This is part of an ongoing series, ANALYZE TREK, in which we analyze classic Star Trek episodes through a modern, socio-political lens.
In the Star Trek episode, Mudd’s Women (the seventh episode to air in sequence on October 13th, 1966), we are introduced to the somewhat recurring character of Harcourt Fenton Mudd, or Harry Mudd (Guest Star, Roger C. Carmel). In the episode, Mudd is brought aboard the Enterprise, along with three, strangely magnetic, young women. Mudd, a kind of flamboyant space pirate, is quickly revealed to be a wanted criminal, and the women he travels with are essentially to be sold as wives to “lonely” men on a mining planet.
Despite the reluctance of the Enterprise crew, at the end of the episode the three women are ultimately handed over to be the wives of three miners. As the men get to know their new wives, inevitably, domestic drama ensues. This causes one of them, Eve, to run out on on her new husband, Childress, into a harsh dust storm. Despite dwindling power, Kirk uses the Enterprise’s sensors to track Eve down, and in turn discovers their secret. Mudd had been giving them an illegal venus drug which presents an illusion of beauty and appeal to the beholder, giving the women a strange, unnatural allure. Without this drug, the women would simply appear “plain.” Kirk and Mudd beam down to the surface after locating Eve, giving her a dose of the venus drug to calm her nerves. After her “beauty” returns, she resonates with self-confidence once again. Kirk then reveals that it was a placebo drug; that the true beauty was within her the whole time.
Considering the reveal in Mudd’s Women that Harry Mudd was essentially a pimp/sex-trafficker, the themes explored in this episode could have gone in countless directions. What we are given, however, is a look into the role of beauty and subsequently, the self-esteem levels that often correlate with it. It’s fascinating that the episode took this approach when it could have presented a scathing critique of illegal and underground sex industries. To me, it at felt at first like a cop-out or simply a fluff piece – rejecting a serious issue in favor of a lighthearted story with a bumbling yet charming antagonist. However, digging a little deeper, I respected the method of story telling this episode employed more than I initially thought. Instead of attacking a concept such as the sex industry, we are given a very personal, and tragic, journey through the perspective of one of “Mudd’s women,” Eve. While Eve’s experience is influenced by being a trafficking victim, what she primarily suffers from is the root of what gave rise to the whole industry to begin with. What we see are the effects of society’s unreasonable standards of beauty and passive nature towards primal lust and the objectification of women.
Initially, I was also struck at why the character of Harry Mudd was not instantly more detestable. Why would the writers try to critique our beauty standards and emphasis on sex appeal, yet allow the main antagonist to be charming and even somewhat likable? While Mudd is clearly the “bad guy” of the episode, I believe the writers conscientiously crafted the character the way they did so we as viewers would be forced to reflect on ourselves. We are pushed to look at our own standards of beauty, and our acceptance of societal norms, rather than being given a figurehead at whom we can all direct our frustrations towards.
Sociologically, the concept of beauty within society has been explored at great lengths. What Eve and the other women are put through could be seen as an example of structural functionalism. The three women are victims of a social hierarchy that they so desperately want to climb, but unfortunately are destined to fail due to the absurd standards of beauty. This concept exists today, just as strongly as it did in the 1960s. Sadly, we let it happen by buying into a culture that thrives on a preconceived idea of what is pretty and perfect, giving way to unending cases of eating disorders, depression and anxiety.
Furthermore, while this societal issue is still ripe and fresh today, it also reflects back on some of the earliest concepts of social theory, specifically Karl Marx’s social conflict theory. Marx used the concept to argue against capitalism and the strong caste systems of the time, but it is just as applicable today. Conflict theory sheds light on the system that divides us by what we have and what we do not have – in this case it displays the divide created by those of us who have what is defined as beauty and those of us who do not. Marx argued through conflict theory that under capitalism, it was impossible for those in the lower classes to climb the hierarchical ladder and improve their social standing. In Mudd’s Women, Eve personifies that impossibility as it relates to beauty standards; she sees no other way to better herself or find love in a natural way, so she turns to Mudd’s venus drug.
At the end of the episode, Eve is rejected by Childress in her true form. She finally cracks under the weight of it all, succumbing to the allure of the drug and showing him, as well as all of us, what society says we really want, and the falseness of it all:
“You don’t want wives, you want this. This is what you want, Mister Childress. I hope you remember it and dream about it, because you can’t have it. It’s not real! Is this the kind of wife you want, Ben? Not someone to help you, not a wife to cook and sew and cry and need, but this kind. Selfish, vain, useless. Is this what you really want? All right, then. Here it is.”
The episode ends with Kirk explaining that Eve took a placebo pill and that she had always been beautiful on the inside, and what truly matters is that she now has the self-confidence to let it shine on its own. This finale acts as a true Roddenberry ending, looking forward past the grim and dark realities to a positive, hopeful, and idealistic vision of the future.