Dune: Part 2, finally confirmed, is sure to promise more screen time for Zendaya’s Chani – but the first film and Frank Herbert’s epic novels already offered a welcome subversion of the gendered Chosen One trope. Nicola Austin looks back on the history of the surprising gender politics in Dune.
The “chosen one” as a narrative device has become such a ubiquitous trope in science-fiction and fantasy since the 1980s, with the longstanding archetype typically centring on a white, heterosexual male. Following this gendered tradition, women are often peripheral or supporting characters, merely created to give birth to – or, like Trinity in The Matrix – guide The One to save the day.
This gender imbalance in both literature and cinema comes at a detriment for female audiences, particularly younger viewers, as they’re not afforded the luxury of seeing themselves, their experiences and hopes and dreams truly reflected on screen. Yet, while some of that is true for Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal novel Dune, there’s an intriguing deconstruction of this trope woven throughout our young hero's journey.
One of the most well known and best selling sci-fi novels by Frank Herbert, Dune was first published in 1965 and went on to inspire many beloved works including Star Wars, John Carter, Game of Thrones and Stargate in their political themes, expansive world building and fantastical settings. Herbert covers topical issues spanning warring political houses in a predominantly patriarchal society, environmentalism, religion and an uprising against a controlling regime.
Chosen one tropes typically consist of a male individual with special powers or abilities foretold by destiny or prophecy, who will defeat a great evil and bring about peace. These “saviour” individuals – think Luke Skywalker, Neo or John Connor – and the villains they face very much fit into typical “good” and “evil” boxes. But what’s so fascinating about the Dune novels and film is the complex characters that inhabit these worlds – there is no clear distinction between good and evil. Many central players (both male and female) inhabit grey areas of morality with questionable, often self-serving motivations.
Timothée Chalamet stars as Paul Atreides, the heir and son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), head of the respected House Atreides. Paul’s arc unfolds as a typical hero’s journey not too dissimilar to Luke Skywalker’s in Star Wars. We’re led to believe the typical chosen one character to be the powered Paul (which Villeneuve further fuels by casting the much-loved young actor) yet several key moments interwoven throughout the film subvert the gendered trope. Firstly, Reverend Mother Gaius Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood reveals that Paul is in fact part of a centuries-spanning breeding programme, with carefully chosen bloodlines selected to create an ever-powerful prescient messianic being, known as the Kwisatz Haderach in their quest to achieve ultimate peace and stability.
Once on Arrakis, Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica (powerfully played by Rebecca Ferguson) are accepted by the Fremen (the native people of the planet) by exploiting their religious myths and prophecies. Known as The Missionaria Protectiva, this order sows the seeds of religious beliefs, superstitions and prophecies, laying the foundation for manipulation. Jessica and Paul use their powers and knowledge to take advantage of the native culture for their gain, and despite the hardships they’ve faced, this is clearly a morally dubious move. Paul is a false messiah and an engineered chosen one. Mohiam also scorns Lady Jessica as Paul was supposed to be born female as part of the Bene Gesserit’s great plan, suggesting Paul’s powers are “wasted” on a male.
Herbert continues to explore this in the following five novels, published between 1965 and 1986, delving into a particularly anti-messiah message, suggesting feudal societies and charismatic leaders and heroes are fundamentally broken ideological constructs. The path Paul eventually takes to achieve his goals as a ‘messiah’ figure is flawed, as it comes at a great and shocking cost to life. Herbert himself has previously alluded to the central theme of Dune as: "Beware of heroes. Much better rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes."
By focusing on the ever shifting power plays and conspiring plans unfolding between the universally patriarchal structures of power – the great houses and the Empire – Herbert also makes a stark argument against this social system, particularly one that relies so heavily on the natural resource, spice, found only in Arrakis. This resource powers interplanetary travel, so is one of the most influential and sought after commodities. As Baron Harkonnen describes in David 1984 Lynch’s adaptation: “He who controls spice controls the universe.”
While the gendered political commentary initially focuses on the Harkonnens vs the Atreides, there’s also a fascinating insight into organisations led by women and how they differ from their male led counterparts - most notably in the original book than Villeneuve’s film adaptation. The Bene Gesserit makes careful and considered plans over centuries, with specific goals in mind. Whereas, the patriarchal imperial houses are very focused on the current state of affairs, including their position of power and their current status within the empire.
Women in Dune are complex, particularly the highly influential order of the Bene Gesserit and the multifaceted Lady Jessica. With a richer development of female roles (elevated from the typical love interest or damsel in distress) in the novel, Herbert helped pave the way for better depictions of women, elevating them to complicated and influential figures in sci-fi. It’s easy to interpret Bene Gesserit women as passive characters used merely as reproductive vessels, yet they are some of the most powerful factions in the universe, helping to shape future events by manipulating societies and powerful figures to their design. The secretive matriarchal order controls from the shadows, often with a distinct aura of mystery, typically serving as counsel or advisers for the imperial houses.
The Bene Gesserit’s attitude towards men is also fascinating, considering the opposite sex as merely live stock (much like the Amazonians of ancient Greece) with useful genes to shape and wield as part of their breeding programme. While their aim is to give birth to a male Kwisatz Haderach, it isn’t because they view males as superior – they are simply easier to control.
These women are also regarded as one of the most talented – but also feared – orders in the Dune universe due to their transformative training (clearly influencing the Jedi). Their belief that “of one could control oneself, or know thyself, ultimately one could control the universe” serves as a powerful philosophy of embodied agency. Lady Jessica often repeats the Litany Against Fear (the order’s incantation of self-control) in the film, allowing her to focus her mind in order to gain advantage in perilous situations.
Their training and education lasts approximately 10 years, taught primarily through a two-part training programme at the prana-bindu school, helping develop young women’s ability to completely control their mind and body. Their heightened perception enables individuals to become masters of unarmed combat (known as “the weirding way”), to conceal their emotions, recognise poisons, detect when people are lying and even influence the gender of their child in the womb. They also possess a power known as The Voice, which, by modulating their vocal tone, can influence a person to follow their commands.
However, unlike the Jedi mind tricks in the Star Wars franchise, “the Voice” is instantly much more ominous. In the 2021 film, we’re first introduced to Lady Jessica encouraging Paul to master The Voice by commanding her to give him her glass. She pushes him further and further until his eerily abnormal vocals command her. Jessica continues to guide Paul in the use of the voice, and while he initially falters, he shows an unnervingly increasing proficiency in its use.
Lady Jessica, a member of the Bene Gesserit and also a key part of the Atreides house, is perhaps one of the most compelling characters of the novels and also Villeneuve’s adaptation. Her defiance giving birth to Paul, rather than a girl, is a crucial catalyst in the narrative, leaving her torn between two opposing worlds. While her initial roles as a mother and lover conform to traditional gender roles (factoring in that the novel was published in the 1960s) she’s also an excellent warrior and trainer. Jessica’s ability to overpower and outthink many of the male characters, whilst also keeping her femininity, is a rare combination.
While comparisons to another strong female mother in sci-fi could be drawn – Sarah Connor in James Cameron’s The Terminator franchise – Jessica at least has a choice when it comes to her child’s sex - due to the Bene Gesserit trait. Connor is chained to her biological destiny of being a mother. Once she gives birth to John in the sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Cameron transforms the character into a masculine, military-esque warrior with an all-encompassing need to protect her son.
Herbert’s bold, provocative commentary on the ties between gender and power, along with the ability to control cultures with constructed religion, pushes the typical boundaries of sci-fi and fantasy. With the female Bene Gesserit order revealed to be the true puppeteers pulling the strings, Herbert cleverly subverts and unravels Paul’s “chosen one” arc.
Building on the author’s vision, Villeneuve opens his adaptation from the lens of Zendaya’s Arrakis native Chani, whose opening monologue demonstrates the brutal treatment of her planet and her people, leading her to question, “Who will our next oppressors be?” The director then cuts to Paul, cleverly connecting the two. Throughout the film Villeneuve also interweaves apocalyptic visions from Paul’s point of view, with an older version of the character directly leading an uprising – sowing seeds which will ultimately dispel the ‘white saviour’ myth which Herbert also heavily explores in the novels.
Villeneuve has also welcomingly amplified female characters in his adaptation, particularly the strength and tenacity of Lady Jessica, along with the gender-swapped crucial Dr. Liet-Kynes. While Chalamet’s Paul is initially positioned as the lead, it’s in Ferguson’s beautifully developed take on Jessica in which the heart of the power truly lies. As demonstrated in his twist on the gendered Chosen One narrative in Blade Runner: 2049 (revealing Ana (Carla Juri) to be the daughter of Deckard and Rachael as opposed to Ryan Gosling’s K) Villeneuve will undoubtedly explore the complex unravelling of the prophesied messiah in Dune part two.
Nicola Austin is a digital marketer, freelance writer and podcaster based in Warwickshire. She's the editor for We Have A Hulk and also writes for Filmhounds, Film Stories, Jumpcut Online and SciFiNow. Loves discussing female representation in sci-fi, fantasy and horror.