“Mudd’s Women” and the Pitfalls of the Body Positivity Movement

I’ve been struggling to pin down why the “think yourself beautiful” body positivity movement makes me so uncomfortable… and then, as has been the trend throughout my life, I found clarity in Star Trek. Still, I couldn’t have been more surprised when it was a re-watch of “Mudd’s Women,” a first season original series episode on nobody’s favorite list, that finally helped me get it. (Kirk and TOS have never failed me, but usually it’s because we’re on the same team.)

In case you haven’t seen it in a while, here’s a refresher: The Enterprise rescues a ship captained by Harry Mudd. His “cargo,” as he calls it, consists of three hot women in glittery dresses, who soon strut around the ship turning male heads everywhere they go. (This was 1966, remember, so Star Trek had yet to acknowledge the existence of gay people.)

Mudd’s women: Eve, Ruth, and Magda

Mudd is a broker of sorts–somehow he gets paid to set these women up as wives for rich men, which doesn’t make a lot of sense; surely somewhere on all those Federation planets, there must be a million places these women could go to start new lives. We then find out that the women take something called a Venus drug that enhances their natural appeal. “What it does,” explains Mudd, “is give you more of whatever you have. Well, with men, it makes them more muscular. Women, rounder. Men, more aggressive. Women, more feminine.” (Again, it’s 1966.)

What happens to the women when they run out of the drug? They droop. They stop smiling—still a crime in 2019, by the way. They stop being pleasant (also a crime). Their hair gets messy, their bodies lose their shapeliness so their dresses hang loose, with no curves to support them. Even the lighting changes.

“What if someone sees us like this?”

Then they gobble down a sparkly pill and all is restored. It’s like that pill contains a tiny little stylist who works from the inside out.

The Enterprise needs dilithium, so they start negotiations with rich miners, who live shitty lives in a windblown, hostile environment but have chosen to remain in their shitty living conditions, presumably to get even more rich.

Eve, the deepest of the three women (as demonstrated by her connection to Captain Kirk), runs away and has to be rescued by miner Ben. While Ben recovers from his expedition to find her, she gets practical, cooking his food and cleaning his house. He doesn’t care. All he wanted was for her to look beautiful and she sure doesn’t look beautiful anymore.

“You’re not only plain as an old bucket, you’re not even good company,” says Ben, ever the charmer.

Mudd and Kirk show up, spill the beans about the Venus drug, and Ben is outraged. His friends have been tricked into marriage! The women ARE NOT ACTUALLY HOT!

A frustrated Eve makes her big speech.

“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!”

She scarfs down the pills and she’s flawless again. Without use of a styling team, expensive products, or even a comb, she’s suddenly award show-ready, down to her salon-fresh hair and her arrived-out-of-nowhere false eyelashes. Her voice softens.

“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.”

Yes, this is the kind of wife Ben wants.

Mudd and Kirk then tell her she’s been duped and the drug was a fake, a placebo. Here’s their exchange, as they gaze at Eve almost paternally.

KIRK: There’s only one kind of woman.
MUDD: Or man, for that matter.
KIRK: You either believe in yourself, or you don’t.

We know something you don’t know …

For all of us (like me!) who would love the answer to our beauty problems to be a pill … well, we’re out of luck. It doesn’t exist. What does exist is a mountain of products we’re supposed to buy, videos that teach us how to use them, and an industry designed to keep us doubting our appearance at every turn so we’ll buy their wares. Beauty companies are making their fortunes by teaching us that everything on our bodies needs to be trimmed, modified, painted, plucked, shaped, and most of all, fixed.

Hey, there’s even stuff for our bums!

Along comes the body positivity movement, which tells us that being beautiful isn’t about trying to change ourselves, it’s about accepting who we are. And sure, there are plenty of women out there demonstrating the strength and beauty of that. They don’t fit the traditional, magazine-style standards that torment so many of us, and it doesn’t matter because they carry themselves with strength and confidence, and it works. So what’s the problem?

The problem is the flip side to that message, pushed hard by the same “11 Body Oils That Will Cure Your Reptilian Skin” corporate crowd. (And yes, that’s a real headline). If you aren’t seen by others as beautiful—still the goal, always the goal—it’s now because of your own negative attitude. It’s almost worse than the pressure to look like the women on magazine covers, because it’s not about impossible standards, which we could (in our more lucid moments) dismiss as ridiculous; now it’s about our failure to believe in ourselves—specifically, to ooze confidence about our appearance. It’s not the images we got bombarded with all day long; it’s our incorrect thinking.

Like Eve, we all have the power if only we were woman enough to use it. The focus, as always, is on our flaws—this time in our PERCEPTION—and how we need to fix them.

Hey there, insecure ones! Stop looking at society or the massively profitable beauty industry for not accepting non-traditional women, unskinny women, older women, women who are too dark, too short, too tall, too round, too ethnic, too wrong. If we believed we were pretty, we’d be pretty. (And let’s face it, pretty is still as important as it ever was.) We can’t tout our culture’s unrealistic expectations anymore; the blame is ours and ours alone. We are all Eve, and if we only believed in ourselves, we too would be stopping traffic with our sexy walks and sideways glances.

“Would you walk past my panel again, please?”

There are some great body positivity advocates out there like Jameela Jamil, who really do want to challenge the unrealistic expectations and make people feel better about themselves. With an insider’s view, Jamil is vigilant in exposing the truth—thankfully, with lots of humor and appropriate frustration—about the bullshit we’re being sold: not just the laxative teas and appetite-suppressing lollipops, but the army of stylists and retouchers who shape the images we’re supposed to emulate. And then come the companies who twist that message, wanting us to embrace them for their body positive slogans while telling the very same story as “Mudd’s Women,” and they’re just as smug about it as Mudd and Kirk with their nods of approval at the newly glamorous Eve.

In case you forgot.

Look at the “progressive” Dove “Real Beauty” campaign. Oh you women, you walked through the “average” door because you don’t love yourself enough! You describe yourself as unattractive to our sketch artist because you lack confidence! (Our natural soap can fix that, by the way.) Taken further, as the message gets boosted on social media: You don’t wear a bikini because you’re not brave, not because you’ll get 800 mean comments under your photo if you don’t have a flat stomach. You’re flawed not just on the outside, but on the inside. The message is still that there’s something wrong with us, only this time it’s our brains, the one area previously unaddressed by the cosmetics industry.

Watching Eve take that placebo and transform, thinking she was taking the Venus drug, delivers that same message: all you have to do is think beautiful, and you’ll be it. It’s not all those retouched photos or even the expensive trainers and dietitians on the payrolls of actors and models. It’s that we aren’t thinking right—so get on that, women! You can ALL be seen as beautiful; therefore, why the hell aren’t you doing it? Get with the program.

We are all Eves, corporations tell us in the name of “body positivity.” And whether it’s our lack of silky-soft hair, our extra pounds, our blotchy skin, our untamed eyebrows, or our attitudes, we’re still doing it wrong. Not so positive after all, is it?

Frankly, the whole thing is exhausting.

  5 comments for ““Mudd’s Women” and the Pitfalls of the Body Positivity Movement

  1. I thought the message of the episode was believe in yourself and you can be anything you want to be, whereas all a drug does is give you the illusion of it. Bit simplistic perhaps, but not exactly the devil’s work.

  2. This is such a great article. The whole “body positivity” movement was irking me, and I hadn’t placed why. Thanks for getting into it, figuring it out and calling it out like it is.

  3. You remind me of a paragraph in Winners Take All where Anand Giridharadas describes a board meeting about a project to “empower women.” No matter how helpful the project is, he rightly points out that corporations who do these are often the ones who create (or at least benefit from) impossible beauty standards. Does anyone really believe the commercial where Venus says they want to celebrate all skin types when they sell razors? This type of “body positivity” is typical of corporate feminism.

    • The details of the project are coming back to me now. Dermalogica (a cosmetics company) figured that the best way to empower women was to grow jobs in the beauty industry and helping them open salons. Of course, no one mentions that it helps the very industry the company is in. And there’s no talk of changing the beauty standards that they’re complicit in. Jobs and entreprenuership might empower people economically but do nothing about systemic issues.

      Also, what are the odds that the drug and razor are both called Venus? It’s nice that P&G gives away free pads and has the #weseeequal hashtag to promote equal pay. But when they own Venus and Cover Girl, I doubt they’re interested in fixing systemic problems that cause girls to be less confident.

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