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An Analysis of Gender Construction and Sexuality in David Lynch’s Dune

The visual representation of sexuality and gender has been related to the meta-narrative of science fiction film habitually throughout the history of cinema. An early example can be found in the manifestation of the Maschinenmensch (“machine-human”, later referred to as the “machine-man”) in Fritz Lang’s German Expressionist epic Metropolis (1927), in which scientist Rotwang creates the robot Maria, a grotesque marriage of machine and human. The character implied real-life apprehension with expanding advancements in technology, as well as unease surrounding gender and masculinity. Since then, the connection between fiction and real-life contemporary social anxiety has become commonplace, with cinema specifically demonstrating public concern surrounding sexuality, gender, sexual orientation and infection.


It is often that these anxieties are implied in film in either overt or covert iconography, sometimes leading the spectator the devise their own assumptions as to the meaning of a certain element of narrative or mise-en-scène. As film theorist Richard Dyer argues,


Outside pornography, sexuality, male or female, is not so much shown directly as symbolized. It is not just censorship that insists on this– sexuality is on the whole better represented through symbolism. Colours, textures, objects, effects of light, the shape of things, all convey sexuality through evocation, resonance and association; they set off feelings about what sex is like more efficiently than just showing acts of sex.

(Dyer, 2002: 89)


Dune (David Lynch, 1984) is one such example of sexual connotation exemplifying narrative concern contemporary to the release of the film. Littered with representations of the homoerotic and the sexually orientated, the dominating presence of femininity and an imposing threat to masculinity are concurrent throughout the films narratology. Therein, the relationship between masculinity and femininity are consistently influential to the story arc, establishing Dune as significant to the ‘80s debate on gender relation, and the Reagan-era of American cinema, which was itself a time of social and cultural change. Furthermore, the first recognised case of AIDS, reported in 1981 (see MMWR), arguably became a potential influence on Dune, with public concern of contagion clearly having an impact of the film’s aesthetics, which this article will examine alongside the themes of gender and sexuality.

The film opens with a wide shot of the starry gulf of deep space, an establishing shot which quickly dissolves to an extreme close-up shot of Princess Irulan’s (Virginia Madsen) eyes. The images then pulls back to reveal a head and shoulder shot with Irulan framed in the centre of the screen, staring directly at the audience (thus breaking the ‘fourth wall’), securing an instantaneous domineering female presence. Irulan informs the spectator that it is the year 10191, and that her father, Padisha Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer), rules the Known Universe. At this early stage of the film, it is evident in both narrative and aesthetics that gender is a strong authority to the construct of Dune. Irulan continues by stating that the most precious substance in the Known Universe is the spice ‘milange’, which is believed to extend life and expand consciousness. The spice exists only on the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, a hostile environment inhabited by the Fremen, a race of beings said to be awaiting the arrival of a messiah.


The characters of Dune are divided into four separate groups, each of whom are represented as the inhabitants of four planets representing four different social classes: The planet Arrakis (Dune, the source of the spice), the planet Caladan (home of the House Atreides), the planet Geidi Prime (home of House Harkonnen) and planet Kaitain (home of the Emperor). Each group is clearly divided into four very different representations of gender and sexuality. The Kaitains represent wealth, fortune and the upper class; the Caladans represent the hero soldier and family unit; the Fremens represent religion and faith; and the Harkonnens represent ‘80s attitudes towards homosexuality and anxiety of HIV and contamination.


In her article Gender Relations in the Space of Science Fiction: Dune (1984) (2005) Rocío Carrasco Carrasco argues,


The most striking feature about gender relations in the home of the Emperor is the exaggerated insistence of the film in asserting Shaddam IV’s unquestionable superiority. This male figure is constantly linked with power, authority and wealth, which hints at the ‘80s generalised insistence on reasserting conservative values and its progressive interest in material possessions and consuming.

(Carrasco, 2005: online)

These constituents of opulence and authority are rendered in the mise-en-scène, particularly in character placement and within the lavish sets. The home of the Emperor is shown in regularly reoccurring establishing shots that reveal floor to ceiling gold, undyingly reminding the audience of the Emperor’s wealth and fortune. The Emperor himself is often placed directly in the centre of the frame, whether in close-up or a wide shot, establishing him as the central, authoritative figure in the room. Other characters appear to flock either side of him, in particular his daughter Irulan and the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim (Sian Phillips), both of whom appear repressed by his authority and leave the room upon his command. This establishes the male figure as the authority voice, dominating the presence of women. As Carrasco continues, “the Empire’s insistence on patriarchal values clashes with its consequent negation of the male figure’s authority by means of the exaggeration and caricature of its main representative, the Emperor. The repressed power of women in this planet also contributes to this parody” (2005).

The model of masculinity used in the Emperor differs from that used in Dune’s hero, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan). Unlike the machine gun wielding action hero that audiences were familiar with during the 1980s, Paul does not appear to have the hard-bodied masculine physique witnessed in Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, despite the popularity of films such as Rambo: First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982) or The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984). Instead, Paul has a soft-bodied exterior, and while he does not remove his clothes during the film, it is evident he has less muscle tone than that of his hero counterparts. Additionally, his hair is well groomed and his interactions with other males give inclination of homoerotic and feminine tendencies, distancing Paul from the accustomed stereotypical action hero of Reagan’s America. However, his masculinity is confirmed by means of opposing methods other than that of physical attributes. Shortly after being introduced to the character of Paul, Gurney (Patrick Stewart) commands him to battle a robot known as ‘The Fighter”, a faceless, phallic machine that lowers down through a hole in the ceiling, armed with knives, blades and other weapons capable of killing. It is a key scene, instrumental in displaying Paul’s battle with masculinity, with the machine representing phallic symbolism. Eventually, the threat to Paul’s masculinity is quashed as he defeats the Fighter, reconfirming him as the authoritative male, secure in his own masculinity despite his feminine qualities. Throughout Dune, gender relations are consistently at the forefront of Paul Atreides’ character. Later, the Fremen people refer him to as the “boy man”, and his thoughts (which are heard in voice over, much like those of the Reverend Mother), intermittently suggest his bond with femininity. In addition, he dreams of images of his unborn sister in his mother Lady Jessica’s (Francesca Annis) womb, further associating his bond to feminine space.


Paul’s heterosexuality is later questioned in a pivotal scene featuring him and the Reverend Mother. Upon entering his mother’s chambers (placing both characters in a feminine space), the Reverend Mother sits before Paul and commands him to approach her. Initially he objects (symbolising rejection of the female form), but eventually submits, placing her as authoritative figure (a position she does not hold in the house of the Emperor). As Paul reluctantly approaches her, he kneels down before her, displayed to the spectator by a side angle view, positioning her slightly higher than him, giving her a domineering presence. On her lap is a box, which she orders him to put his hand in. The box is positioned near her groin area, and when questioned, he is told that the box contains only pain. He is ordered to put his hand in the box, which represents the controlling female energy – the vagina. When he does so, intercutting close-ups of Paul and Reverend Mother’s faces shows him to be in pain while she appears to be in a state of rapture, obvious connotations of sexual ecstasy. Eventually, Paul removes his hand, appears unscathed and his heterosexuality is confirmed in this, a symbolic representation of a first sexual experience.


The scene allows the Reverend Mother to assume the role of the authoritarian. She is portrayed in large part as a biologically sexless individual; her female form hidden under flowing black robes, and her eyebrows and hair is gone, leaving few facial features to indicate that she is indeed a female. Her physicality differs from that of Irulan and Lady Jessica, in that she is not shown to have any connection with sexuality or biological yearning for children. However, the scene with Paul places her in a position of a sexual creature, offering the box (her vagina) to him. This situates her has the unsaid representation of the archaic mother, and towards the end of the film, she gradually displays characteristics relatable to that of the monstrous-feminine, the form of evil personified in the embodiment of woman. Carrasco comments on the depiction of the female form and gender, relating it to feminism:


Gender critics, especially after the 1970s, agree in affirming the constructed nature of gender and argue that both feminine and masculine traits are defined in every culture in different ways. The tendency of placing women as a biological group rather than as a social one was very common among early second-wave feminists. This essentialist view used to place biological difference as the main cause for women’s marginalization and oppression. Women’s lack of a penis, they argued, had been associated with the lack of physical strength and their capacity for childbearing, and these inherent traits associated with women had become through history the main reason for arguments affirming women’s emotionality, sentimentalism or lack of intelligence. However, at the end of the ‘70s, when the term “gender” was included in feminist scholarship, many critics adopted a non- essentialist view. Sex difference, they affirmed, does not determine what is to be a man or a woman, but other considerations such as race, ethnic or cultural background, are considered constructors of gender.

(Carrasco, 2005: online)

Cultural background and the constructions of gender are also demonstrated in the Harkonnens, particularly in the character of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) who represents the threat to masculinity and heterosexuality, as well as early ‘80s social apprehension towards homosexuality and HIV. The Baron and his environment exhibit sexuality integral to the construct of the Harkonnen people, both in suggestion and overt iconography.  The establishing shot of the Geidi Prime shows a Giger-esque structure of a large, obese face with an open mouth, suggesting both oral sexuality and greed. Shortly after, a long shot shows a carriage carrying Piter De Vries (Brad Dourif) entering a small opening in a building, suggestive of intercourse and penetration. Inside the building, the environment is depicted as hot, sweaty and industrial, with flames and plumes of smoke rising from the floor. As De Vries emerges from the vessel and descents a flight of stairs, a row of Harkonnen troops are shown at the foot of the staircase, each carrying a machine gun that points directly toward the ceiling, implying the male erection.


Inside the Baron’s chambers, visual representations of sexuality, disgust, the phallic and the abject are infused. Two Harkonnens are shown in close-up, their ears and eyes sewn shut. They appear to be male, although this is left indefinite, and the reasons for their senses being impounded is left uncertain – whether it be punishment, self-inflicted or a sadomasochistic act forced upon them by the Baron. The camera cuts to a close-up of blood oozing from a concealed tube in a glass urn, representing abject bodily fluids. As the camera pans right, the spectator is introduced to the Baron, a sweaty, obese man with grotesque boils and warts covering one side of his face. Here, the abject is again represented, this time in his sweating and oozing puss. Next to him, a doctor (Leonard Cimino) sits close to the Baron, injecting the boils with a fluid, furthering implying homosexual penetration. Carrasco comments that the

Harkonnens are constantly linked to the filth and their relationships stand for social threats such as AIDS and herpes disease. The fact that all its inhabitants are men narrows the range of relationships in the planet, which are reduced to homo-social ones. Homosexuality stands, therefore, as the only possible model for a relationship that goes beyond friendship or partnership.

(Carrasco, 2005: online)

Shortly after his introduction, the Baron’s sexuality is fleshed out by the introduction of two characters: Feyd (Sting) and a young Harkonnen boy. As the Baron orders Feyd into the room, he enters and sits opposite the Baron, in his hand a dagger, which he holds near his lap and strokes with one hand simulating masturbation. Simultaneously, the doctor is shown leaning toward the Baron’s face, whispering, “Your skin, love to me. Your diseases lovingly cared for, for all eternity”, which crudely secretes the association between lust and the monstrous abject. At that moment, the Baron’s gaze turns to a young, androgynous looking boy who enters the room. Dressed all in white (suggesting virginity), the boy is ordered to tend to the Baron’s flower display. In a bizarre sequence of shots, the Baron floats into the air and under a set of sprinklers, which drip a black, oil-like substance over his face, much to his delight. He then approaches the terrified boy, looming over him, and as the camera pans toward empty space to leave the Baron and the boy off-screen, blood is seen splashing the walls, vulgarly suggesting both sexual release and death as the other in the room look on, laughing. The sexuality of the Baron is further denoted in his lust for Feyd, who at one point is seen wearing nothing but blue underwear, momentarily securing the gaze of the grotesque Baron and giving further inclination towards his perverted lust for young men.


Carrasco argues that “despite the film’s distant setting and its sometimes grotesque characters, it still reflects faithfully most of the Reagan Era’s concerns — patriotism, conquering aims and militarism — as well as social issues and anxieties such as AIDS” (2005, online). This anxiety concerning infection and AIDS is represented in the Harkonnen army. Dressed from head to toe in black boiler suits, every part of their body is completely concealed, associating them to concerns surrounding containment and infectivity. This uniform foreshadowed future attitudes towards homosexuals, disease and infection, particularly in Mick Huckabee’s 1992 speech on homosexuality (see Media Matters for America), and the all-male inmates of Alien 3 (David Fincher, 1992) in which the suggestion of quarantined gay men forms an integral element of the narrative. Although the Baron never specifically articulates his sexuality, his obsession with the masculine form and his threat to heterosexuality is a concurrent premise in the labyrinthine plot. Later in the film, he finds Lady Jessica bound and gagged on the floor, and starts to spit on her face, suggesting his obsession with fetishism.

Additionally to the characters of Dune, implications of phallic symbolism are to be found within the mise-en-scène, not only in the manifestation of the Arrakis worms, but also in machinery and technology. Firstly, the worms (originally designed by H.R. Giger, an artist who himself is often associated with phallic art and linking sexuality with the grotesque) are huge devouring creatures, displaying wide-open mouths containing razor sharp teeth, representing the phallus dentata. This situates both the penis as a space of dangerous monstrosity. Upon approaching the desert, Paul appears excited about the prospects of seeing one of the worms, and several times in the film asks when the worm will “come”, suggesting male ejaculation. Again, this adds an ambiguity to his sexuality, although later in the film, when Paul’s father Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgan Prochinow) dies, Paul acquires his responsibilities, and in the midst of this coming-of-age revelation, Paul mounts one of the huge worms and harnesses it, thus controlling the spice ‘milange’, placing him as conquering male, the scene acting as a symbolic evocation of Paul reaffirming security in his own masculinity.

Machinery and technology are two significant elements where the sexually emblematic are present. Early on in the film, the Guild Navigator is bought into the house of the Emperor, and penetration is suggested as the doors part and the long black vehicle that transports the Navigator pushes through them, entering the room. The appearance of the navigator himself is indicative of female reproduction, the formation of his mouth resembling the vagina, and his appearance similar to that of an unborn foetus. Upon leaving the room, the Navigator’s vehicle leaves behind a whitish, fluid-like substance, suggestive of semen. Later in the film, penetration is further suggested during the scene where the Hunter Seeker attacks Paul. As he stands motionless in the centre of the room, the small, phallic instrument appears through a small opening in the wall, again suggestive of the vagina and the penis. At the tip of the Seeker, a small spike is present that will inject a poisonous fluid into its victim, again suggesting ejaculation. In a voice-over, Paul talks of gripping the machine tightly, suggesting masturbation.


In its aesthetics and narrative, Dune serves as a piece of work that blurs the boundaries between homosexuality, heterosexuality, religion, the monstrous, the abject and the phallic. In a film rich with sexual iconography, it often appears that a fine line is drawn between what is explicitly provocative and what is crude, almost unintentional comedy/parody, particularly when concerning Paul Atreides. However the presence of gender in Dune is a force that is ever domineering. The young girl Alia, bookending the opening lines as spoken by Irulan, speaks the final line of the film and in doing do gives the female form a dominant significance, highlighting the importance of feminine space.




Carrasco, R., 2005. Gender Relations in the Space of Science Fiction: Dune (1984) [pdf] Available at: [Accessed 29 August 2012].


Dyer, R., 2002. The Matter of Images. Routledge: London


Shah, A. Huckabee Uses Role At Fox News To Launch Anti-Gay Attacks, Media Matters for America[online] Available at: [Accessed on 1 September 2012].


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001. Morbidity and Morality Weekly Report [pdf] Available at: [Accessed 6 September 2012].




Alien 3, 1992. [Film] Directed by David Fincher. USA: 20th Century Fox


Dune, 1984. [Film] Directed by David Lynch. USA: Universal


Metropolis, 1927. [Film] Directed by Fritz Lang. Weimar Republic: UFA


Rambo: First Blood, 1982. [Film] Directed by Ted Kotcheff. USA: Orion Pictures


The Terminator, 1984. [Film] Directed by James Cameron. USA: Orion Pictures


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