Oh, the sound of male ego. You travel half way across the galaxy and it’s still the same song.
Occasionally, there’s a part of me that wants to just do a one-word review. Some episodes of television, or movies or books or suchlike, don’t really deserve the usual thousand or so words. (Plus, my sense of humour is niche enough for that to rather entertain me.)
Mudd’s Women is one such episode, because honestly the only word I can come up with is “ugh”. It’s not very good. It’s better than yesterday’s effort, in that while it is kinda misogynistic and crappy, it doesn’t outright excuse rape. So, you know. But equally, this is an episode about mail order brides that ends with Captain Kirk swapping three women for some lithium crystals. This is far and away not the sort of episode that you want to admit exists in Star Trek.
It’s interesting to watch all of these old episodes back again, because I’m starting to realise how much of our conception of Star Trek is perhaps from the legend, as it were – what we refer to as Gene Roddenberry’s vision – rather than the show itself. Everyone likes to talk about how important and groundbreaking this show was, but let’s not also forget that it was often painfully sexist, and rarely quite as utopian as you’d hope for it to be. I mean, consider this episode; Kirk and his crew aren’t explorers or scientists, they’re acting as space policemen, and you’ve got more than enough references to money to blow a hole in that society without money idea. This is an episode which very much demonstrates that Star Trek isn’t always what we’d like it to be. (Technically speaking, it hasn’t yet been that at all – I’ve not seen any of those infamous allegory episodes yet.)
Of course, it is a pretty poor episode in and of itself. Let’s not beat around the bush with that – any time a piece of television goes with the “women have some sort of magical powers linked to their beauty that adversely affects the men”, you know it’s essentially going to be trash. Doesn’t matter if it’s The Original Series in the 1960s, or if it’s Enterprise in the early 2000s – that’s a plot that is solely guaranteed to be trash. It’s made worse, of course, by the fact that there are so few women in the regular cast anyway; Uhura, inexplicably in yellow, gets about three lines here, and poor old Janice Rand is nowhere to be seen.
This is something that reminded me of Ghostbusters, actually. Or rather, some of the discussions that were happening prior to the movie, and whether or not Leslie Jones’ character Patty was a racist stereotype. One of the things that was referred to during this debate, though, was an interesting quote from this TED Talk: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” And that’s the case here! (Also in Where No Man Has Gone Before with Elizabeth Dehner sticking up for Gary because she had feelings for him, but honestly, it’s only worth focusing on the sexism of the story at hand.)
The only female characters to get a significant focus – and it’s probably worth noting the irony of the fact that this is, thus far, the episode with the most women to have speaking roles – are the ones who are depicted as vapid, vain, and desperate to get a husband. Even avoiding the sheer wrongheadedness of this, the fact that there’s no contrasting alternative is essentially to say that all women are like this. It’s absolute and utter rubbish.
I don’t know, necessarily, if it’s worth going into the above much more. Mudd’s Women is, I think, infamously quite sexist. From Kirk selling the women to the focus on their beauty pills (to say nothing of the terribly unearned and blatantly shoehorned in “believe in yourself” stuff), it’s pretty obvious that this episode is little more than misogynistic dreck. There is nothing of worth in this episode. Like, at all. And I would hope everyone knows this, really; if you’re interested in further discussion of quite how sexist it is, it’s been written about a lot. I don’t particularly feel that I have much more to add on the topic, really. Here’s a decent blow by blow of all the egregious moments from the episode, if you’re interested in more.
What does seem worth discussing, though, is how we’re meant to approach Star Trek in light of this. After all, it’s not like the people involved didn’t understand what this was; executive producer Herb Solow summarised the episode as “three beautiful women-hookers selling their bodies throughout the galaxy”, after all, and anyone who’s even a mite familiar with Roddenberry can tell that a lot of this came from him. (Memory Alpha has a quote from Jerry Stanley, the program manager at NBC, where he says of this episode “One of the problems we had was in trying to talk [Roddenberry] out of some of his sexual fantasies that would come to life in the scripts. Some of the scenes he would describe were totally unacceptable”)
I have no problem assigning the blame for this one at Roddenberry’s feet, incidentally. Obviously in part because he has a story credit for the episode, but also because he was the executive producer on the show, and a rather controlling one at that; there would have been little stopping him from excising the sexism of the episode had he so wished. Or, indeed, had he taken issue with it at all.
Mudd’s Women, more than anything else, is much like The Enemy Within – we’re being faced with the fact that Star Trek isn’t a visionary program. It’s not even particularly utopian; it’s painfully of its time, and it’s very clear that the people who are making it aren’t that fussed about an inspirational cultural institution. And, well, duh – it was just a job to them, and at the end of the day this is still just a sixties TV show. Which means that there’s a lot of crap in it.
We can still credit Star Trek for a lot, because it did become a cultural force for the better. But I don’t think we should ever forget, or indeed forgive, the flaws from its early days; part of striving to be better means we shouldn’t stop applying a critical eye to what came first.