By David Greven.
The following is an excerpt from The Bionic Woman and Feminist Ethics: An Analysis of the 1970s Television Series © 2020 David Greven by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. www.mcfarlandbooks.com.
As I will have several occasions to note, The Bionic Woman evokes the core themes of the woman’s film, or female melodrama. In her study A Woman’s View, Jeanine Basinger offers a persuasive description of what constitutes the classical Hollywood woman’s film: it is one that “places at the center of its universe a female who is trying to deal with emotional, social, and psychological problems that are specifically connected to the fact that she is a woman.”[i] The popularity of the Hollywood woman’s film genre is generally believed to span from the 1930s to the early 1960s. The history of the woman’s film, the evolution from “female weepie” to “chick-flick,” needs a much more expansive historical account than I can provide here. Any proper analysis of this topic would need to account for the made-for-TV film from the 1970s to the 1990s; the Lifetime channel and its wide array of content ranging from the TV-movie genre it has kept alive to its various original and re-run TV series; cable TV series such as HBO’s Sex and the City, which self-consciously and explicitly evoke the woman’s film, and the more recent Girls; and so forth.
Moreover, the extraordinary cross-fertilization of the woman’s film with other genres, such as noir, horror, science-fiction, biopic, screwball comedy, romantic comedy, spy thriller, rape-revenge film, et al, needs to be included in any analysis. As Basinger argues, the woman’s film genre far exceeds the boundaries of melodrama; to limit the genre to melodrama would “eliminate more than half of the films that are concerned with women and their fates, among them Rosalind Russell’s career comedies, musical biographies of real-life women, combat films featuring brave nurses on Bataan, and westerns in which women drive cattle west and men over the brink.”[ii] For these reasons, I believe that a science-fiction narrative can share the woman’s film paradigm.
What Bionic specifically shares with the woman’s film is two of its central themes. As I have argued in my book Representations of Femininity in American Genre Cinema, these two themes are the female protagonist’s ambivalence over marriage and her significant, often fraught relationship with her mother.[iii] I will discuss the latter in the next chapter’s analysis of the S1 episode “Jaime’s Mother.” Here, I want to address the ways in which, from the character’s inception, Jaime Sommers expresses an ambivalent attitude toward marriage.
Jamie Sommers is introduced on The Six Million Dollar Man series in a two-part episode called “The Bionic Woman” written by Kenneth Johnson, who will then go on to create the sequel series. At one point in “The Bionic Woman, Part II,” Steve, Helen, Jim, and Jaime all raise a glass at the breakfast table to “Mrs. Steve Austin.” Tellingly, this family toast occurs over orange juice and in the morning, neither the beverage nor the time of day or meal one would normally associate with a wedding toast. As they all clink orange juice glasses, Jaime shatters her glass of juice in her right hand. Ostensibly, Jaime’s ongoing hand tremors – evidence that her body is rejecting her bionics, which leads to her death at the end of the two-parter – cause her to shatter the glass. But we can interpret this moment as a symbolic expression of Jaime’s resistance to marriage, even perhaps her anger at its inevitability.
Another key aspect of Jaime’s personality that emerges here – and one that endures all the way up to her last appearance in the third crossover reunion movie, Bionic Ever After? (1994) – is her reluctance to divulge life-threatening physical illnesses related to her bionics, especially to Steve. One might also interpret this rather odd – both self-destructive and neurotic – stubborn streak as indicative of Jaime’s ambivalence over marital vows, a sign that she does not trust her imminent spouse to be able to cope with and share her burdens.
I contend that Bionic represents a progressive political vision and foregrounds feminist ethics. For some critics, Bionic is a reactionary series that contains Jaime Sommers’s independence and unregulated sexual agency, transforming her into a woman with much less autonomy than she had at the start of her narrative. When we first meet her, Jaime is a brash, energetic young woman who has made a considerable name for herself as a star tennis player. She turns down Steve’s request for a date (technically, she postpones it because she already has a date that night). Jaime travels the world and socializes broadly, encountering a glittering assortment of venues and people; in the season 2 “Doomsday is Tomorrow, Part 1” she explains that she has learned passable French through her tennis-pro travels. The episodes leading up to the series and the series itself transform Jaime into a relatively much more traditional young woman.[iv]
In the season 1 Bionic episode “Jaime’s Mother,” Chris Stuart, the fugitive Cold War era double of Jaime’s now-dead mother, is finally tracked down by the double agent-henchman who have been pursuing her. These henchmen are about to kill Jaime for having seen them abduct Chris to kill her as well. Chris, intending to save Jaime, protests, “She’s a schoolteacher! In a hick town! Alive, she’s no threat to you.” Chris successfully convinces the men not to dispatch Jaime. While one would not put the matter as bluntly and harshly as Chris Stuart does, and with all due respect to the noble and vital role of schoolteachers, Jaime’s transition from glamorous celebrity tennis star to local schoolteacher does seems like a containment of unlicensed female autonomy.
Interestingly, once the series transitions from the ABC network to NBC for its third and final season, Bionic will eschew much of the small town, local, familial trappings of the first two seasons, focusing on Jaime as an autonomous and sexually adventurous woman of the world, even as it gives her a convincing romance with a man other than Steve Austin. (Chris Williams, played by blond mustachioed Christopher Stone, works with Oscar Goldman and Doctor Rudy Wells at the OSI and becomes Jaime’s love interest in the third season. But Jaime is also depicted in this season as having numerous heterosexual relationships past and present, even an interracial romance at one point [“Out of Body”].)
The major woman’s films – such as Alice Adams (1935), Now, Voyager (1942), Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948), The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949), Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949), Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich, 1956), and, I would argue, many Hitchcock films – place a woman’s desire at the center of their plots and themes, as Robert Lang argues.[v] Bionic will explore the nature of desire, but rarely in the form of a heterosexual romance. Instead, the series will consider desire in terms of class longing, as it does in the great two-parter “Deadly Ringer” from the second season, and in terms of the desire for family, community, and connection, also a vital aspect of “Deadly Ringer” and central to the season one episode “Jaime’s Mother.” (I discuss intertextual overlaps with Hitchcock and Sirk in the chapter “Bionic Vertigo.”)
While there are numerous moments in “The Bionic Woman” Six Million two-parter that rapturously depict Jaime and Steve’s love for one another – and I write as someone who responds to their mutual ardor as one of the great depictions of romantic love on television – increasingly the episodes featuring Jaime Sommers emphasize her fears about marriage and reluctance to reveal these fears. The parallels with great woman’s films such as Now, Voyager emerge in this ambivalence over the marital union. The series allegorizes these fears as Jaime’s privately terrified responses to her malfunctioning bionics, which take the form of a trembling right hand, an effect augmented by quivery sound effects.
While one accepts the nature of the premise of both series, that we enjoy the demonstration of bionic superpowers and associate these powers with beloved heroes, it is also true that for these superheroes to come into being, an unimaginable amount of trauma must be inflicted on the body. Jaime Sommers is a “new woman, now,” as these early episodes note, but in part because her body undergoes traumatic injury to achieve this ideal.
If Jaime is successfully, if only temporarily, normalized as dutiful wife-to-be and government agent in Six Million Dollar Man’s “Bionic Woman” episodes, it is also true that she frequently explodes with rage, especially at the end of the two-parter. The series allegorizes this explosive female rage, a desire to break out of the mold of normative gender roles and compulsory heterosexuality, as somatic breakdown. The dual nature of bionics, its status as pharmakon, both illness and cure, emerges here as the cause of Jaime’s suffering and precisely the means through which she expresses her anger and rejects her imposed confines.
At the end of “The Bionic Woman, Part One,” Jaime escapes the hospital where she is meant to undergo corrective, life-saving surgery. That Jaime undergoes this suffering and that her treatment is thus delayed are unpleasant outcomes. In terms of sexual allegory, however, Jaime’s unstoppable fury and power as she forcibly exits the prison-like hospital reflects her intransigent rebellion against the male-dominated, patriarchal systems of government and institutionalized biomedical authority – always conjoined in both series – that seek to contain her.
[i] Basinger, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 20.
[ii] Basinger, A Woman’s View, 7.
[iii] I discuss these themes at length in my book Representations of Femininity in American Genre Cinema: The Woman’s Film, Film Noir, and Modern Horror. Expanding on Robert Ray’s concept of the “concealed western,” developed in his book A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, I argue that many films in other genres, specifically the horror film, can be read as concealed woman’s films. I view The Bionic Woman as a science-fiction television series that can be read as a concealed woman’s film.
[iv] Josephine Donovan, in her book After the Fall, discusses the conflict between young women of the late nineteenth-century and their mothers in terms of Greek mythology, specifically the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Donavan interprets a tale written by the New England local colorist Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, “Evelina’s Garden,” as deeply symbolic of women’s struggles at this historical point: a young woman is bound by an older woman’s will, which stipulates that she must care for an extraordinary garden and never marry. But she breaks the will, destroying the garden and marrying a man. The older generation of women, like Demeter, want to guard their daughters within their protective realm and “keep a women’s culture alive,” observes Donovan.
But the younger women were being lured away, primarily, as in the traditional myth of the fall, by the attraction of wider knowledge. For the first time in history, the late nineteenth-century generation of middle-class daughters had the opportunity of entering the world of public, patriarchal discourse. Institutions such as universities, to which women had previously been denied entrance, were gradually opening their doors. Women were adjusting their vistas, looking to broader horizons; the rural matricentral community was beginning to seem too restrictive, too limiting. And yet there was the fear (voiced by the traditional women, the mothers) that the new knowledge the younger women were winning would obliterate older feminine traditions.
Donavan, After the Fall, 11. I would argue that resituating Jaime Sommers in a local, home-bound tradition is a reactionary gesture that evokes this definitive late nineteenth-century moment in women’s history. The reactionary aspects of Jaime’s transformation back into a more traditional kind of woman is importantly ameliorated, however, by the fact that Jaime once again becomes a world-traveler with access to unprecedented “new knowledge” in her work as a spy.
[v] Lang, American Film Melodrama.
David Greven is Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. His previous books on film include Intimate Violence: Hitchcock, Sex, and Queer Theory (Oxford, 2017), Ghost Faces: Hollywood and Post-Millennial Masculinity (SUNY, 2016), Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin (Texas, 2013), and Representations of Femininity in American Genre Cinema: The Woman’s Film, Film Noir, and Modern Horror (Palgrave, 2011).