How does Frank Herbert’s Dune address women’s agency?

A sci-fi classic is Frank Herbert’s Dune. It is one of the best-selling sci-fi book series of all time. It has had numerous adaptations, appearing as a David Lynch movie, as a TV miniseries, and as several videogames. Denis Villeneuve is currently creating a new movie adaptation – “it’s Star Wars for adults,” as he puts it. But what relevance does Dune have outside the confines of fandom? We spoke with an academic, Dr. Kara Kennedy, who studies how Dune addresses women’s agency. Below, she describes her research topic and findings with us. She also discusses its relevance to today’s society.

Why did you choose Dune as a topic on which to focus your studies?

Like many people, I encountered science fiction as a teen, and the Dune series was one of my favorites. The world that Frank Herbert created was so intriguing. It pulled me in almost effortlessly. But even though I majored in English at university, it was quite a traditional curriculum, so science fiction texts weren’t represented. When it came time to choose a topic for my senior honor’s project, I suddenly thought, “Why not analyze something I know I will enjoy?” I asked if I could focus on the women in Dune. My advisors agreed, and that led to my continued study of the topic during my master’s and doctoral degrees. For some reason, the series has not received as much critical attention as one would expect based on its popularity, so I am seeking to rectify this through my scholarship. 

What I love about Dune are the many layers built into the narrative, the multitude of ways it can be interpreted, and the features of world-building that capture the reader’s attention and reward subsequent readings. And I find the female characters fascinating ‒ Jessica of the Bene Gesserit is still one of the most interesting and well-developed characters I’ve encountered in literature.

You specifically studied the Bene Gesserit sisterhood and the series’ representation of women’s agency – what were your findings?

Women in Dune are much more complex than they may seem at first glance. This reflects Herbert’s trick of concealment, the “plans within plans within plans” that keep you on your toes as a reader and add richness and depth to the series. Some have dismissed the women of the Bene Gesserit order as passive reproductive vessels due to their stated goal of breeding a man with superhuman abilities. Yet they are one of the most powerful and influential factions in the Dune universe, and they ultimately manage to outlast the traditionally male-dominated groups, as shown in the later books. 

My research examined how the Bene Gesserit’s education and training prepares women to have a high degree of embodied agency, basically having the ability to control one’s body and life and actively shape the world. Their skills in muscle and nerve control give them almost complete control of their bodily functions, meaning they can control reproduction, neutralize poisons, and excel at unarmed combat, among other things. Their heightened perception enables them to control others with their voice, assess dangerous situations, and play politics cleverly. However, just as with members of real-life religious orders like the Jesuits, women’s agency is constrained by their duties to the Sisterhood and their roles in the political order. This sets up an interesting tension that provides complexity in their character development throughout the series.

How do you think this representation holds up in today’s era of the #MeToo movement?

It highlights just how important it is for women to have control over their bodies, which was a key concern of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and which continues to be a pressing issue over fifty years after the publication of Dune. Dune arguably anticipated this growing concern by layering in such an extraordinary degree of bodily autonomy in the portrayal of the Bene Gesserit. The depiction of women who can move through their world so confidently ‒ confident in their intelligence, in handling any threat to their person, in being taken seriously ‒ is still fantastical.

Looking at the #MeToo movement, it is about the right to have agency over one’s body and life, including the freedom to live and work without harassment and discrimination. What Dune offers is an example of what a world might look like where the power dynamics are not so stacked against women. This is one of the possibilities of the science fiction genre: helping people imagine different ways of being and shaping their ideas about what kind of future they want to build.