sends the Intersect to Chuck, not to Sarah.
But what about the over-sexualization of Sarah and how that affects the perception of Yvonne as an actress?
One of the problems with Hollywood and stereotypes is that Hollywood is hypocritical. They pay lip service to equality and girl power, and accuse men of seeing women only as sex toys but then promote that exact idea in TV shows and movies because sex sells, sex works, sex makes them money (unless your show happens to be Chuck), and Hollywood loves money.
Hence Yvonne having to run in 4-inch heels when it makes zero sense for Sarah to do so.
Another reason Yvonne was scoffed at is because Chuck is mostly a comedy while THT is drama, and Hollywood takes drama much more seriously than comedy when it comes to awards, even though I’m willing to bet $20 that Chuck’s layered depth blows that of THT out of the water, although I will likely never know for sure because THT is not my cup of tea and will probably never watch it.
As a husband and father of three daughters, I hate it when women are sexualized by Hollywood and other media and, as a European who grew up watching half-naked women on billboards and in commercials and is desensitized to women walking around in lingerie, I couldn’t care less whether Yvonne is wearing a bikini or a spacesuit in Chuck, as long as I can see her facial expressions. What makes the story special to me is Yvonne’s acting as well as Sarah’s character and her devotion to Chuck, not Yvonne’s body or Sarah’s lingerie.
Ironically, to me the most beautiful thing about Sarah (or any woman, for that matter) is the one thing we can’t see—her psyche.
And I suspect this is true for many viewers.
I think you are right about the image vs. reality aspect of the show. Obviously, Sarah embodies the image and glamor of spy life. I believe the creators pumped up the volume on Sarah’s sexuality to draw a bigger contrast. Sarah expressed herself through her outfits in 60% of the show. There was one scene that really caught my eye. In 3×11 Sarah dressed up/down when she had Chuck meet her for dinner prior to the red test. Her hair style was also speaking volumes. In 5×13, after the mission and before the beach she dressed up for Chuck in power colors. People missed 85% of that scene. No one talks about Casey’s one-on-one with Sarah. Chuck missed it and apparently so did everyone else.
As for Yvonne, she competed for the role knowing what she was committing to. Looking at a few of her interviews, her values seem to focus on protecting family and friends. In other words, she has good boundaries. Although graphic sex scenes seem to be off her list, she seems to be good with her own body image and sexuality. She is an athlete who takes care of herself. I don’t think she minds looking good in front of the camera. Chuck was a good career choice given how few opportunities there are for actors. I bet she saw it as a stepping-stone to greater opportunities, knowing that down the line her acting skills would come into focus.
Thank you for the insightful comment. I thoroughly agree with your words below.
Do you mind elaborating on this?
Chuck said “You always look good, that’s kind of your thing.” I think we all agree that Sarah has great taste in clothes both in color and style.
Throughout the show, Sarah dressed up for missions and for Chuck with Shaw being just the one exception. Look at the outfit she wore coming back from DC with Shaw (3×11). That outfit was not for Chuck’s benefit and Chuck knew it. Sarah controlled, rewarded, and sometimes punished Chuck not so much by words but by her image. When Sarah had Chuck meet her for dinner prior to his red test, she dressed up for dinner but the outfit was not flattering. Her hair was pulled back and wrapped up in a bun. This distorted her face; she was not the beautiful spy. Sarah turned off Sarah. Sarah did everything she could not to influence Chuck’s decision. She did not want him to do it for her.
In 5×13, Chuck had already surrendered his power to Sarah. When they went on the mission, Sarah was the one giving the orders. The whole episode was about Sarah getting to know Chuck. Her perceptions of Chuck changed throughout. For example, take the dance scene. At the beginning of the scene Sarah assumes Chuck can’t dance. The subtext to that is Chuck can’t satisfy her in bed. It took just a few minutes for her to realize how sexually compatible they truly were. She was breathless.
Lets look at the team breakup scene in detail:
1. The camera shows Sarah first. Sarah stated earlier that she was going to disappear after the mission. Something has changed.
2. Chuck is at the head of the table with his power restored. For Sarah, this happened when Chuck put the mission first. He sacrificed his plans to save her memories. He made the tough call. She not only agreed with it; she respected it.
3. An authority figure stands at the other end of the table congratulating the team. Sarah was invested in Chuck receiving recognition.
4. Sarah is dressed up in a skirt and heals wearing power colors. She wants Chuck to notice and respond to her needs. She is also taking control of her destiny.
5. Sarah is not wearing her wedding ring. Things are not ok.
6. Sarah protects Chuck by taking the blame for the team breaking up. Sarah fights for Chuck’s reputation and won’t see it tarnished.
7. Sarah says “I need to find myself” and trades glances with Chuck. She has informed the world that she is willing to endure the pain of self transformation. The only reason for her to do this is for a chance to be with Chuck.
8. Casey responds to Sarah’s statement with a glance. Casey gets the subtext of what Sarah is saying.
9. Casey takes the focus off Sarah with a comment. Things need to be worked out but not here and now.
10. Casey leaves and Chuck follows. Man space is created.
11. Sarah witnesses the exchange between Chuck and Casey. It’s a display of love and respect between two friends. Casey puts on for display his own transformation. Casey, an extreme version of Sarah, is hugging Chuck. Sarah honors the moment.
12. Sarah was then invited into the circle by Casey. Sarah put her hand out to shake Casey’s hand while she glances at Chuck. She wanted to witness Chuck’s response to Casey. Casey grabs Sarah’s handshake with both hands capturing Sarah’s full attention. He quickly rolls his eyes to Chuck, then looks back at Sarah and winks. Chuck is unaware to what just happened. Non-verbally Casey is saying “Sarah, look at what Chuck did for me. Look to him, he will help you.” This may be the only time in the series that Sarah and Casey have physical contact.
13. Sarah asks for time and then walks away. Sahra is preparing for transformation that may or may not lead to Chuck, she must process this knowing that part of her must die for her to live.
Throughout this scene Sarah is saying in not so many words “Chuck, I see you and I now understand why I married you. I’m still not feeling it, things are not ok. But I know if I let go, I will lose someone special. Please don’t give up on me. I will fight to try to come back to you. I need time to figure this out.”
What takes place at the beach is the transformation. The death of the old Sarah was the sigh right before she asks Chuck to tell her their stories.
That’s a very insightful view, Dean.
I just rewatched the last two episodes of season 5 for the first time in over a year, when I first watched the show, in preparation of a post I’m in the process of writing about the finale.
In rewatching the final arc, I came to conclusions very similar to yours, even though they may differ on a couple of minor points.
Going back to the initial scene at the beginning of 3.11, what do you think she’s communicating with that outfit and how do you interpret it in light of what happened between her and Chuck in the previous episode and later in this episode?
Sarah was deeply in love with Chuck but he was not available. Being stuck, Sarah started retrograding back to old relationship patterns with Shaw. It’s important to understand that Sarah was investigating what a life without Chuck might look like. In the beginning of 3×11, Sarah just returned from DC having spy sex with Shaw. It’s like rebound sex. It includes fancy dinners, massages, expensive gifts, and loveless sex. It’s not about love or true intimacy. To ease the pain of losing Chuck, she created a bubble around herself where nothing was real. Sarah was still wearing the clothes she came back with from DC and she was temporarily emotionally satisfied. Her image was for Shaw’s benefit not Chuck’s. This allowed herself to emotionally distance herself from Chuck when he walked into the room. Chuck seeing Sarah looking good and sexed up, sensed what happened in DC. He asked if they had sex but not in those words. Sarah lied to protect Chuck’s feelings and to get the focus back on Chuck’s spy evaluation. But the truth was revealed when Shaw brought in her suitcase. Sarah was annoyed by being caught in the lie. Chuck refused to accept the truth but was forced to in a later episode.
The later episode, or more specifically the interrogation scene in that episode, is the one that I can’t reconcile with anything that came before or after. https://www.ohchuckme.com/3-17-living-dead-the-retcon-episode/
The way I understand the sequence of events is that Chuck is unavailable (spy life + normal half of of his real life with Hannah), so Sarah decides to try and find “real” in the spy half of her real life with Shaw (Devon’s warning to Chuck at the end of 3.03). Chuck has his Morgan epiphany in 3.09, tries to approach Sarah in 3.10 but she shuts him down, then she’s conflicted about DC when Beckman invites her but she goes nonetheless. I think she does attend lots of meetings (as Beckman and Shaw confirm during Chuck’s debriefing) but she also tries to make it work with Shaw (hence the outfit in 3.11) but confesses to Chuck later during the stakeout that it’s different.
I think DC (Shaw + distance from Chuck) is her version of Chuck’s Morgan epiphany. That’s why she isn’t ready to get personal in 3.10 but she is in 3.11.
I personally don’t think the air dates matter. When they film this stuff, they often don’t know when it’s going to air. In 3×10 Chuck and Sarah connect emotionally. But at this point, Sarah does not see a future with Chuck.Sarah is suppressing the pain. When Beckman invites her to DC she struggles with it because it means she would need to leave Chuck behind. In the end she goes to investigate what her life would be without Chuck. She did not go to be with Shaw. But once there, Shaw supplied her with temporary relief from the pain.
“It’s different” – intimacy vs. no intimacy.
Intimacy makes oneself vulnerable to the other person. It takes a tremendous amount of love and trust to live in that state. It’s why saving Sarah’s life is such a big deal to her. Prior to Chuck, it was the only intimacy she ever experienced.
I agree completely.
I usually don’t bother with date details or stuff like that. I only did in this case because nothing really makes sense to me in that interrogation scene, even though I get it’s supposed to be funny.
It reminds me of the scene that Fedak almost put in 5.08 Baby about Sam being Sarah’s dog’s name, which would make zero sense in the context of her emotional state and search for “real” in 3.08 Fake Name.
Chuck is Sarah’s first boyfriend. She had lovers and mission targets but never a boyfriend. When Sarah’s said Chuck is my boyfriend and we are exclusive. That was a really big deal for her. Imagine how many lovers Sarah saw sleep with other girls. Her world sounds like an endless party. But without love, it’s an existence that’s spiritually void. Sahra now needs to learn trust and intimacy and she wants to experience it with Chuck. I look at that interrogation scene in the contexts of what they still need to learn. Casey is only doing what’s best for them, get the cards on the table and let them work through it.
I came to the same conclusion on this. That outfit was for Shaw. The first time that season she dressed that way and it was for Shaw. Also notice she had those diamond earrings on too. She was trying to make the best of it and had come to the conclusion Chuck had moved on, he was about to be reassigned, and this was her opportunity to try and move on. She took the job and didn’t respond to Chuck’s attempts to call her. We know she was in love with Chuck so if she wasn’t intentionally trying to distance herself, she would have latched onto those phone calls. If she wasn’t too busy for dinner/shopping/sex, she could have found the time to call Chuck back. She was intentionally putting distance between her and Chuck and Shaw was an emotional lifeline she could turn to to get that distance.
Notice when Chuck sees her, her back is facing him. Chuck approaches and instead of turning to face him as she always does, she side turns to talk to him. When Chuck starts asking probing questions, she turns and walks away to create distance. Notice she also holds work related materials in front of her indicating that things between her and Chuck are now considered work. When the conversation turns to Casey, she faces him to talk about Casey and allows Chuck to close the distance between them because it’s not an uncomfortable topic until Shaw enters and interrupts it. Then she walks to the other side of the table from Chuck positioning Shaw between them.
The concept of baggage is important here too. She comes with baggage. First she leaves it behind in the car (a very unSarah like thing – was it subconsciously left behind to see if Shaw would “handle it”?) and Shaw “handles” it for her. He makes her aware of it and hands it to her in front of Chuck and she, embarrassingly, puts it under the table. Notice that Shaw puts his hands in his pockets after that. At the conclusion of the meeting, Shaw, after handing Sarah back her baggage, leaves with his hands still in his pockets, resulting in her picking back up her baggage to handle herself. All of this in the presence of Chuck.
The implication here is that she leaves her baggage behind and Shaw’s not going to invest a lot in carrying it for her. He’s willing to acknowledge it but she is on her own to handle it. Chuck has no role in this exchange of baggage and Shaw isn’t interested in taking it for her. She’s going to have to handle it herself.
Shaw could have put it down himself and he could have offered to take it back for her. He doesn’t. He leaves without a word to her. She picks up her bag and throws it over her shoulder leading to an awkward exchange between the now baggage carrying Sarah and Chuck resulting a lukewarm and emotionally distant congratulations….bags intact.
This scene is very clear to me. Sarah has picked back up her baggage and is erecting her walls. Shaw is now the one being rewarded by Sarah but she’s going to have to live with the limitations of what he’s offering.
And the baggage theme is reprised in the next episode, when Shaw toasts to a new life with Sarah with “no Burbank, no baggage.”
And also note the color of her outfit at the beginning of 3.11.
Exactly. Shaw is referring to Chuck as baggage in this case but it signifies Shaw will not be her baggage handler. His interests are companionship and no drama.
Brillant Analysis – The only thing I would add is that this whole event is a reaction to Chuck becoming a Spy.
Yes, also, another small but important detail I forgot to add. Whe Sarah creates that distance from Chuck by walking away. She flips a page on the table. Originally, I thought she might be hiding something from Chuck but the conversation before the flip and after is important in clarifying that. Before she “turns the page”, Chuck was still talking about her trip in personal terms. She “turns the page” and changes the trip to Chuck and the business aspect of the trip.
She’s turning the page on the relationship. The page turning occurs exactly when Sarah reframes the topic of her trip.
The page that she flips is from Chuck’s file. She’s turning the page on Chuck, or trying to. From the glances they trade when Chuck finds out he’s going to Rome while she’s going to DC, it’s clear that she already knew it and is trying to move on, even though it’s killing her inside. Hence the black outfit and her having to carry her own baggage.
I want to follow up on your comment about “The Handmaid’s Tale”. When I heard Yvonne Strahovski was in it, I looked into it. What I read made me sick to my stomach. I looked up Yvonne’s interviews to discover that she mentally placed a bubble around her unborn child to protect her from the energy flowing through her body while filming the show. If I were Yvonne’s friend I would ask her, If you think filming this show is bad for your baby what do you think it’s doing to you? I don’t know if she is doing the show for the money or recognition. Hollywood loves deranged stuff like this and they like to give out worthless trophies for it. I pray Yvonne finds a healthier way to live. She has a purpose and this show is not it.
That’s interesting. I’ll probably never watch THT but I was in a discussion with a female Chuck fan (the one who sparked this post, actually) who loves THT and said that Yvonne’s acting is amazing in that show and that the symbolism, overall cast, and acting are all superior to Chuck.
But I’ve recently read an article that says that THT’s season 4 has gotten pretty graphic and intense with all the rape stuff and should probably end soon. If even a mainstream magazine says that, I wonder how dark the show really is for a regular guy like me.
It’s a hard pass from me.
I identify with Sarah Walker’s relationship patterns. Watching Sarah’s journey asked me to look inwardly at my own past. Sarah helped me heal my wounds. I am incredibly grateful to the creators, writers and Yvonne for Sarah. I am Interested in Yvonne’s projects. But what am I supposed to think when she is the villain doing rape scenes? It breaks my heart. It makes me think she doesn’t understand why god put her here.
Yvonne is an exceptional talent. Analysis of Chuck usually ends up in two categories. Analysis of the overall arc and analysis of character behaviors. Even though it’s not clear how nuanced the writing is for these actors and how much is their own, I think we can do so by looking at how detailed their behaviors are. No one has more layers than Sarah. Her physical expression is so nuanced, it’s brilliant at times. Although it’s natural to give credit to the writers, none of the other actors have such a deep performance and nuanced performance. They have their behaviors but pulling apart Yvonne’s performance is so enjoyable because there’s so much there.
Eye shifts, facial expressions, body language, placement in the scene, intonation. There’s just so much stuff you can dig into with her. The writing drives story forward but it’s Yvonne that makes you go back and back again to look at the details. You feel them when you see them the first time but you appreciate the performance when you analyze what keeps pulling you back.
Wow, I can not agree with you more about Sarah/Yvonne. Her facial expressions, her eyes, intonation, body language are perfect in every scene. Yes you certainly feel them and marvel/appreciate the performance. She is by far my favorite actress. I have always thought Chuck was the perfect show for her. She was able to display all her talents, not just the acting skills mentioned above, but her being able to do both dramatic and comedy scenes plus dancing and action.
I have appreciated all of your comments/insights on Chuck that I have read so far. I can’t agree with you more with every word in your post above. Yvonne is a wonderful actress. Personally she is my favorite. Her facial expressions are always perfect. She has to be a director’s dream. Yvonne is truly Sarah Walker, she can do anything. Her abilities are endless. I have not watched “The Handmaid’s Tale” but like you I have read some about the show (mainly because Yvonne is in it) and how emotionally draining it is for Yvonne to play her character. I have no doubt she is excellent in the role, but if she was one of my three daughters, I would be asking her at what cost? Is it personally really worth it? When you immerse yourself in a demented character and world for a long period of time, I afraid I would have a hard time turning it on and off and it would affect me and my view of the real world.