Monday, February 07, 2005

The Doom of Dune's Women

I know that some people commented on the role of women in the first few books that we read, specifically in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. At the time, I was not particularly bothered by the representation of women in that book, but I found the portrayal of women in Dune extremely disturbing. I believe that there were two primary factors that contributed to the difference in my perception of the works: 1) in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress assumed that women were making important contributions offstage, so to speak; and 2) Dune is the type of book that I might easily read for fun and never think twice about.

The first of these is easily explained. Anna (and others?) was disturbed by Wyoh’s initial appearance as a strong character and later submission to the judgment of the men around her. I was not as disturbed by this, because I assumed (perhaps incorrectly) that Wyoh and other women were making important contributions off-stage. There were references to Wyoh’s work with the stilyagi, and, of course, the understanding that the revolutionary organization was made up of thousands of people. Most of these people never became characters, but their role was still important, and many of them were probably women. Besides, there were fewer women on the planet, so the fact that many of the main characters were male was only expected, given the demographics. In general, I was willing to accept that women did not play a significant onstage role in the story.

Dune bothered me much more. Of course, there are strong women in this book, Jessica in particular is very important. However, all the important women, Jessica, Alia, Chani, Irulan, are Bene Gesserit (or at least have Bene Geserit abilities). Although men, such as Stilgar, can be valued merely for his strong arm and his wisdom, women are of no import unless they also have mystical powers (or are good in bed). An excellent example of this is Jessica. When Jessica and Paul are initially located by Stilgar’s tribe, they decide to keep Paul and kill his mother. They only change their mind after they discover that she has the “weirding” abilities. If she is a sayyadina, and a potential Reverend Mother, she can live, but otherwise her non-Fremenness means she must be relieved of her water (i.e. killed). Paul needs to prove no such value, he is spared on the word of Liet-Kynes.

Dune is the type of book that I could easily read on my own and the lack of solid roles for women wouldn’t affect me at all. However, I would not have considered it as a science fiction book. The entire aspect of its being set in the future would never have occurred to me. I would think of it more as a fantasy fiction book with some technology. I caught the references to a past in which humanity (Earth’s humanity?) partially destroyed itself, but I would consider the entire book more in line with books of people shipwrecked on a distant planet where magic happens. In short, in my thinking, the past revolution is the dues-ex-machina of Dune and the story itself is fantasy. With good weapons.

Why does seeing Dune in the light of the future bother me more? Because I do not want to envision the “future of world politics” looking anything like the world of Dune. I am willing to accept a society in which women hold a place inferior to men because they are physically less strong and society has not yet advanced to see past this weakness. (Although an interesting question is whether women truly are less capable in Dune, after all, Paul bests Jamis in the dessert and is then found by Chani, who might be able to best him if she so desired.) However, I do not want to accept that some event could obliterate all the progress of women in modern society without totally erasing all of human history.

I truly did enjoy Dune, and looking at it merely in the context of entertainment, well, it is entertaining. However, as a piece of social science, it is disturbing. What is the message? Is the place of women so fragile that any disruption in the social order will return them to their historical place? Are women truly so worthless that they can give nothing to society unless they have mystical powers? Are women so unskilled that even in a society hanging onto survival by their fingertips (i.e. the Fremen) can find no use for them besides breeding new little sons for the army? All of these implications, and many more, can be read into the representation of women in Dune and I like none of them. Personally, I want to envision a different future for world politics.