WHEN Bionic Woman was announced, I was kinda excited. I’m happy that the more… sci-fi-ish stuff is getting a better look-in these days. Makes me wonder whether Firefly could have had more of a chance now, a wondering that usually winds up in me being mildly depressed. So I grabbed myself a copy of the pilot, alongside The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Both were pretty good; they showed promise, I thought, even if they had their patchy patches. Then again, Katee Sackhoff gets to be all arch and knowing, not to mention smirky, and how could I possibly resist that?

But with Bionic Woman, one of the strongest parts, I thought, was that Jaime Sommers, aka the second bionic woman after Sackhoff’s Sarah Corvus, had a sister. Yeah, on the one hand it looked like an easy ‘things are gonna get tough coz she can’t tell and it eats her up inside’ line (currently playing out, for those not in the loop), but there was something different about this sister. She was Deaf. And totally sassy, which we love in a girl, but this was the bit that was really interesting.

It’s not just the depiction of disability on mainstream TV that I’m pushing for here. Sure, that’s important. But this was something more. The Bionic Woman has a Deaf sister; she’s enhanced whilst the sister is apparently ‘lacking’; Jaime is, in the rather uninspired discourse of the pop culture world, capable of so much more where ‘more’ is always understood as better, happier, more alive. This contrast, made explicit like this by setting the two characters side-by-side, offered a space for engaging with issues of how exactly disability comes to be disability. I dreamt, foolishly, of the way that the fights between the bionic women would enable the reconstruction of space and time. I mean, they move faster, further and can see and hear farther than anyone else. It reconfigures landscapes, secrecy, knowledge, absolutely and entirely: to hide, you need to be very far away—I think the deal is that they can see for 2 kilometres with the sharpness 20/20 vision allows for 200 metres—and extremely quiet. (Early on, Jaime’s boss gets the grumps because she overhears a conversation—he’s all about the concealing—and orders one of his underlings to sound proof the office). These responsive measures demonstrate the extent to which these ‘enhancements’ reconfigure our space. And with this challenge the bionic women pose to the particularity of the environment in which we live, it becomes clear that this world, apparently shaped entirely by the natural way of doing things, is entirely dependent upon a very specific sense of the norm. This in turn, I dreamt, would reveal that what is so easily labelled disability and so easily understood as a neutral, natural lack, is entirely reliant upon a world shaped around a restricted notion of those who are in it; around a ‘norm’ perpetually enforced on all fronts. In other words, once the bionic women showed us the extent to which our environment is shaped by our conception of the normal, Jaime’s sister’s ‘lack’ becomes understood as something not inherent but the result of the interaction between her ‘non-normal’ body (abnormal already understands it as lacking) and a specific environment. It’s not her body that gives out; it’s the context.

Why is this such a significant point? Well, for me, part of it is about the tendency to see these ‘non-normal’ bodies as inherently pathological, and that is, as the source of whatever sufferings those with disabilities may experience. I’m not at all denying that there are many extremely painful conditions that get grouped under the horribly homogenising title ‘disability,’ but I also think that much of the suffering that goes along with and often contributes to disability is, to use the loosest phrase, culturally constructed. Not untrue, not unreal, good god no, but constructed. Contingent. Fundamentally alterable; and alterable not by the usual supposition of ‘here’s a body with something wrong, make it better,’ which makes the suffering the responsibility of the sufferer(‘s body, to query the Cartesian-ness of all of this!), but by demonstrating that this alteration is more than an individual responsibility. It’s a communal one. (NB I tend towards critical engagements with ideas of community which suppose it to be about difference rather than sameness, whatever the current rhetoric.)

But beyond even these concerns is the looming question of biotech. The contrast between ‘therapeutic’ use of medical technologies and ‘enhancement’ is one that is mostly frantically maintained by bioethicists, ostensibly because to do otherwise would be to grant permission to all and sundry bodily alterations. (This is actually in the episode, discussed in rather pathetic terms by Jaime’s oh-so-bright academic boyfriend and the God/Frankenstein figure to her Eve/monster-fication.) Actually, my cynical heart can’t help but suggest, it’s because if the contingency of marking particular bodies as ‘disabled’ were actually made evident, the medical engagement with disability would be demonstrated to be pathologising, and thus playing a key role in the maintenance of the norm. They would become at least partially responsible. Those who support biotech advancement (those crazy kids, the transhumanists—I say this with a fair amount of fondness in amongst some serious questions) would also have their drive for more and better critiqued. Actually those who push for ‘higher IQs’ to be produced by genetic alteration or pharmaceutical intervention would be demonstrated to merely be pushing for a particular set of conceptual and (IQ tests are very odd) etiquette skills, those associated with whiteness, maleness and middle-classness. It raises questions about what we are striving for, and why, and to what extent these aims which shape so much of scientific endeavour are bound up with reiterating the privilege of that which already is privileged, and concealing it behind ‘common-sense’ naturalising (and pathologising) talk. (Memorialising, anyone?).

So then; the difference between the pilot and the first episode? The sweet punk of a Deaf sister was disappeared, and replaced with a doe-eyed young hacker (just wait for the ‘ahh, she hacked my bionics/sis saves the day because she counter-hacked them and helped Jaime survive’ storyline. It’s a-coming, I’ll betcha!) with perfect hearing and some conventional tendencies to TV non-sequiturs. I love the idea of the hacker, but I can’t help but be aware that in the contrast between the two characters, what we actually have is the assumption that disability is identity-defining. It wasn’t necessary to have an all-new sister to make her a hacker; in fact, I can’t help but notice that computer-based stuff is inordinately visual, and could have been an utterly utterly believeable part of a character who challenges authority at a whole series of turns. It also takes out at least part of the critique of the norm: the contrast between Deaf-normal-Bionic and hacker-normal-Bionic is palpable; the latter has no real engagement with the absolute contingency of the stratification evident in the first. Indeed, hacker+Bionic seems all about the better+better progress narrative our technologised context sells itself on. The critique gets removed because it’s too complicated, too much, too critically engaged with what the studio assumes we want to be able to continue to take for granted in order to be entertained. And sadly, this means that Bionic Woman loses much of its critical edge, the promise that makes me love sci-fi to pieces.

(Though not all of its edge, because Katee’s still sassy, strong and willing to kill, and who doesn’t like that in a girl? ;-))