This article contains spoilers for Dune: Part Two.

The “Self-Made Man” and the Self-Veiled Woman

We’ve all heard it: “Behind every great man is a great woman.” There’s more than one way to read that cliché: as a well-deserved “thank you” to the mothers who raised us or the wives who kept the home fires burning; as an affront to women’s dignity (See, we’re always relegated to the role of “support staff,” never the main event!); as a way to undermine the myth of the self-made man; as a reminder of the unpaid “second shift” that typically falls on women; as a call to gratitude. Or, as Dune: Part Two portrays, an ominous recognition of the veiled woman whispering advice and uttering threats, giving nudges and pulling strings, spreading rumors and manipulating masses, to pave a path for a man and to push him down it—be it her son, her husband, her emperor, or her enemy.

Subtle influence is the way women in the real world have traditionally moved the levers of power, by veiling their influence and whispering into the ear of the one wearing the pants (or the crown).

In such a scenario, the “woman behind the man” is not veiled from sight as a result of male oppression, gender stereotypes, or family logistics. Rather, she veils herself, hiding her influence because it suits her purposes. She gets more done that way. As a mother says to her daughter in my favorite romantic comedy of the early aughts, confident in her powers of spousal persuasion, “Don’t you worry—I’m gonna talk to him. The man is the head, but the woman is the neck, and she can turn the man any way she wants.”

Women have always known that one way to counteract the exclusivity of power wielded in all boys’ clubs and boardrooms is through the privacy of influence wielded at the kitchen table and in the pillow talk of the bedroom. The more exclusive and tyrannical the male power structure, the more subtle and shrewd the female work-around, creating a downward spiral of suspicion and relational pathology.

In the feudal, hierarchical, and nigh-medieval world of Dune, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood accomplish their millennia-long plans within plans through shadowy machinations—feminine power exerted from behind through a masculine front, as they place themselves and their skills “at the service” of the Great Houses. The Bene Gesserit are pejoratively referred to as “witches” for their powers of perception (truth-saying), persuasion (the Voice), physiological control (prana-bindu), and prescient fighting tactics (the weirding way). Though naturalistic and not occult, the subtlety of their craft looks to outsiders like magic.

Subtle influence is the way women in the real world have traditionally moved the levers of power: not by “leaning in” to the Pantsuit Nation, and not by kicking butt like the Black Widow, but by veiling their influence and whispering into the ear of the one wearing the pants (or the crown).

The feminine soft skills required to finesse a situation towards a desired outcome often get a bad rap, though they aren’t necessarily negative. In the early centuries of Christianity, the number of female converts outpaced the number of male converts. Given its radical message of equality—“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)—this is hardly surprising. It was not uncommon for a Christian aristocratic woman to be wed to an influential pagan man, and considering both St. Peter and St. Paul‘s advice on women converting unbelieving husbands through their piety and prayers, such unions were no cause for alarm, but had quite fruitful outcomes for the faith.

In his article “Movers, Shakers, Empire-Breakers: How Christian Women Changed The Course Of History,” Bobby Gilles writes, “These upper-class women were particularly important to the growth of the Church because their witness could convert whole households: husbands, children, extended family, and slaves.” One need not be a traveling evangelist or an author of New Testament epistles to win souls to Christ: in the age of the paterfamilias, there was also the one who shaped the faith of the father in secret, thus shaping the faith of the household, and of the empire composed of those households. We shouldn’t scoff at what women can achieve behind closed doors.

When the Player Gets Played

Such veiled power can be used for good or ill, in the real world and in fictional ones. When it comes to the Bene Gesserit’s eugenic scheme for universal domination, it’s hard to see it as anything but ill, despite the fact that their Latin-named order (which translates to “well done”) is modeled in part after Catholic orders like the Jesuits. The Bene Gesserit influence on both the Emperor and the Great Houses is a morally dubious one, despite the fact that these highly dedicated, impeccably trained, and brilliant women mean well.

It’s not a flattering picture of feminine power, nor of masculine manipulability, but it’s not meant to be.

The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken) was forced by the Bene Gesserit to beget only daughters, so that they could control who would ascend to the throne after him. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), Truthsayer to the Emperor, was the one who counseled him to permit the Harkonnens to destroy House Atreides, which ultimately led to his downfall. The most treacherous act within the whole story—the linchpin of Dune’s plot—was orchestrated behind the scenes by an old woman.

And the second most important point of the story—the ascendency of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) to become the Lisan al Gaib, the Fremen Messiah leading a jihad—was likewise orchestrated by a Bene Gesserit: his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). While the book delves deeply into Paul’s inner agony over which path to take, the movie amps up Lady Jessica’s influence over him and over the credulous southern Fremen, making her a sinister character like Lady MacBeth rather than the cautious, mentoring mother she appeared to be on the page. After Paul’s embryonic sister is awakened by the Water of Life ceremony, even she exerts pressure on him through their mother, veiled as she is in the hiddenness of the womb.

Paul and the Emperor are not the only men who are nudged from the shadows by veiled women. Feyd Rautha (Austin Butler) is seduced by Lady Margo Fenring (Léa Seydoux), as she secures his line for future use by the Bene Gesserit. Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) is the unknowing father of Lady Jessica by none other than (spoiler alert) Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam.1 The Bene Gesserit needed Harkonnen genetic material for their breeding program: Mohiam blackmailed (and drugged) the unwilling, male-preferring Baron into an encounter which resulted in an “unviable” child. Take two—in which the Baron violently raped Mohiam in revenge, and in which she gave him a poison that bloated and sickened him—resulted in the conception of Lady Jessica, whose son Paul causes the Baron’s death. Not all Bene Gesserit sexual scheming is a matter of consensual seduction, arranged marriages, or the placement of concubines. The sisterhood makes plans within plans involving sex, motherhood, manipulation, and murder—all for the “greater good of humanity,” they believe.

The male power players—the Emperor, Paul, Baron Harkonnen, Feyd Rautha—have all been played by women. Women who spoke to them, or slept with them, or gave birth to them. It’s not a flattering picture of feminine power, nor of masculine manipulability, but it’s not meant to be. It’s a warning. The men who are played are certainly not the moral superiors of the women who play them: they are moral (or rather, immoral) equals.

A Tale of Two Women

The saddest part of Dune: Part Two is the fact that the film’s one totally honest and transparent woman—Chani (Zendaya), Paul’s lover, friend, and Fremen teacher—is unable to persuade him from the path of escalating, religiously motivated violence. The tragic unfolding of Paul’s “terrible purpose” is a result of Bene Gesserit machinations, combined with his failure to listen to Chani, the only woman who spoke from her heart to his face rather than blindly following him or selfishly manipulating him. The movie sets up this contrast—the war of two women over the heart and destiny of Paul—in a way that Herbert’s book does not.

Dune is intended to be a cautionary tale about a dangerous faith. It’s a picture of what to avoid, not what to embrace.

Jessica and Chani are on friendlier terms in Herbert’s telling (even though Jessica thinks of Chani as not being “good enough” for her son). Both seek Paul’s flourishing and the flourishing of the Fremen on whom they depend. There are other similarities, as well. Jessica was the concubine of Duke Leto who loved her, and was the mother of his son, Paul. Chani was Paul’s beloved concubine in the novel’s polygynous world, as well as the mother of his son, Leto II, who is killed by Saudakar (a fact which the movie removes entirely by compressing the timeline from three years to a few months). The two women share this experience of being concubines to aristocratic men whom they know might need to form politically expedient marriage alliances—a fact to which they resign themselves in a manner difficult for modern women to understand. Herbert gives the final words of the book to Jessica’s attempt at consolation: “We, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine—history will call us wives.”

The director of Dune: Part Two, Denis Villeneuve, pits Jessica and Chani against each other more explicitly. Jessica changes profoundly (for the worse) after becoming a Reverend Mother. She seeks her son’s greatness as the Bene Gesserit’s godlike Kwisatz Haderach and the Fremen’s fabled Lisan al Gaib. Chani, on the other hand, seeks his wellbeing as a man, a lover, a Fremen, and a friend on equal footing. Paul hears the whisper of power and ambition in one ear, and the whisper of love and truth in the other, as his prescient visions intensify and he seeks to chart a path to a future that isn’t horrifying. Villeneuve makes each woman stronger, more steely, and more shrewd than her literary counterpart, but in opposing moral directions.

The women come to represent a choice Paul faces, which is a way of taking his internal, invisible, path-searching, complex mental misery and giving it a visible form for the audience. In Dune: Part One, Paul had dreams of Chani in which she either kissed him or stabbed him; in Dune: Part Two, he has nightmares of his mother leading him south towards a holy war in which millions die. There appears to be a choice between an intimate death, and death on a vast, unspeakable scale. These are the stakes for “the prophet.”

The book version of Chani worshiped Paul as the long-awaited prophet: her love was simple, steadfast, naïve, blind. And she was loyal to her people in a way that ruthlessly coincided with Paul’s rise and the coming holy war. Whatever was good for her people, was good, period; she was unapologetically tribal. In the book, Chani was a religious priestess among the Fremen, a Sayyadina with a degree of authority (the next in line to become a Reverend Mother, if Jessica’s transformation by the Water of Life failed). She believed in the prophecies along with all of her people, and she believed Paul fulfilled them.

This Chani was a tragic figure who couldn’t walk away from Paul even if she wanted to (and she didn’t want to). She was thoroughly colonized by Paul and bound to his fate, and appeared more like a battered woman in love with her abuser than a woman who could afford to stick to her principles and walk away. She deserves our pity, not our admiration. “Chani can no more walk away from Paul than she can walk away from Arrakis. She is part of the tragedy.”2

The religious changes Villeneuve makes to the story coincide with a drastic change in Chani. Dune: Part Two introduces a religious split between the skeptical culture of the northern Fremen tribes and the faithful-to-the-point-of-fanaticism southern tribes, exemplified by Stilgar (Javier Bardem). In this retelling, Chani is northern, and so she shares the doubts of her fellows, causing her to see all aspects of Fremen faith and prophecy as merely Bene Gesserit superstition which Paul is increasingly willing to exploit (and which makes her increasingly angry).

Villeneuve’s Chani is in some ways a stand-in for the modern audience’s conscience which is rightly troubled both by the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Harkonnen oppressors and by the religious jihad about to be perpetrated by Fremen fanaticism. I could quibble with the presentation of only two options—reasonable unbelief and superstitious belief, with no reasonable and peaceful faith in sight—but Dune is intended to be a cautionary tale about a dangerous faith. It’s a picture of what to avoid, not what to embrace.

Villeneuve said that he changed Chani’s religious faith into doubt so that the perspective on Paul’s anti-hero status would be clearer to the audience. The film’s Chani is more ethically demanding, free of superstition and hero worship, and unswayed by Bene Gesserit lies. This Chani does not hesitate to stand up to Paul (or even slap him) when he betrays the values they once shared—and which we as the audience are meant to share. Chani does not want to see him as the Lisan al Gaib, as the Kwitzatz Haderach, or as the Emperor: she promises to love him “as long as you stay who you are.” Don’t try to be a god. Don’t deck yourself out in the myth fabric of my desperate people. Don’t use them as an army for your own purposes. Let my people save themselves. Don’t become their “prophesied” Savior. Stay who you are. This is Frank Herbert’s voice.

Villeneuve took Herbert’s intended message with Dune—that charismatic leaders are not to be trusted—and put that healthy skepticism into his rewrite of Chani even as he upped the Lady MacBeth-style ambitions of Jessica as a counterpoint. In an interview, Villeneuve related Herbert’s disappointment with the way people perceived his story:

He felt that people misconceived Paul Atreides; that people were seeing him as a hero, where he wanted to do the opposite. So in reaction to that he wrote Dune Messiah in order to insist on the idea that Paul was a dangerous figure, and that the first book was more of a cautionary tale or more of a warning against the current charismatic leaders. 

Chani’s pushback against Paul, while it differs from the book and derails the love story, is Villeneuve’s way of making sure his retelling hits the cautionary note which was obscured by the literary Chani’s uncritical devotion and practical enmeshment. We are supposed to listen to Chani in the film, to feel with her, to see Paul through her eyes, so that when everyone else in the room bends the knee to Paul, we (with Chani) stay standing.

Stand By Your Man, But Also Stand Up To Your Man

This new Chani offers a different model of influence than the veiled and manipulative vision seen in the Bene Gesserit: she doesn’t pressure Paul or finesse the situation from the shadows, she disagrees with him openly. She also provides a different model of love: a woman should not only stand by her man, but stand up to her man when he’s in the wrong (a luxury the book-based Chani couldn’t afford). Better to suffer the reproving glance of a worthy woman who is your peer, than to enjoy the docile acquiescence of a less critical mind (as if she were beneath you), or to have your strings pulled without your conscious awareness (as if you were beneath her).

If anyone is inclined to take away from this film the message that men shouldn’t listen to women because they’re shameless manipulators, then they’ve missed the point.

The best dynamic between the sexes is not one of competition, hierarchy, or manipulation, but of friendly and complementary “combat” that aims at consensus—an intramural scrimmage with a peer who pushes back for your own good (“Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” Proverbs 27:6) and who can take it as well as they dish it out. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17). Or as Chani says to Paul before their first kiss, “Here, we’re equal, men and women alike. What we do, we do for the benefit of all.” His response—“Well, I’d very much like to be equal to you,”—is an aim he falls short of, precisely because he reaches too high, higher than any human should.

Chani does her best to show Paul the way, and yet she fails. Heartbroken and betrayed, yet always dignified, Chani is given the final shot of the film as she leaves a victorious Paul behind. Her pain is our pain: she knows—and now we know—that he is on the wrong path, and there is no turning back. The Bene Gesserit’s best-laid plans apparently blew up in their faces when the Kwisatz Haderach came a generation too soon, though Lady Jessica’s personal scheming has triumphed: the war has begun, and her son, now Emperor, will “lead the people to paradise” against the Great Houses of the Landsraad. Jessica is now both a Reverend Mother and a Queen Mother, arguably the greatest woman in that world, and yet whatever that greatness consists of, it is not moral greatness.

If anyone is inclined to take away from this film the message that men shouldn’t listen to women because they’re shameless manipulators, then they’ve missed the point. The message isn’t, don’t let yourself be influenced (that’s impossible): the message is, listen to the right woman. Listen to the woman who loves you, who sees you as a person, not a pawn to be played. Listen to the woman who speaks honestly to your face and will argue with you for your own good—and for The Good as something bigger than the both of you. Listen to the woman who won’t bend the knee even when everyone else does, because she can see through the myth to the man. Her honest disagreement is worth more than all the blind faith and unthinking devotion in the world. The novel Dune, as much as I love it, didn’t give us any trustworthy female voices or women worth emulating on a moral level.

For the myriad of potential paths and futures that Paul in his prescience accounted for, the one thing he didn’t take seriously enough was the wisdom of the young, unveiled woman right in front of him. Herbert didn’t give this role to Chani in his novel, and early readers missed the warning and mistook Paul for a hero3, much as Chani herself did. But Villeneuve was right to make her the skeptic, to have her stand up to Paul rather than stand behind him, to run the risk that some would mistake her moral high ground for the cheap, reflexive girl-bossification which permeates Hollywood these days. 

But Chani is better than that: she becomes a prophet herself—not as one who sees into the future, but more in the Old Testament sense, as one who carries the mantle of moral disapproval by refusing to participate in her people’s idolatry. Villeneuve was right to place Herbert’s truths on her tongue. Even if Paul discounted her protest, we the watchers won’t.

Dune: Part Two is now streaming on HBO Max.


Footnotes

  1. The sickening story of Jessica’s conception and parentage is recorded in the Prelude to Dune trilogy written by Brian Herbert (Frank Herbert’s son) and Kevin J. Anderson, and based on Frank Herbert’s notes. Not all Dune fans consider the newer books by Herbert’s son to be officially “in the canon,” but I mention the story here because it supports my point and I’m not a Dune purist. ↩︎
  2. Dr. Laura Robinson provides an excellent critique of Villeneuve’s choice to change Chani and is worth reading: “Does Denis Villaneuve Understand the Women of Dune?↩︎
  3. You can read my response to Dune: Part One here: “Dune and Disaster, or, Why Charismatic Leaders Should Come with a Warning Label.” ↩︎