Book Review: 'The Bionic Woman and Feminist Ethics: An Analysis of the 1970s Television Series'.

The Bionic Woman and Feminist Ethics

Okay, right off the bat let's be clear this is a look at the 70's hit TV show The Bionic Woman through an academic lens, rather than being a fan-loving retrospective one. I'm assuming you would know that from not only the author, David Geven, but also the title: 'The Bionic Woman and Feminist Ethics: An Analysis of the 1970s Television Series'. A quick glance at the extensive Bibliography confirms any suspicions of such, as well!

David is a Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. His areas of specialisation are nineteenth-century American literature; cinema, television, and popular culture; psychoanalytic theory, queer theory, and gender studies; and the history of American literary and film criticism. Previous books include "Intimate Violence: Hitchcock, Sex, and Queer Theory" (Oxford University Press, 2017), "Queering the Terminator" (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017) and "Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek" (McFarland) so he seems more than qualified to scratch beneath the surface of Jaime Sommers and see what she stands for, on a deeper and more probing level than merely a standard episodic review.

Jaime and her surgically altered 'twin' Lisa Galloway in 'Mirror Image' and 'Deadly Ringer'

I have to say I'm more a pint-down-the-pub and some 70's TV shows on the BluRay on a weekend kind of a guy, so will be the first to admit some this books was going to clearly go way over my head. That said, it's a enjoyable and eye-opening read for a long time Bionic fan. I think you can appreciate it on 2 levels, both an academic one in which it links the series to precedents such as classical mythology, first-wave feminist literature, and the Hollywood woman's film, and also as the long-time fan who knows the shows and instantly recognises the characters and stories being discussed (that's me the latter, by the way). I certainly appreciated the episode reference/analysis, rather than the academic historical references which at times I had to skim over as they were just a little lost on me.

The book is broken into 7 chapters, with titles such as 'Mrs Steve Austin'; 'In the Shadow of Saquatch' and 'Fembot Theory'. Each looks at a different aspect of Jaime and her character and how she was serviced by the writers on the show. I found the first half of the book to be the most enjoyable, perhaps because a lot of what was talked about was new and almost a revelation to me where later on I felt some of the links David was drawing were not ones that I readily agreed with (although not in a bad way) .

I loved the introduction: 'Why Bionic Woman matters'. It's long, but all the better for it as the author introduces the reader to what makes the show special and what he will be discussing throughout the book in terms of how he sees the character development, Jaime's relationship to how women have been portrayed by Hollywood Film, and the character's link to feminism and gender rights and what certain stories say about Jaime Sommers. Whilst the book look s at Jaime Sommers character as a whole, certain episodes are singled out as more important than others in relation to the book's narrative and episodes discussed in-depth include 'Jaime's Mother; 'Tomorrow is Doomsday'; Fembots in 'Las Vegas' and 'Deadly Ringer'

The book discusses Jaime's realtionship with female-looking Fembots, as well as computer intelligence Alex 7000,
from the episodes 'Kill Oscar', Fembots In Las Vegas' and 'Doomsday Is Tomorrow'

I'm a big fan of how David has shone a particular lens on the show that is not often talked about, and I won't spoil a lot of the surprises for you, but a couple of times I did take a pause at some of the author's observations. Such as when he is looking at the 2-parter 'Tomorrow is Doomsday' when Alex 7000's says to Jaime "you are just one woman" it shouldn't necessarily be assumed that it is a sexist comment as Alex could just as well have said "you are just one man" if he had been going up against Steve as personally I feel it is more that Alex is taunting Jaime as a human, rather than because of her sex. The story does work better by having Jaime in it as opposed to Steve, because Jaime often displayed a wider range of emotion than Steve usually did, and as an actress Lindsay Wagner really sold the (Wo)Man Vs Machine angle very well.

The same is happens when analysing 'Fembots in Las Vegas' where one of the Fembot's states at Jaime to make her follow her. The author implies it is sexual rather than just a ploy by a character to get them to follow her, which is actually a more as a standard device of 70s TV cop/detective shows. I felt the implication was more of a stretch than reality.

In 'Bionic Dog ' some of the intellectual references are lost on me, which doesn't surprise or upset me as I know my intellectual limits plus I'm not a hard core film history fan - to be honest that also counts for some of the other reference thought the text and I found I needed to skip the odd paragraph as I couldn't relate to it. That's not to say it spoiled my enjoyment of the book, and shouldn't yours, but more an observation. Whilst Jamie's compassion shines through in the episode and the links to her Bionics and her potential rejection are valid I feel some of the references to anthropomorphic representation and the relationship between women and nonhuman animals may be accurate, but in relation to The Bionic Woman are also potentially just the producers and writers merely looking for the next Bionic spin off series. That's not a criticism of the episode or Max, I actually have a real fondness for him, despite being more cat person at heart. Outside of the 2-parter where Max is introduced, looking back at the show today Max is actually served pretty poorly by the writers. He doesn't do a great deal and there are often just badly dubbed wimpers and barks to let people know he is there in the first place or what he is feeling. It would have changed the dynamic of the show to have Max more involved such as going on missions with Jaime, I admit, but once they did such a good job with his origin story, it's like they didn't know what to do with him after that. One episode that does seem to serve the character is 'The Antidote' . Here, Jaime's boyfriend, fellow OSI agent, Chris Williams and Max race to find Dr. Rudy Wells after Soviet ambassador Zuhkov and Jaime are poisoned and Jaime faces death unless she reveals Oscar Goldman's secret location. Chris and Max have some good scenes together and Max is called upon to use his Bionics to help a 'human' Chris Williams as they work to save Jaime.

L to R: Jaime and her mother, Helen. Jaime, best friend Calllaghan and Max, the Bionic Dog.

I might have liked to have seen a discussion of the episode 'Brainwash' where a hairdresser uses a shampoo to brainwash his clients for political again to uncover industrial secrets. One of his clients is Jaime's best friend, Callahan, who is in love with the guy. I'm not sure if this episode was considered for the book, but it seems worthy of further analysis given that it has a male protagonist who is literally trying to 'control' women and pits the two female friends against one another. So not only do we have a man controlling women, but we have 2 friends who are relationship is put at risk by this man over his manipulation of one of the women , Callaghan, as the boyfirend/male partner exerts his influence over her. Not a great episode perhaps, but surely worth a mention.

Another episode I thought was missing from discussion was 'Sanctuary Earth', where Princess Aura (played by Helen Hunt), from Zorla who crash lands on earth and is hunted by 2 trackers from the plane, Ulo, who happen to both be a pair of male twins. I'm sure there is some discussion here around how the heroes are both woman and their pursuers male. I guessed you can't go thru every Bionic episode but these two stand as omissions for me once you've read the whole book and you start to look for these signs throughout the show's 3 year run.

Jaime and Princess AuraThe male twins from Ulo track Jaime and Aura
Jaime and Princess Aura Vs The male twins from planet Ulo, from the episode 'Sanctuary Earth'

The book certainly makes you review the series in a new light, and I must say, a positive one. It might be true, though, that at times it can feel like the author is at imprinting his own agenda/preferences onto the series. It's fairly common knowledge that Lindsay Wagner had a lot of input and comment into how the series and the character was written and consistently strove to elevate the show about the usual network fare but, for me some of the more 'out there' stories such ' Out of Body' and 'Bio Feedback ' were just about to out of the norm for the show for my liking and whilst I appreciate it's good to push the envelope and try new things, I wonder if this was the right choice, although better these than potentially the wrestling-of-the-week episode (which BW also did by the way).

Overall this is definitely a book for fans of either Ms. Wagner, or the show itself. It's definitely unique, but all the better for looking at 40+ year old show with a modern eye. It works, and I defy you not to have new opinions and thoughts on the show after reading it, and after all, isnt that what any good book should do?

You can follow David Greven on Twitter at @david_greven

The book is avilable through McFarland's (the publisher) website here or via Amamzon UK or US.