Dune, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Trash Fire

So, this blog has mostly been focused on writing, and that will probably continue, but there is a topic I want to address.  We’re coming up on the release of the third live action adaptation of Dune.  I’m writing this on September 10th, 2021, and Dune is scheduled to release on October 22nd, 2021.  Now, I will tell you up front, I am ridiculously excited for this movie, because I have read Dune multiple times, and I honestly love the story.

The thing is, for a long time, I struggled with that.  Not for the reason you might expect.  A lot of people decry Dune as a Mighty Whitey/White Savior story which, if you’ve only watched the David Lynch version, is a valid criticism.  The thing is, if you’ve read the books, you know that Dune is actually a deconstruction of those tropes, and an open criticism of the human tendency to fall in line behind charismatic leaders.  What always bugged me about Dune, and indeed a lot of classic science fiction (I’m looking at you, Lensman), is the sexism and gender essentialism that are often baked into the setting.

For those of you who don’t know, at the center of Dune is the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood and concept of the Kwisatz Haderach.  In the Dune series, the Bene Gesserit is an organization of women who have had special education which allows them full control over their bodies and a number of special abilities.  Two important abilities for the Bene Gesserit are the ability to see into ancestral memory, and the ability to see into the future.  The thing is, the Bene Gesserit can’t see into male memories, and their ability to see the future is limited, so they have spent thousands of years on a breeding program to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, which is a man who can survive the process the Bene Gesserit undergo in order to gain these two abilities.  A process which normally kills men.  This is considered desirable because a male would be able to look at both the female and male pasts and see into the future with far greater ability than any female ever could.

Sexism.  Gender Essentialism.  Right there, wrapped up in one of the central premises of the story.  There’s something similar in the Lensman stories, where women just don’t have the killer instinct necessary to become Lensman, although eventually there are female Lensmen, this is framed as the end result of a long breeding program necessary to create those traits in a woman, and the women who can wield the Lens are depicted as more evolved than regular women.  For the record, I also love Lensman and I had the same struggle to come to terms with it that I did with Dune.

But how is it that I can sit here and love stories where some the central premises of the story run counter to my lived experience as a trans woman?  That’s a good question, without an easy answer.  The short version is, “Not uncritically.”  The long version is, well, long.

Something that a lot of people don’t understand is that when you engage with any piece of media, you’re not engaging with that piece of media in a vacuum.  Media exists in context, and in a very real way, media exists as part of a dialog.  People will write stories, and other people will write stories in response.  Events happen in the real world, and people will write stories in response.  People will bring their own culture, their own societal preconceptions, and their own personal beliefs into their writing.

This is a lesson I learned largely by looking at the way my writing changed as I progressed long my journey toward coming out and going through transition.  As I went through that process, my view of the world changed, and the things that went into my writing, the things I wanted to put into my writing, changed with it.  That realization and understanding allowed me to go back and look at works like Dune, Lensman, Star Wars, Star Trek, and a whole host of other things, and see them not just as a product of their times, but as a product of the people who created them, and all of the things those creators brought to the table.

To be clear, I’m not saying that when something was created should insulate it from criticism.  Far from it.  What I am saying is that media isn’t some timeless thing that can be judged against absolute standards of right and wrong that exist outside of the context of the society in which it was created and the society in which it was later consumed.  We have to view media in the context of when it was created, while critiquing what it says in the context of the society in which it is consumed. We have to look at works like Dune and ask, ‘What was the author trying to say in the language and context of 1965 when the work was created’, and then ask, ‘How does what the author was saying apply to us, now in 2021?’.  Are the things the author/creator said valid?  Are they worth applying to the modern world?

But more importantly, what I’m saying is that in order for any art to have lasting value, that it must be okay to find joy and value in things that are imperfect by today’s standards, because I promise you the things we create today and the art we leave behind us, will be found similarly wanting by tomorrow’s standards.  All we can do is try to create with compassion, understanding, and acceptance, and hope that history judges us on the good we tried to do, rather than by failings we don’t have the language, mindset or understanding to avoid.

So, with that in mind, come October 22nd, I will sit in front of my laptop, with a huge bowl of microwave popcorn, and I will watch as an amazing cast and an incredible director give new life to a story that I have loved for decades.  I’ll roll my eyes at the sexism and gender essentialism baked into the story and the setting, while I watch to see if this version has captured the warnings that Frank Herbert wove into the original story.  Based on what I’ve seen so far, I suspect I’ll love pretty much every minute of it, even if it’s still a Trash Fire.