Feminism Vs. Fembots

Fembots are having something of a moment. Sometime on your commute, you've probably come across the Svedka mascot, an Amazonian android with a cinched metal waist and creamy fiberglass thighs. Or maybe you've caught the new Heineken ads with the self-replicating cybergirl. She boasts Go-Go-Gadget arms, flapper style, and a draft-keg in place of a stomach. The billboards for the next season of America's Top Model feature the latest round of Tyra-bots, posing in metallic get-ups in front of the slogan, "The Future has Arrived." And premiering tonight is NBC's remake of the '70s hit Bionic Woman. Matrix green motherboard inside.

From Maria, an exotic fembot dancer in the 1927 film Metropolis, to The Stepford Wives to the recent booze-hawking sex-borgs, robotic women have long been a subject of and for feminist critique. Prevailing logic has said that fembots are designed to fit their (male) makers' desires; that no matter how futuristic they may look, they promote retrograde sexist ideals.

Critics have jumped on both alcohol ads. Feminist bloggers, for example, have blamed SVEDKA_GRL for encouraging the Barbification of the female body. And Bob Garfield of Ad Age says Heineken has "reduced half the world to a man-servicing beer tap." Perhaps wary of such conflation, the promoters of Bionic Woman have gone out of their way to point out how their protagonist is different. Michelle Ryan, who plays the new Jaime Sommers in Bionic Woman, compares her character to Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider: "When ... you see her kicking ass, you're like, 'Yeah, I want to be like that. I want to be strong, and I want to be confident and empowered ... I think that's a really great message that Bionic Woman will hopefully bring out there."

From this perspective, the mute sexbots of Heineken and Svedka stand wholly apart from the progressive politics of today's Bionic Woman. But closer examination of these various fembots reveals that feminism isn't served by such black and white simplifications. For all its girl-power PR, the new Bionic Woman is not nearly as enlightened as Ryan suggests. And those booze ads? They might be more futuristic than your average beer billboards after all.

The original
Bionic Woman premiered on ABC in 1976, one year after The Stepford Wives. America was in the midst of the Equal Rights Amendment debate, and networks contributed to the national reconsideration of women's roles with a wave of prime time superheroines like Wonder Woman and Charlie's Angels. Jaime Sommers was first played by Lindsay Wagner as a two-episode love interest in The Six Million Dollar Man. Her portrayal of a professional tennis player -- Billie Jean King had won her Battle of the Sexes a few years prior -- bionically rebuilt after a skydiving accident proved so popular she was resurrected from her written death and given a spinoff.

Seen today, the original Bionic Woman's politics are dwarfed by the cartoon sound effects and campy action scenes. Sommers' sex appeal is unsubtle. With her feathered hair and flirty laugh, she seems as feminist as a short-shorted Jessica Simpson singing, "These Boots Are Made for Walking." Some theorists have suggested this was intentional, that the hypersexuality of these uber-chicks made women's social progress cartoonish and thus culturally digestible. Others have argued that, as comic book porn-esque as they were, characters like Bionic Woman paved the way not only for the slew of Xenas and Buffys and Tomb Raiders of recent years, but also for the more realistic and culturally complicated Cagneys, Laceys and Murphy Browns of prime time television.

The new Bionic Woman, then, certainly looks like progress. Gone is the Wagner blond. In is Ryan's brooding brunette. The lighting is dark and a category 2 hurricane seems to be in some kind of holding pattern over the set. One of the first shots has her slamming a man into a window. In another scene, a little girl in the back seat of a car tells her mom about a running woman outpacing them in the woods: "I just thought it was cool that a girl could do that." Later, we see the young newly bionic bartender unintimidated by her new spy boss: "If we do this, whatever it is 'this' is, we do it on my terms."

Donna Haraway, academic and author of The Cyborg Manifesto has long argued that rather than subjugating women, technology can be their liberator. We no longer live in a society or economy dictated by biological discrepancies. She suggests machines and cybertechnology allow us to dismantle "natural" limitations and reconstruct our bodies and identity to our liking.

Bionic ass-kicking is not quite what she had in mind, but still, the promos for the Bionic Woman seem to build this promise. Her body's functionality takes a much more prominent role than its sexuality. Her wardrobe is more CSI detective than Fawcett pinup. Indeed, television critics are pointing to the Bionic Woman as the latest example of women as "the new men." As executive producer David Eick says, "It is using the idea of artificial technology as a metaphor for what contemporary women sometimes feel is necessary to do everything that needs to be done."

Well, except that the new Jaime Sommers is not a member of the mommy wars. She is a 24-year-old bartender. Eick and the networks are only too eager to sell her as a neofeminist icon, but if we are really to take the show as a metaphor for women and contemporary life, it reveals sexual politics and technology moving at very different paces.

Because for all the feel-good clips that come from her long jumps and quick reflexes, the real tension of the show grows from the fact that, in spite of her power, Jaime Sommers is not really in control. "How can you take me seriously? Why are you with me?" asks Ms. Sommers of her paramour, a surgeon and bio-ethics professor who, after her car accident, bionically modifies her body without her consent. And the spy boss shown taking orders from Ryan in the promos later reminds her: "You have $50 million of my property in you, so I guess you could say I'm your landlord."

To its credit, Bionic Woman 2.0 has the makings of a good mystery series. Her boyfriend and her boss-man are cut from the Lost cloth that confuses who's good and who's bad. Still, though these sort of story lines are designed more to intrigue viewers than to address any bionic-feminist politics, they also remind us that, in today's culture and economy, the equation of physical strength with personal power is actually passé. Dick Cheney, I doubt, has a decent karate kick. Oprah is far more powerful than The Rock.

Plus, if we are talking about power in terms of control, technology does not liberate Bionic Woman. It makes her a subject. This becomes even more evident when you look at the biggest physical threat to Jamie: Sarah Corvis, another bionic woman played by Katee Sackoff. The girlbot-on-girlbot action is not new to the series. In the original show, Lindsay Wagner had several bouts with a series of fembots, gynoids that, when de-masked, revealed frighteningly budget robotic faces. Corvis, however, is a women's studies course's wet dream.

With two bionic arms, she's more fully mechanized than Jaime. Her hotness is harder, less feminine. She's also purportedly "out of control," because she's taken the technology into her own hands, roboticizing one of her eyes and part of her chest (!) herself. In the middle of a rain scene reminiscent of the Blade Runner ending, Sarah tells Jaime: "I'm cutting away all the parts of me that are weak."

But she is also no Daryl Hannah-style replicant. She is very human, and the battle between her feminine frailty and her bionic ambitions are scene-stealing. After a killing rampage in the lab, she pleads with one of her creators: "Tell me you love me." He obliges. Right before he shoots to kill. Eick himself has said that Sarah is "a cautionary tale." But combine that with his comment that technology in the series is a metaphor for modern women's conflicts, and his prognosis is actually quite bleak. Never mind Jaime, the sweet girl to whom this just happened to her. Look at Corvis, older, stronger and self-modifying her body, and you'll see Donna Haraway's vision doomed to a much darker and more desperate future.

In a story for NPR's All Things Considered, Neda Ulaby posits we can tell a lot about our historical relationship to technology via the two Bionic Women. In the mid-'70s, new technology like the Walkman and personal computers bore an air of utopian promise. Wagner's Jaime Sommers mirrored this with a light sci-fi simplicity. Today, Blackberrys keep us working on the weekends, the newest igadget is obsolete in weeks, and one can't go on a date or job interview without being first screened by Google. As a culture, we are a little more cynical about the cyber world. The new Bionic Woman's noir style, Ulaby suggests, shows our increasing sensitivity to technology's side effects.

It seems the same is true in respect to feminism. The mid-'70s women's movement made equality seem as potentially easy as Free to Be You and Me. Women were being told they were no longer obligated to stay at home, tend to the kids, do the laundry. It was freeing, and pop culture echoed this optimism with a wave of primetime wonder women. Recent mainstream feminist debate, however, has been much more skeptical. Bestseller books and op-ed pages have raged over the costs of this progress, on its effect on child-rearing, on women's health, on financial security, on the simple expectation that women should "do it all." Our Bionic Woman reflects this wariness.

Which takes us back to those Svedka sex borgs. I'm not about to argue that fembots are a positive trend in advertising. Though Garfield might have been overreading the Heineken ads when he suggested they were serving beer out their uterus, they still disturb.

But as mute robots, are they really more subservient and here for your pleasure than the soft-flesh porn lite usually served between games? As far as the argument that female cyborgs embody sexist body ideals, are they that much worse than the standard 34-24-36 Budweiser model? If anything, the impossibility of their parts would seem to dissuade emulation.

Plus, while the SVEDKA_GRL cashes in on the idea of making it with a big-breasted piece of metal, the ad's not all retrograde. "Thank you for making the gay man's fashion gene available over-the-counter in 2033," reads one of its New York billboards. "Madame President and her first lady serve Svedka at all official state functions," pushes another. It's more sensational than it is political but at least she/it boasts a point of view.

"I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess," Donna Haraway has said. And I would rather kick down a door and pull off a Jamie Sommers fight sequence than be a Svedka cocktail waitress. But just as physical strength does not translate to personal power, all robotic images of women need not equal their subjugation. As our world and economy become increasingly mechanized, it seems so do our representations of women. These pop-culture fembots are built not only out of our ideas about technology, but also out of our cultural expectations of gender. It benefits us to unpack their political implications, to make sure our future is not burdened with the biases of our past.


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