Kara Kennedy | Tor.com
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Kara Kennedy

Frank Herbert, the Bene Gesserit, and the Complexity of Women in the World of Dune

If you’re looking for full gender equality in Dune, you may be let down. But if you want to see an order of women who shape humanity through control of mind, body, religion, and politics, welcome to Frank Herbert’s multi-layered masterpiece of worldbuilding.

To properly analyze the women in Dune—specifically the members of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood—we need to recognize the complexity of their characterization and activities within the larger context of the world. Many, though not all, of their roles fall within the boundaries of those traditionally held by women. The main female character, Lady Jessica, for example, is a concubine, mother, advisor, and religious leader.

This makes sense as such roles fit within the feudal, medieval-style world that Herbert creates. It is not a reason to dismiss Dune’s female characters as weak, inferior, or passive, as some critics have done. Herbert makes the Bene Gesserit a believable part of his world while showing how its members exert agency in the face of plausible limitations and tensions in life. The women of the Bene Gesserit are active, influential, and powerful, even if not in the ways we might expect.

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Lawrence of Arabia, Paul Atreides, and the Roots of Frank Herbert’s Dune

At first glance, Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) might appear to be a mere copy of the story of Lawrence of Arabia with some science-fictional window dressing. Several critics have pointed to the similarities between Lawrence and Paul Atreides—both are foreign figures who immerse themselves in a desert culture and help lead the locals to overthrow their oppressors.

The 1962 film based on a romanticized version of Lawrence’s journey, Lawrence of Arabia (directed by David Lean), was critically acclaimed and widely popular. It rested on the idea of the ‘white savior,’ whose role was to lend a sympathetic ear to oppressed peoples and provide assistance to improve their lot in life. Released at a time when U.S. relations in the Middle East were becoming more complicated and the Cold War was reaching new heights of tension, this offered a potentially reassuring message that Western involvement in foreign affairs could be heroic and therefore welcomed.

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