Here’s my theory about the acceleration of a love story in a TV series. Most narrative in our society is told through male eyes. (That’s not the theory part—that’s pretty well-attested.) But the speed with which the love story develops and the attention given to it are proportional to the degree of power the woman exercises in the relationship.
I started thinking about it after Arthur noted how quickly the love story develops in the action/comedy series, Chuck that we’re currently watching. Comparing it with two other series we enjoy, Stargate and Big Bang Theory brought out some interesting themes.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series, here’s the rundown:
- Chuck is a regular guy who gets all the US intelligence secrets downloaded into his head, becoming their most valuable asset for secret missions. He’s guarded by a hot-as CIA agent Sarah Walker (Australian Yvonne Strahovski) whom he promptly falls in love with.
- Stargate SG-1 is about a band of explorers who use a big ring to get to other planets in the universe. They’re led by (ex-MacGyver) Capt. Jack O’Neill who gets along very well with his subordinate, Capt. (later Major) Samantha Carter.
- Big Bang Theory is a comedy about super-nerd Leonard and his super-genius flatmate Sheldon. When beautiful waitress/wannabe actress Penny moves in next door, we spend the next three seasons seeing Leonard try again and again to win her heart.
On the surface, you’d think Chuck is more like Stargate—the action, the adventure, the fact that the two lovebirds can’t be together because there’s a mission that’s more important and they can’t let their feelings get in the way of being professional. Yet, Chuck accelerates the love story and it becomes a focus where Stargate leave it pretty well undeveloped for most of the series, preferring to keep the action centre stage.
In that regard, Chuck ends up being more like Big Bang Theory—the sweet-but-so-not-her-type guy pining for a woman way out of his league. Perhaps it’s the comedy aspect that made the writers of Chuck accelerate the love story—there’s certainly plenty of fodder there! But my theory is that it’s about power.
In Stargate, O’Neill clearly has the power in the relationship. He’s in charge of the team; he’s Sam’s superior. He sets the tone for what they talk about, which is the mission most of the time. In contrast, in both Chuck and Big Bang Theory, the women have the power in the relationship. In Sarah’s case, she’s Chuck’s protector but she’s also beautiful and could have her pick of men. She doesn’t need Chuck. Same deal with Penny—a running gag in the show is the steady stream of boyfriends seen leaving her apartment.
When the man in the relationship is in the position of power, any development of the love story takes a back seat. But when he doesn’t have power, great attention is given to the development of the relationship. A relationship where the man holds the power is almost banal in TV: the woman can just wait a little bit longer while the important stuff gets sorted out. But when the woman has the power, all of sudden the ‘important stuff’ seems less important and the love story receives more attention.
Patriarchy is completely status quo; powerful women, on the other hand, are an issue to be dealt with. Or that’s my Chuck theory anyway!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.