Star Trek‘s “Mudd’s Women” is a battle of the sexes narrative which, like most battle of the sexes narratives from days past, has aged poorly. Grown Starfleet officers openly drool because a woman has decided to wear make-up and a spangly tight outfit nearby, and the fate of the Enterprise is in peril!
What can you do but roll your eyes…and then, rather queasily, conclude that moral panic about women in general, and sex workers in particular, maybe isn’t quite so irrelevant as we’d like it to be.
The episode opens with the Enterprise chasing a small, unidentified vessel into an asteroid field. Said small vessel is destroyed and the Enterprise is badly damaged. At the last moment, though, the Enterprise manages to beam aboard the fleeing ship’s personnel: Captain Harry Mudd (Roger C. Carmel) and three beautiful women. Mudd is taking Eve (Karen Steele), Magda (Susan Denberg) and Ruth (Maggie Thrett) to a settler planet, where they will marry lonely pioneers. The women are dazzlingly beautiful and distract the virtually all-male crew (female crewmembers are conspicuous by their absence on this trip.)
A background check on Mudd reveals he’s a small-time criminal and swindler, and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) confines him to quarters while the Enterprise limps to the mining colony of Rigel XII to replace their dilithium crystals. However, the women sashay about the ship and obtain information and communicators from the dazzled crew. When they arrive at Rigel, Kirk discovers Mudd has made a deal with the three miners: they’ll give Kirk the dilithium he needs. But only if he frees Mudd and leaves the women to marry the miners.
Kirk lets Mudd and the women beam down. However, Eve has (inevitably) fallen for Kirk and her ambivalence about marrying Rigel boss Ben Childress (Gene Dynarski) leads to a fight between the three miners. Eve runs out into a windstorm and Ben pursues and eventually finds her. In a safe cabin, they bicker about domestic arrangements and Eve tells him he can scour his plans clean in the sandstorm. Silly men don’t think of things like that.
Kirk meanwhile gets Harry to admit that the women are super-hypnotic beautiful because they’ve been taking something called the Venus drug, a semi-illegal beauty enhancer. Kirk informs Childress, who is angry when he sees that Eve is actually as “plain as an old bucket”. Eve takes more Venus drug, but it’s actually a placebo Kirk has slipped her. She believes she’s beautiful and so becomes beautiful; the moral lesson about self-confidence here requires us to ignore the obvious intervention of hair and make-up.
In any case, Childress decides he likes Eve after all, and she chooses him over Kirk (who’s wedded to The Enterprise.) The other miners already married the other women under false pretenses, though it’s implied they can get out of it if they really want to. Kirk takes his crystals and Harry back up to the ship. There’s a final joke about Spock not having a heart, and that’s the happy(?) ending.
The episode’s misogyny is laughably blatant—even more so than the series’ first hypnotic female deceiver episode, “The Man-Trap.” Women use artificial sex power to overthrow male order and responsibility, nearly leading to destruction for all. It’s up to men to “save” them from their own reliance on fake beauty, giving them the self-confidence to stop gallivanting around the galaxy with rogues and settle into tamed, respectable domesticity with some good(ish) man. At the same time, the women—as in Westerns of yore—bring civilization and clean pots to the frontier. Women and men without each other descend into lies and slovenliness, respectively. You need to bind them together in matrimony to restore dignity, authenticity, and order to all.
The default proscribed gender roles are so trite at this point that they virtually read as parody. But there’s a bit more going on in the episode if you recognize that the women aren’t just women. They’re sex workers. And Kirk isn’t just a man. He’s a cop.
As is not unusual with cops, Kirk is so focused on rule infractions he completely disregards humanity, kindness, and even self-preservation. Harry’s ship is no threat, and Kirk is well aware that chasing it into the asteroid belt is likely to cause its destruction and risk the lives of all of its occupants. More, he risks his own ship. But he never hesitates, because being a stickler for the rules is more important than preserving the lives of four people, or of four hundred.
And what is Harry’s infraction exactly? The only thing Kirk charges him with is operating the vehicle on a suspended license. That’s not much to kill over.
Mudd’s real crime, arguably, is human trafficking. He’s carrying sex workers across space and across borders. According to common anti-trafficking narratives now (and some fifty years back as well), any person who enters a country or territory to engage in sex work is effectively an enslaved person. Traffickers are supposed to addict and control women for their own profit. Through that frame, Harry is an exploiter and an enslaver. Kirk had to destroy that ship to save the women.
Advocates for sex workers and for immigrants argue, though, that the majority of sex workers crossing borders aren’t enslaved. As researchers, Rutvica Adrijasevic and Nicola Mai explain
Simplistic trafficking and slavery representations portraying all migrant sex workers as powerless victims are problematic because they conceal the agency of the migrants working in the sex industry. This hides the actuality of migratory projects and the fact that sex work is, for most migrant women, men and transgender people, an income-generating activity and an opportunity to achieve social mobility.
Sex workers cross borders to find a better life. They are often forced to deal with shady third parties precisely because border crossing is criminalized, often in the name of protecting the women who end up being hyper-policed.
And sure enough, the women traveling with Mudd tell us that they are all from small, backwards, rural planets, with small economies, small populations, few men, and little room for advancement. They were bored, poor, and wanted to get out.
Eve (here cast as the obligatory sex worker with a heart of gold) is upset when Mudd suggests that she try to seduce Kirk. She resists him, but he obviously has at least some ability to put pressure on her. That’s ugly. But Mudd’s coercive power is increased, not diminished, by the fact that Kirk has backed them all into a corner by destroying their ship. He’s left them with fewer options, which means they’re more vulnerable.
Part of Mudd’s control of the women comes from the Venus drug. Sex workers are often stereotyped as addicts. But in this case, the Venus drug seems to be addictive only in the sense that without it, the women lose their cosmetic advantages. It’s less permanent and has fewer side effects than plastic surgery. You might as well say they’re addicted to their make-up. Though maybe Kirk would blow up a ship to save women from make-up, too, if he had his druthers.
Beneath the corny narrative about susceptible men and domesticating women, then, you can just make out a plot in which Kirk and Mudd are both bit players in the stories of significantly more marginalized, and significantly more courageous people. Eve, Magda, and Ruth threw aside dreary lives of drudgery to brave unscrupulous scoundrels and equally unscrupulous officials. They were almost killed for their pains and knocked off course. But they manage to leverage the hypocrisy of the patriarchy to turn defeat into victory, and find a home which, while still harsh, is at least somewhat better than the ones where they started.
The Venus drug, in this context, is a distraction—not because it makes the women more attractive, but because it allows Kirk to feel like he is a beneficent dispenser of wisdom. Otherwise, he doesn’t get angry and figure out he’s an obstacle circumvented. Given the fact that we can see Eve’s appearance change with our own eyes, it seems likely that she noticed Kirk’s deception and swapped the placebo out for the real Venus drug. She can simultaneously wow the miner and trick Kirk into leaving her alone. When men have the power to strand you or arrest you, you need to make sure they think they’re teaching you a lesson, even when it’s the other way around.
This isn’t exactly a happy ending. Eve, Magda and Ruth have found a home, but they’re still dependent on the arbitrary whims of not especially reliable men. Kirk, for his part, continues to fly around the galaxy, blowing up ships with busted taillights, risking the lives of his crew for nothing, and condescending to the women who cross his path. The episode is at least a little brighter, though, if you acknowledge that maybe they’re condescending to him too, and better.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.