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TV Legends: How Sexism Named the Bionic Woman

by  in CBR Exclusives, TV News, TV Comment
TV Legends: How Sexism Named the Bionic Woman

TV URBAN LEGEND: Concerns over sexist attitudes led to the naming of the “Bionic Woman.”

Something that often gets too much of a bum rap in popular culture is the idea of network interference on television shows. Obviously, history is filled with examples of networks not knowing what the heck that they were talking about with regards to their notes on television shows, but at the same time, you also don’t want situations where show creators are completely locked off on their own without any outside feedback. The best situation is thoughtful network observations that help guide creators, but generally letting the creators tell the story that they want to tell (network notes gave us Elaine on “Seinfeld,” so they can’t be all bad!). However, in the case of “Bionic Woman,” there was an instance where the network was extremely involved in the day-to-day runnings of the series, micro-managing everything, from the dog on the show to, yes, to the name of the show.

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“Bionic Woman” was a spin-off from ABC’s hit television series, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” which starred Lee Majors as Steve Austin, who was a NASA astronaut who was badly injured in the crash of an experimental aircraft. He was “rebuilt” using bionic technology to both save his life and now make him a powerful cyborg. He worked for the government, doing missions that normal people couldn’t pull off. In a season two episode, Steve reconnected with an old girlfriend, Jamie Sommers (played by Lindsay Wagner), who is now a famous tennis player. They get engaged, but Jamie is tragically badly injured in a skydiving accident. Austin begged his government handlers to save Jamie’s life and they do so, turning her into a female equivalent of Steve. She seemingly died at the end of the two-part storyline, but audience demand led to Jamie getting her own spin-off, with her death explained away and also memory problems explaining why she and Steve remained apart from each other.

When she was initially built, there was a line in the episode humorously noting that it cost less than six million dollars to save Jamie, because she was smaller, so her parts cost less (which, of course, is the opposite of how computer parts actually worked at the time). On Jamie’s own show, though, they left it vague, with subtle references to her costing both more and less then Austin at different points in the series.

However, the specific reason it was never specified whether Jamie cost six million dollars (or more) was explained years later by Lindsay Wagner:

She couldn’t cost more than the man! They were going to make it more, but there was this whole political thing with the network because it was the beginning of the feminine revolution.

They were in a bit of a bind, as saying she cost more would cause complaints and saying she cost LESS would cause complaints from other people, as well. So ultimately they just kept it vague and dubbed her simply the “Bionic Woman.”

As noted before, it was also the network that prevented Max, the bionic dog introduced in Season 3, from getting his own show. The producers wanted to try to spin him off and the networks said “nope,” so Max remained on “Bionic Woman.”

The legend is…

STATUS: Basically True (“basically,” because there’s a chance they would call her “Bionic Woman” even if she was a “Seven Million Woman”)

Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of TV.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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