TECHSPLOITATION Of course I tuned into the series premiere of Bionic Woman last week. Some of my earliest TV memories are of watching the first Bionic Woman, a hopelessly and gloriously 1970s series about Jamie Sommers, a tennis player who gets bionic implants that give her super strength in her legs, one arm, and one ear. She was a cyborg before cyborgs were cool. And every week, she would fight bad guys and do bionic stuff for great justice.
Now ultimate women’s lib heroine Sommers is back, all spruced up for the 2000s, and the results are rather strange. Thirty years have passed, and time seems to have gone backwards except the bionics, which have been updated to a nanopseudoscience involving something called anthrocites. This time around, Jamie isn’t an independent career jock: she’s a 23-year-old bartender and college dropout who has just gotten pregnant and is about to marry her surgeon boyfriend. When she asks said boyfriend why he likes her, despite her lack of professional success, he replies, "You’re the one thing my father didn’t plan for me."
This kind of weirdly retrograde treatment of Jamie and her relationship is all the more perplexing because the show is produced by David Eick, whose other show, Battlestar Galactica, is known for its strong female characters. Indeed, when Eick talked about Bionic Woman before the show debuted, he claimed it would focus on how we feel about women’s roles now that we know women can do anything men can. Jamie is hardly the kind of woman to tell that sexual equality story. She’s in a low-status, low-paying job, looking down the barrel of her future as little more than a rich man’s wife.
All that changes, however, when she gets into a nearly fatal accident and her boyfriend takes her to his secret lab at Wolf Creek, where he gives her a secret surgery that turns her bionic. Anthrocites in her blood mean she heals instantly; implants in her eye and ear give her super senses; and she has those superfast legs and a superstrong arm. Even her superpowers come to her via a sexual connection with a dude. And, it turns out, so do the superpowers of her nemesis, a bionic lady (Katee Sackoff, who plays Starbuck on Battlestar) who had sex with another guy who works with the ultrasecret bionic lab.
Now that Jamie has these new powers, however, she doesn’t have to be a bartender. What will she do with her bionic upgrade? Apparently, she’ll have to do exactly what the dude who runs Wolf Creek tells her. He points out that she has about $50 million worth of his equipment inside her body now, and he has a business interest in making sure she toes the line. So the entire premise of the show that Jamie becomes a "saving the world" type is founded on the idea that she has no choice because her body literally does not belong to her. Most of her body parts are the property of a corporation. We are left to assume that if she refuses to do what Wolf Creek tells her, they’ll take their toys back and she’ll die. Or maybe they just won’t give her any upgrades and she’ll be infected with some kind of bionic virus that makes her scream "Viagra!" or "Mortgage!" over and over.
So let’s assess our new-school bionic babe, keeping in mind Eick’s comment that this show is about how "we" feel now that we know women can do anything men can. Apparently "we" feel that women only become powerful through their sexual relationships with men. "We" also feel that even when women are powerful, it’s probably because men implanted something inside them that the men continue to own and control.
Sure, there a few ways the show tries to nod to feminism. Though Jamie isn’t educated, we’re told that she has an IQ higher than the Wolf Creek director who owns her. And her little sister is a hacker. So we know that women can have brains, that they aren’t powerful solely because of things that male scientists surgically attach to their bodies.
Nevertheless there’s something deeply wrong about a science fiction show, allegedly about a woman of the future, whose message seems taken from a past much further back than the show’s origins in the 1970s.
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who will, in spite of all her protestations, be glued to Bionic Woman every week for the next season.