How Dune Might Actually Be The Best Trans Movie

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

Editors Note: This story is a Creative Commons reprint of an essay by “jalvarez”, who posted the story on a NYU website under the title “The Queerness Behind Dune’s Kwisatz Haderach”. We’re reprinting it here under the CC license for its timeliness, relevance and entertainment value. We’ve edited it for clarity and style.

It is not possible to say whether Frank Herbert had a transgender agenda in mind when he envisioned Dune in 1965, but his idea of the Kwisatz Haderach, whom his main character Paul Atreides is discovered to be, is a perfect metaphor for the current rhetoric surrounding queer, trans and non-binary bodies.

While Mr. Herbert’s magnum opus has been analyzed and dissected in countless ways and through the lenses of many different philosophical, anthropological and social studies, it is important to point out that ultimately, the author has rested the fate of his galactic world in the hands of a human who transcends gender.

The Kwisatz Haderach, the savior of the Empire, is a trans/non-binary person, and it is actually because and through this subject’s trans-ness that they bring peace to the universe.

What is the Kwisatz Haderach?

Within the magical world of Dune (1965), an elite sisterhood of space witches, the Bene Gesserit, hold to a prophesy: that the sisterhood will genetically cultivate a male member of their sisterhood. That male will end the thousand-year-long feud between royal houses.

The Bene Gesserit, being female, can access only feminine aspects of their consciousness and eternal memories. But this male will be able to access both the male and female regions of knowledge. The Bene Gesserit’s hundreds-of-years-long breeding program eventually fulfills its prophesy: They end up producing their prophet, the Kwisatz Haderach in the human Paul Atreides.

Paul Atreides eventually does evolve female/male consciousness. That consciousness allows him to bridge time and space. With the blending of Paul’s gender also comes unbelievable knowledge and power. By becoming something outside of the gender binary, Paul discovers and launches both a terrifying and thrilling new human reality.

As Elana Gormel says in Science (Fiction) and Posthuman Ethics: Redefining the Human. The European Legacy (2011) “The post-man subject is both a vision of the future and an echo of the past.” (p340) Thus Paul becomes a non-binary, post-human entity capable of all knowledge. With that knowledge comes tremendous power.

Further commonalities with trans people

If gender is indeed a “norm” as Judith Butler says in Undoing Gender, “Gender Regulations,” (2004) and “a norm operates within social practices as the implicit standard of normalization” (p41) Then Paul can be seen as the echo of the gender binary that produced him. The same binary construct that dictates his life. That is, until he assumes the opposite gender’s consciousness.

However, the parallels between Paul’s experience and the trans experience do not end here. Despite being a conscientious person, Paul, like many trans people, is shoved into society’s margins, just as all minorities have been historically shoved in our reality.

Through all this, Paul doesn’t only think like a trans person, his experience very much mirrors the trans experience. Like trans women of color and non-binary folk, he is pushed to the limits of survivability: out into the desert, the wastes of Dune. Dune, also known as Arrakis, is seen as a backwater itself. The Empire only values its spice. The desert waste Paul finds himself in is even more desolate than the planet itself.

But what he finds there is a rich culture, much like trans people find among themselves. A culture that embraces and enriches him, further expanding what he is (the Kwisatz Haderach). It’s in the desert among the Fremen that the Kwisatz Haderach really comes into its fullness. Much like how trans people often blossom once they find their place among those like them.

Exile’s end brings peace

But after many years living and creating a community with all the other unfortunate souls hiding, but thriving, in Dune’s wasteland, it is Paul’s ultimate return to the very mainstream civilization that exiled him that brings an end to an era of conflict.

To quote Butler once again, “Persons are regulated by gender. To veer from the gender norm is to produce the aberrant example that regulatory powers […] may quickly exploit to shore up the rationale for their own continuing regulatory zeal.” Imitation & Gender Insubordination (1990) (p317).

In Dune, the emperor repersents the ultimate of regulatory powers. But he uses the Harkonens and his Sardukar to express those powers. But Paul’s outside-the-binary-norm status grants him sufficient power to resist the emperor. To resist him and ultimately defeat him. In doing so the Kwisatz Haderach introduces a new set of norms.

It could be said trans people undergo a similar path. Not all of them succeed, of course. That must be acknowledged. In fact, a fairly small number do, if we measure success as “significantly influencing a societal expansion beyond binary consciousness.” That influence success often looks like severe push-back from the binary.

And isn’t that what we’re seeing today in the resistance brought towards Dylan Mulvaney and others who achieve mainstream status? How about reactions towards trans kids and their parents?

The rise of the power inherent in trans people

Perhaps this is what Dune’s Kwisatz Haderach represents. After years living on the “outside,” Paul comes back to the palace he once inhabited. He confronts the royals, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, and the powers that expelled him. He asserts his place as the rightful heir and ruler of the Arrakis. Then he exerts his dominance throughout the empire for thousands of years. It should be noted that his rule goes way off the rails after that. But that’s another story.

We see trans people have this kind of influence today. Laverne Cox, for example and other transgender actresses are influencing Hollywood. Trans women are significantly changing business, science and technology and more. They’re doing so with changes that have altered humankind’s trajectory.

And this is where the metaphor between Paul and the trans experience reaches its apogee. As more trans people own and expresss their authenticity, much like Paul does as the Kwisatz Haderach, we could perhaps bring stability to the increasingly unequal and unbalanced social and economic structures that people find so oppressive. So oppressive they become vulnerable to leaders who use marginalized people as scapegoats for people’s suffering, thereby gaining control over the suffering masses.

Frank Herbert created the savior for his fictional world as the Kwisatz Haderach. Perhaps he was aware that there already is such a being in the real world: the trans people living among us. Perhaps he wasn’t aware. In any case, the comparisons between his Kwisatz Haderach and trans lives are hard to ignore. As is the newest installment of the Dune Franchise, which is in theaters now. Go watch it.