Well, the first thing I have to say is that this episode isn’t as bad as I was led to believe it was going to be given the description, and especially considering the source material. But it’s also pretty tough to call “Are Unheard Memories Sweet?” an especially good idea in the first place: When the best thing that can be mustered to say is that “It’s not as irreparably catastrophic as it could have been”, that’s not exactly praise either.
The imminent problem is that “Are Unheard Memories Sweet?” was apparently based on the novel The Revolt of Man, which was an 1882 dystopian story about a society ruled by dominant, aggressive women who crush and subjugate the passive and weak men. Naturally, this results in the end of all scientific and technological progress, because that’s “men’s work” and women are incapable of properly handling it. So, the men stage a massive planetwide revolution to restore the “proper order” of things, in the first time I have ever cheered *against* an oppressed minority rising up and overthrowing their oppressors. There is no possible way adapting this book into a Star Trek story could ever conceivably be seen as anything remotely resembling a good idea, even to a creative team *this* tone deaf. And yet, here it is. That Worley Thorne somehow manages to avoid the somewhat unthinkable feat of unseating Margaret Armen as the single most hatefully reactionary writer in the entirety of Star Trek is nothing short of a small miracle, yet that doesn’t make “Are Unheard Memories Sweet?” something to get terribly excited about either.
Star Trek Phase II‘s “twist” on this story is that the alien planet is not ruled by women, but is in fact made up entirely of hermaphrodites who have both male and female hormones. The society they build is basically a stock-reiteration of the Talosians from “The Cage”, honing their powers of illusion and their “mental abilities” in lieu of developing more and better material technoscience. Apparently though, their bodies can’t manufacture the male hormones naturally, and either both or specifically the male ones are needed to control their illusory powers, so, in a scene reminiscent of “The Lorelei Signal” (which isn’t a good sign), they’ve been luring starships to their planet so they could supplant their chemical deficiency by harvesting from their crews. There’s also something about the illusions causing people to regress in age and be hypnotized and something else about the Enterprise being in a deteriorating orbit and needing dilithium crystals that the previous ship left behind and that the aliens are hiding for some reason or another, but I literally did not care enough to go back and check.
The sad thing is this is once again a really great episode for the new characters: There’s more anxiety over Xon’s youth and inexperience, Chekov is in full swing in his new role as security chief/tactical officer and even Janice Rand is back, for the first time since “In Thy Image”, and gets to join the away team early on. Sure, she then gets knocked out and captured and isn’t much more than a redshirt who lives (so she’s basically this show’s Mr. Leslie), but at least Grace Lee Whitney gets to play a seductive illusory version of Rand when one of the aliens sneaks aboard the Enterprise. While Decker sits the story out either pretending to be a cadet or smashing things in engineering (that’s…honestly not much of an exaggeration), we do get a lengthy background scene exploring his background and feelings of inadequacy. Furthermore, this is Ilia’s best outing yet by far: Aside from getting a very emotional scene where she talks about the plight of lovers, implicitly referencing the incapacitated Decker, she once again gets to team up with McCoy, and this time Kirk, to save the day. She has a lot of dialogue, exposition and action scenes, and it’s Ilia who discerns the true nature of the aliens and comes up with the plan that helps defeat them.
What interests me the most about both versions of this story, by which I mean the *only* thing that interests me, is how much it reminds me of what anthropologist Joan Bamberger talks about in her essay “The Myth of Matriarchy“. According to Bamberger, there’s simply no primary source evidence anywhere in the historical record to support the notion that there ever existed a time where women were the dominant social agents, and furthermore cites numerous oral myths that describe a matriarchal society as something horrible and repugnant and makes a compelling case that patriarchy is a default mode of human organisation (not that she is in favour of this, naturally).
For me, one of her most striking examples comes from the traditions of the Yamana, or Yaghan, people, part of the indigenous cultures of Tierra del Fuego. Though they are often held up as being a prime example of true gender equality, the actual legends of the Yaghan would seem to paint a very different picture: Bamberger cites a creation myths describing a time when women dominated and enslaved men and created the Kina, or Great Hut, which serves as both a meeting place and a sacred ceremony. However, the women fooled the men into thinking they were spirits, and, when this became known to the men, they sought their vengeance by killing as many women as possible and turning the rest into animals, thus creating the (presumably more “proper”) social order that exists today where only men are allowed to know the secrets of the Kina and women are subservient.
Bamberger also mentions the similar traditions of the geographically adjacent Selk’nam people. Once again, there existed a prehistory where women ruled a tyrannical society and enslaved men. As this grew worse and worse, eventually the men launched a mass riot to overthrow their female oppressors and slaughtered as many women as they could. After the men seized power, they conspired to find a way to preserve it at all costs, and created the exclusive all-male society of the Hain, a ceremonial lodge where men could keep secrets from growing girls such that the women could never retain their former power. Both of these stories, as well as numerous other similar ones Bamberger talks about in her essay, touch on an uncomfortable truth about studying indigenous societies: It’s a frequent naive (and more then faintly imperialistic) assumption that non-modern, non-western societies are inherently more egalitarian and enlightened then Western ones are. It’s the same assumption that upholds the entire Noble Savage myth. But this isn’t actually the case: In fact, if there’s one aspect of human behaviour that could be called a constant universal across all cultures and timeframes, it may well be patriarchy and misogyny.
Why might this be the case? In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond posits that misogyny came about, along with a host of other unpleasant things about human behaviour, with the advent of agriculture. Once it became established, Diamond argues, that men did the hunting and farming and women stayed at home to cook and look after children, this was the beginning of the damaging and toxic power structures that exist to this day. Now, the quickest way to piss off an anthropologist is to mention Jared Diamond, so I’ll just quickly add this is a pretty intellectually sloppy argument and carries with it a whole host of nasty baggage, such as the fact Diamond misrepresents a lot of his evidence and is worryingly inclined to lean towards teleology, master narratives and essentialism. There’s also the minor fact that the Yaghan, who came up with that shockingly misogynistic creation myth above, were hunter-gatherers before they made contact with Europeans.
But there may be a germ of truth in what Diamond is trying to get at. Bamberger doesn’t extrapolate much in her essay, but in her conclusion she does start to point the finger at the idea of dividing labour tasks and social roles up by gender, which is certainly something that could be seen as more indicative of societies that use agriculture than ones that rely purely on hunting and gathering (since, if you’re a hunter-gatherer, you’d ideally want every single able-bodied person able to help and contribute equally to the overall survival of the group). In fact, I’ll just go and quote a big section of her article right now, as it’s really important:
“It appears from this cursory study of a handful of South American myths that women frequently are subjected to harsh outside controls because of their putative immorality – or at least this is my reading of male-informed mythologies. And so it seems from myth that less tangible forces than biology were brought to bear on the subversion of the female sex role. When, for example, woman was told that she behaved like a child and, like other children, was kept uninitiated (in the full masculine sense), or when she was compared to an animal, and on this ground became the unwilling victim of a male ideology, she had forfeited her right to rule. The case against her was made out to be a moral one, divorced from the biology that might have given her sex priority under other circumstances.
Whether or not women actually behaved in the manner of the charges recorded in myth is not an issue in understanding the insistent message of the myth. What is at issue is the ideological thrust of the argument made in the myth of the Rule of Women, and the justification it offers for male dominance through the evocation of a vision of a catastrophic alternative – a society dominated by women. The myth, in its reiteration that women did not know how to handle power when in possession of it, reaffirms dogmatically the inferiority of their present position.
Whatever the justification for it, the sacred male order laid down in myth and reenacted in ritual continues unchallenged in many societies throughout the world. One may surmise from this state of affairs that the Rule of Men proceeds unchanged because women, its potential challengers, have been trapped for so long in a closed system that they are unable to perceive how otherwise they might break down the successful methods used to inculcate in them an ideology of moral failure. Such feelings, I have suggested, at least for South American societies, are reinforced by the strong arm of a male religion.
Myth and rituals have been misinterpreted as persistent reminders that women once had, and then lost, the seat of power. This loss accrued to them through inappropriate conduct. In Tierra del Fuego the women tricked the men into performing both male and female chores; and in the northwest Amazon they committed the crime of incest. The myths constantly reiterate that women did not know how to handle power when they had it. The loss is thereby justified so long as women choose to accept the myth. The Rule of Women, instead of heralding a promising future, harks back to a past darkened by repeated failures. If, in fact, women are ever going to rule, they must rid themselves of the myth that states they have been proved unworthy of leadership roles.
The final version of woman that emerges from these myths is that she represents chaos and misrule through trickery and unbridled sexuality. This is the inverse of Bachofen’s view of pre-Hellenic womanhood, which he symbolized as a mystical, pure, and uncorrupted Mother Goddess. The contrast between mid-Victorian notions of the ideal woman (they are not those of ancient Greece, as Bachofen supposed) and the primitive view, which places woman on the social and cultural level of children, is not as great as it appears. The elevation of woman to deity on the one hand, and the downgrading of her to child or chattel on the other, produce the same result. Such visions will not bring her any closer to attaining male socioeconomic and political status, for as long as she is content to remain either goddess or child, she cannot be expected to shoulder her share of community burdens as the coequal of man. The myth of matriarchy is but the tool used to keep woman bound to her place. To free her, we need to destroy the myth.”
Bamberger could be describing Western patriarchy just as much as she is sexist South American creation myths. After all, how is this any different from The Revolt of Man? Or, for that matter, “Are Unheard Memories Sweet?”? The story is the same no matter where you go. This is nothing more than the ugly spectre of silencing and objectification raising its head in South America, just as it has pretty much everywhere else in the world.
As an anarcha-feminist as well as an anthropologist, I’m naturally inclined to think the omnipresent patriarchal hegemony has something to do with the corporate-state machine that dominates so much of Western culture and thought. It’s a system in place that very explicitly lays out social rules, roles and guidelines, normalizes them and creates an environment where, while it’s *possible* to step outside your designated caste, it would be at best very inconvenient and at worst disastrous to do so. But the tragic thing about misogyny is that it really is a universal human concept: Turning to the non-modern, indigenous people isn’t by definition going to help us here. Some cultures handle gender better than the West do, but some absolutely don’t and it’s not an easy agricultural/hunter-gatherer, state/non-state, modern/nonmodern or Western/Nonwestern split.
I know I’ve once again digressed very far from Star Trek, but the point here is, ultimately, to look at how Star Trek, which is supposed to be an idealistic and utopian vision, can help inspire us to move beyond these kinds of oppressive and dehumanizing power structures. And once again, I’d like to mention Lara from “The Jihad”. Lara dedicates herself to a simple lifestyle and possesses an intimacy with the land and the cosmos that’s more commonly associated with nonmodern cultures, but she also uses incredibly complex sophisticated space travel technology and has a deep understanding of what the very Western Federation is and how it works. She’s somehow managed to synthesize what she and her people take as the best parts of both worldviews.
This is where the trick lies, I think: As much as we want to move away from the reactionary Western hegemony of Margaret Armen, abandoning everything about Westernism isn’t going to be the answer either. Even Arthur Singer‘s team knew this: What was the message of “The Way to Eden”, if not precisely this? Westernism has a ton of problems, and the fact it dominates global discourse is certainly cause for us to be careful not to lapse into false equivalency, but there are some problems that transcend culture to become fundamental human concerns. Misogyny is one of them.
This is something Star Trek should realise and should be showing us an alternative to if it truly wants to live up to all its utopian rhetoric. And right now, once again, it’s not.