Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 1.1.6: I Ain’t Sayin’ She A Lithium Digger…

Mudd’s Women

Star Trek Mudd's Women

The male gaze.

*Unintelligible screaming*

I know. You’re going to want more than that. Really, though, this is going to be a tough one. As we’ve seen, this is far from the first Trek installment to be tremendously problematic in its politics. Up until now though, nearly every example of terrible television has contained at least a few traces strands of something good. There was almost always something I could weave into an idea of what the episode could have been. Even the total train wrecks like “Code Of Honor” have thrown flaming carriages in directions that were worth tracking, if only to find new ways to gape at their awfulness.

“Mudd’s Women”, in contrast, is not just awful, but awful for utterly obvious reasons.


Boobus And Bounders

Let’s start in exactly the place you would expect me to. The only place we can, really. Even when an episode is subtly sexist, it’s important to cover the issue sooner rather than later, so it doesn’t appear you’re tacking it on as an afterthought. And this isn’t even in the same quadrant as subtle; it’s utterly brazen about how terrible its attitude is towards women. So much so, actually, that trying to list all the different forms of ugliness actually gets kind of depressing. The unpleasantness starts from the very instant Harry’s three passengers arrive, with Maggie Thrett being introduced bum-first. Clearly this was deemed insufficient, however, because we’re not even into the turbolift before the director yells “MOAR ASSES!” and the camera’s trained on the women’s backsides as they saunter past drooling menfolk.

(Speaking of which, the crew of the Enterprise behave absolutely horrendously this week. If these women are simply being made more attractive by the Venus drug, the straight men aboard ship have absolutely no justification for not getting their jobs done. Hands up those of you who’ve worked alongside people you’ve found astonishingly attractive. Now keep those hands raised if you still did your damn job. I’m guessing Uhura had to put on that gold command uniform this episode just to make sure something actually got done aboard ship.)

As blatant and shameful as this is, though, you can perhaps compartmentalise it as to how television worked (and often still works). That’s not to excuse it, just to recognise the sheer scale of the problem. What bothers me more about this episode is how Mudd echoes the visual crassness. In any even halfway enlightened society referring to human beings as “my cargo” should be considered grounds for arrest. The instant Mudd makes this comment, the episode has two choices. It can condemn his misogyny in the most direct terms, or become actively complicit in it. If it doesn’t pull off the second, any hope of a redemptive reading disappears. An episode that allows women to be described as property has no way back. Mudd has to be shown to be wrong. More than wrong, actually; completely beyond the cultural pale. And the fact the story ends with Mudd in custody notwithstanding, I don’t see any way to convincingly argue the episode does this. It doesn’t even try. It’s just too in love with the cheeky rogue it has created.

And in fairness, Mudd himself is almost hypnotically charismatic. This is a fact that bothers me, given how awful a human being he is, but it remains a fact nonetheless. Roger C. Carmel is an absolutely magnetic actor, and an enthusiastic tackler of accents, too, which is clearly relevant. Yes, the choice to make Mudd Irish has its downsides. At best it’s the positive stereotype of the gift of the gab. At worst (and my sincere thanks to a knowledgeable tweep for giving me background on this) it feeds into a negative portrayal of Irish men as lazy, shifty chancers who don’t think they should have to do a job merely because they happen to have been paid to do it. All that said, Carmel’s actual performance of this troubling trope is thoroughly entertaining. And really, I’m not sure how far we can get with a criticism of a fake accent chosen for a character that is also using fake credentials and offering a fake history and name. Much more interesting to me than Mudd’s accent is his cowboy hat.


Wooing Women Westward

We return once again to the origins of the franchise. In point of fact, Star Trek so far has been absolutely nothing like Roddenberry’s description of it as “Wagon Train to the stars”, and frankly this inability to distinguish between a civilian migration and a military patrol is fairly concerning [1]. Still, the link between the western frontier of the expanding United States and the slow diffusion of humanity through the galaxy is worth considering here. The key point is that both the Federation and the colonial holdings of the Old West have/had population densities which are/were unimaginably tiny to most of us.  A man at the frontier who wanted a wife did not have an easy task ahead of him. If he lived close enough to civilisation he could rock up at festivals and hope he bumped into someone. For many though the surrounding area was so devoid of people the only solution was to join a club offering women as pen friends; women who might ultimately be willing to make the great trek west in order to do some cooking and cleaning. It almost goes without saying that should anyone agree to such an arrangement, another man would have to accompany her on the journey west.

In short, then, there’s a genuine historic basis to the story, and one that makes sense in the (admittedly often problematic) larger context of the series. One of the few moments I genuinely like in this episode is when Mudd gently pours scorn on the idea that a four-person craft could be considered a hazard to navigation in the inconceivable vastness of interplanetary space. The sense of isolation, and hence the drive to connect, is impossible for me to grasp.

The issue, of course, is that “Mudd’s Women” is suggesting 23rd century long-distance courtship will work along the exact same principles as it did four hundred years earlier, and lead to the same outcome. Apparently the future, as in the 19th century, women will travel over vast distances for months on end so they can become unpaid domestic labourers. Roddenberry clearly didn’t believe a society that has travelled to the stars would see any need to interrogate the traditional assignment of labour. This has always been one of the uglier sides of science-fiction; the ability to suggest that hundreds of years into the future mankind will have concluded progressive ideas were wrong after all, and that everything was just fine the way it was. Under any circumstances this would be a big problem, but with this episode written at a time and place where second-wave feminism was gaining momentum as an attack on (among many other things) domestic inequality, this is flat-out an attack on women who want to do more than simply cook and clean.

All of this is of a piece with the episode’s more general wretched concept of gender. Again, this is so widespread here that there seems little point cataloging every tawdry example. It’s not in any way subtle. Mudd reinforces the idea within minutes of beaming aboard: “Men will always be men no matter where they are. They’ll never take that out of them”. Even worse is the Venus drug, something which might actually be the most terrible idea in an episode absolutely stuffed with them. By imagining a drug which simultaneously makes women more pretty and men more muscled, Roddenberry manages to not just push gender essentialism – a drug that has two distinct results depending on the gender of the taker rejects the idea of a gender spectrum by its very existence – but to pile on white America’s beauty standards as well. The suggestion that there exist Platonic ideals for men and women is bad enough, both for what it suggests and for who it erases. The idea that it’s people like Roddenberry who’ve figured out what those ideals are makes this an order of magnitude worse.

I’m at a loss to understand why the Venus drug is discussed as working on men in the first place, actually. Why bother? Why not just make it a drug that enhances certain aspects of the human form that parallel a specific ideal of feminine beauty? At least that would drag us out of the realm of terrible concepts of gender and “merely” make this about misogyny. I’m certainly not suggesting this would solve all of the problems with the drug. There’s an clear and unpleasant link between Childress’ reaction when Eve’s high wears off and the thoroughly despicable men who go around referring to make-up as “false advertising” whilst pouring hatred onto any woman who dares show her actual face in public. It would still be better than what we’ve got here, though, which rather captures just how many layers of wretchedness this episode displays.


If She Likes It Then She Gets To Put A Ring On It

 

Given how bad all of this is, perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that the episode doesn’t do any deconstructing of its historical source. It’s certainly problematic when presented here unchanged and without critique, but it’s difficult to imagine any attempt to critically engage would improve matters, given whose pen this script seeped from. And as retrograde and problematic as the ideas displayed here are, it’s worth noting that a lot of people with more solid feminist cred than Roddenberry (not a high bar to clear, admittedly) have failed to engage with Mudd’s activities here in helpful ways. As always, I read the relevant Memory Alpha entry for this story whilst planning my post, so I know how common it is to dismiss this episode as being about Harry Mudd’s space hookers.

Let me be clear: this is an awful reading of the text. It’s awful even if we put aside the (barely) implicit condemnation of sex workers. Because that’s clearly not what Eve, Magda and Ruth are. These women aren’t offering sex for money. They’re offering an exchange of companionship and an exchange of labour. Because they making this offer whilst being sexy, though, and because it’s somehow still somehow difficult to understand a marriage doesn’t have to involve sex and sex doesn’t have to involve love, far too many people see something problematic in what these women have chosen to do.

And they really shouldn’t, I don’t think. If a woman decides a marriage is what she needs to escape a domestic situation she’s unhappy with, we don’t get to judge her for that [2]. If she tells her intended that she has no interest in having sex with them, or that she will only under certain conditions, we have no right to an opinion. If Eve decides she has not a shred of emotional involvement in Childress but wants their nights together to be filthier than his frying pan, that’s up to her (and him). A marriage is whatever the people married to each other want it to be. Even the spectacle of Magda and Ruth celebrating all the money they’re about to come into is only a problem because it feeds into a misogynistic stereotype of young, attractive women. Out in the real world if a woman decides she wants to marry into wealth, it remains none of our damn business.

This tends to get lost in the criticism of Mudd’s own wretched attitude. Our three women have certainly chosen a terrible Uber driver, one desperate to turn that role into a get-rich-quick scheme at the expense of everyone around him. His view that so long as Eve, Magda and Ruth marry someone the details aren’t of any interest is obviously indefensible. But I’ve covered how Mudd is a hideous human being already. I get twitchy around the idea that his unpleasantness should be used as an angle from which to attack his passengers. Sure. if you lie to someone about why you’re marrying them, that’s a problem. There’s absolutely nothing here at any point that suggests this is the plan, though. The only implication that any of the three women are deceiving anybody stems from that wretched drug, and neither this show nor this society gets to criticise women for using artificial products to make themselves pretty. The idea of the Venus drug being a form of deception only has any force if you’re the kind of man who thinks a wife is a status symbol. That she’s an object you show to other men; one that needs to be both well-designed and constantly maintained. Don’t be that guy, guy. Don’t be the kind of man who listens to Eve say “I got tired of you; I slumped” and hears a terrifying echo from his own possible future. A wife who doesn’t try to look sexy anymore? WHAT WOULD BE THE POINT IN HER THEN?

The show’s idea of what a marriage constitutes is terrible in general. Eve announcing her desire to cook and clean for a husband rather than her father and brothers is the sort of thing Kirk should go to red alert for. Her otherwise grand line about Childress not wanting a wife but a fantasy is completely undercut by it feeding the message that it doesn’t matter if your wife is pretty, so long as she can do the ironing. So yes, there are issues with the three women’s plans for the future. But that’s a problem with the choice of destination, not in wanting to make the journey. Of all the things in this episode that are genuinely awful, the idea that people might travel long distances to enter into relationships without first staring wistfully into each other’s eyes across a meat-space table absolutely isn’t one of them.


Grounds For Divorce


Time for the sad truth, though. No matter how loudly I defend the choices these women have made, it won’t actually make this episode any less wretched. Pretty much every attitude and trope on display here is a terrible one. So is there anything we can pull out of this burning sewer pipe?  I guess the episode does try to pull off a last-minute Hail Mary with its insistence that self-belief is what is really sexy. Whilst I’m sure this is well-intentioned, though, I don’t really think it helps. Partially that’s because I think people who suffer with self-esteem issues have enough to deal with without television telling them it’s interfering with their sexiness. Mainly though I’m enraged by the naked hypocrisy. Roddenberry’s show didn’t hire a trio of confident women for his hideous exercise in misogyny and leering. He hired models and a Playboy Playmate and smeared the cameras with Vaseline [3].  It’s far, far too late to be pretending he thinks true beauty comes from within.

Ultimately the only comment on attraction worth a damn comes from Spock of all people. In an episode that puts the boot in to those with self-image problems, the simple phrase “Even burned and cracked, they’re beautiful” carries a lot of weight, as well as further reinforcing my conviction that Spock is struggling with mental health issues.

But that’s more or less it. One good line surrounded by a bubbling moat of steaming vomit. To get that brief moment we have to sit through Roddenberry insisting that the future will see the sneering reactionaries victorious in the battle of the sexes. We have to face his vision that centuries hence, gorgeous women will be flown to your door so they can help you do the washing up.  And we simply shouldn’t have to. This is everything that was wrong with the Original Series. That it sprang from the same mind as the franchise itself is Star Trek’s original sin, or at least a facet of it. There can be no true progress for this universe until it can be separated from its creator.

That’s a necessary condition, of course, not a sufficient one. The next episode we’re going to cover doesn’t seem to have had much at all to do with Roddenberry, and it still isn’t very good.


[1] This shouldn’t be taken to mean I’m unaware that military support (uniformed or otherwise, officially condoned or otherwise) was a vital tool in ensuring these civilian migrations were able to succeed in the first place. There was after all plenty of resistance from those people who, y’know, had already lived there for centuries.  My point is simply that if you can’t tell the difference between a wagon train and a military convoy, you are pretty much guaranteed to write something terrible every time you look to the Old West for inspiration.

[2] This is distinct from not arguing against a society in which women find themselves culturally or economically compelled to get married, naturally. We can respect individual women’s decisions at the same time as standing against pressures that may affect such decisions in the general case.

[3] Obviously I can’t claim the three actresses lacked for confidence; that would be a strange thing to say of actresses and models. And I absolutely do not intend to imply the fact at least two of these women worked as models (one whilst – GASP! – naked) means they shouldn’t be taken seriously as actresses. I don’t want there to be any hint of a suggestion that any of my objections above can be aimed at Steele, Thrett and Denberg. I’m simply saying the episode’s casting call makes it clear where the true sympathies of its creators’ lie.

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