Gender in diaspora: thoughts on the casting of Liet Kynes

Poster featuring Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Kynes in the 2021 Dune movie

In advance of Dune’s UK release I have been spending far too much time watching Youtube videos and reading wikis about Frank Herbert’s epic series, Dune. Despite having never got round to actually reading the books (will have to get onto that) it seems through immersion in online geek culture, I’ve managed to absorb by osmosis the meta about futuristic space Islam, the speculation about the lost world that was Jodorowsky’s Dune and the in-jokes about re-cutting sandworms erupting through the desert to Benny Hill soundtracks.

But that is typical to be honest. Before giving up at the end of season 4, all I had read of Game of Thrones was the first novel and let wikis and reddit fill the rest. I think the only property I have ever ‘read’ or consumed ‘correctly’ was Harry Potter and I was deep into deathtocapslock territory by the time the fifth book came out…

Anyway, through one of the channels I’ve been spending the most time on, I learned that there’s a bit of brouhaha over the casting of Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Kynes.

Described in the books as a ‘tall, thin man with long, sandy hair, a sparse but mussed mustache and beard and under heavy brows‘ man, the change of gender (as Duncan-Brewster is not portraying a trans man or a masc non-binary person) and appearance (to say race might not make strict sense but I can’t help but wonder how much of that is also a part of it, especially given comments on videos about yet another capitulation to ‘wokeness’) is disconcerting to those who see such changes as disrespectful to the source material. Having said that, there are some to their credit, who are equally if not more focussed on how the essence of a characters might be portrayed and consider such gender related changes to be more piquing than enraging.

Over here in my own corner, however, I think what I find interesting is that if there was any character (other than the hero Paul Atreides) for whom such a change made immediate sense, it would be Liet Kynes.

As a Fremen born of a mixed marriage, the ambiguity rendered in the, shall we say, Form of Liet Kynes by having a woman cinematically depict what was written as a man is in some ways a very obvious reflection of Liet Kynes’ ambiguous position within Fremen and Imperial society. Probably entirely unrelated, but there’s also something quite just in an almost reparative sense, given that Liet’s Fremen mother is unnamed(?) in the books (or at least, in the wikis) which rather puts her in the old genre trope of native woman who falls for the eponymous hero and serves only to legitimise whatever relationship the usually colonial figure decides to impose on the indigenous society.

But there’s another aspect to it as well which is very specific to gender as a phenomenon.

Perhaps this particularly struck me as someone from a diaspora who growing up, regularly enjoyed the tensions that come with the way various social logics – from class/caste to whatever mechanics of racialisation that the society employs – spit out whatever Frankenstein’s monster of a gender it chooses to create.

Now I have to be clear that I am reading Liet Kynes through the lens of diaspora, rather than the experience of mixed ethnic/cultural heritage, but there are some of the same dynamics that form the experience of both. In my own case, the social stereotypes or rather, aspirations of the Igbo girlchild were at definite odds with lower middle class English expectations, and my existence as a daughter of diaspora further complicated my gender on the occasion we would travel back to Nigeria. I would find myself party to discussions which certainly wouldn’t have been a social possibility if I was truly ‘the girl next door’ and similarly, my younger sisters would be taught ‘mens’ handshakes by eternally ironic uncles, and there were a host of other gender shifting experiences which would not have happened if we had not been born an ocean away.

Then more broadly there is the famous masculinisation of the successful woman, something which is common across many patriarchal cultures. “You think/are like a man!” they say as a sign of respect for some noteworthy achievement, particularly, it seems, those which have also earned the celebration of the non-Igbo. Even if only in an assembly or elders, or a family gathering, perhaps even if only for the moment of the vigorous handshake and the back clap, you – the usually gendered ‘woman’ – have truly become a ‘man’. Even an ironic clapback will not be taken as a rebuke of simplistic notions of gender, but further evidence of ones masculine positionality.

In all this, what it shows is that borders, (whether cultural, national, religious or other), serve to trouble gender in ways that range from the bemusing to the dangerous but also that that shouldn’t be a surprise because gender in itself is an output of what could be described as a differential multi-variable function.

This means that gender is but one expression of what it means to be part of a community. It is a complex manifold that communicates the kind of labour and physical space, the kind of legal and religious technology, the kind of etiquette etc. one is entitled to or must perform with. The grandchildren raised in the city can be permitted certain laxities of gender expression when they return to the home village, thus embodying a branch of the ur-gender, in the same way as (i.e. not in contradiction or necessarily antagonism towards) those born to the parents who remained. Liet Kynes, born to one who was at first an enemy, then prophet to the Fremen, and a Fremen birth-parent would be nothing but trouble from the gendered perspective! His depiction as a woman rather lends itself to this reality.

Thus, is it right to think there is anything inherently unusual or bizarre that Liet Kynes might be seen as a woman by one who had read the books, especially a reader like Denis Villeneuve (although obviously that is not to say it was a striking Black woman who probably came to mind when he first read the books as a teenager)? Even if not initially intended as such, what I think it demonstrates is the way a medium (in this case, film) can reify narrative cognition, bringing out layers of truth that might otherwise have remained blended.

As mentioned before in the twittersphere, I’m enjoying ‘Parts Unknown’, albeit in a generally sad sort of way – sometimes more deeply if it’s a city I know has since been under fire, or extremists have recently tipped the balance in another direction.

Anyway. I think it’s the episode that starts in Dakar where it really struck me the interestingness of understanding how people see themselves but also the underlying forces.

Because everyone is friendly, everyone is family centred, community centred, proud but not arrogant. And yet, these narrative reflections are never enough to account for the political instability, or lurking violence; the eruption of repressive dynamics and so on.

They both explain, and do not explain. Reveal and veil. The question as always, is always… ‘what?’

The episode in Argentina made me darkly laugh though. Whilst it was fun seeing Mallmann again (his is one of my favourite episodes on ‘Chefs Table’), hearing him retell a very whitewashed account of the origins of tango reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Ytasha Womack where she told me about the cursed nature of the dance – and indeed, perhaps even the whole culture now I think on it – and it’s origins amongst enslaved peoples, essentially slaughtered by a series of governmental policies post-abolition.

On discovering that Buenos Aires has the highest population of psychiatrists and therapists per capita, Bourdain asks why and I couldn’t help but blurt out, “because they slaughtered all their Black people of course”

Notes on ‘Invading ethnography: A queer of color reflexive practice’


There is a somewhat naive approach towards research within a lot of mainstream HCI/user centred design practice. Whether rooted in gatekeeping or rigour, there can be a bias towards the ‘harder’ aspects – the more theoretically grounded, the more analytical methods applied. However, what sometimes happens is an avoidance or simply an unknowing about the problematics within the methods we often look up to. This is just one of the reasons critical perspectives in sociological sciences are so important to keep up with and why I was particularly intrigued by this paper, shared by Dr Adjepong. It’s freely accessible and would of course recommend you read it!

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Victor Patricio Landaluze

Today I learned about the work of the costumbrista Victor Patricio Landaluze, courtesy of Jonathan Square’s amazing page, Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom. According to the post, ‘…his prolific oeuvre is the most detailed visual documentation of daily life of Afro-Cubans in the nineteenth century.’

Here are some examples of his work I’m particularly taken by:

Links round up

Just a bunch of things I’ve been reading/rediscovering this week. Trying to do this more often to help me document my practice. Two weekends in a row isn’t bad at all! 😀

UX reading

7 Principal Psychological Phenomena in UX Design – good for those ‘oh yeah I haven’t forgotten how to be an experience designer’ moments.

Describing Personas

The Language of Domination: Oppressive Meeting Dynamics


Shout out to monkik for saving a life! Had to do a bunch of prototyping and their range of icons were perfect

Abbotsford Convent website – Initially I was really taken by the cursor effect, then realised this was just a home page thing (and justifiably so given potential issues with reading content on rest of the site). I like the cut out details on the images, but second time looking at it reminds me how we need truly fluid frameworks for websites to become more genuinely mobile first (which to my mind, means adopting more patterns from mobile apps, especially with respect to differentiating between ‘architectural’ and ‘key action’ navigation).

Trying to clean up my drafts and came across this article on Kirokaze’s work. Funnily enough I think I’ve seen their stuff more recently on youtube as background art for any of the 101 ambient cyberpunk I listen to whilst working. Their portfolio is still pretty cool though.


Simple Statistics – a Javascript library

Museums ‘n’ tings

Some cool links courtesy of the recent Museums and AI talk…

What the Machine Saw

Living with Machines

You know, I’d love to do an experiment with AI powered chatbot interfaces for engaging with content but that’s for further down the line.


As is always the case, I have a couple more summatives to write up of some of the research I’ve done at the Natural History Museum. One of these will be focussed on the zine making workshops I ran at a couple of Lates, to inform future research using zines as method. This article, Creativity-based Research: The Process of Co-Designing with Users, is a handy little primer with links to some other references.

ORID — strategic questioning that gets you to a decision

Navigating Comics: An Empirical and Theoretical Approach to Strategies of Reading Comic Page Layouts – another one with some good pointers for upcoming research activities on impact of content design/layout and comprehension

Digital tools for participation: Where to start?

Social Studies of Outer Space blog just seems quite cool for speculative research approaches to community.

Zipf, Power-laws, and Pareto – a ranking tutorial

Differential Dynamic Systems – what? I realised I had to do some serious math revision and this guy’s pretty good.

Algorithmic Humanitarianism – keeping this here as a reference for tech social justice-y research. There’s so many great manifestos and frameworks, would be a shame not to make use of them!

Books to read (if anyone wants to get me a present)

digitalSTS, A field guide for Science and Technology Studies


Interview with Tee Corinne

Speculative Black art and analysis: papers and articles and essays, oh my!

Papers I want but alas I cannot have

Aso Ebi : The Dynamics of Fashion and Cultural Commodification in Nigeria

Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness

Click to access login

Artists and transmission

UlliBeier; a Beacon in the Post-Colonial Renascence of Adire

The Afrofuturism of Fabrice Monteiro

Wangechi Mutu: When Sci-Fi, Africa, and Art Collide

Interview with Fatimah Tuggar

“The field of utopian possibility is one in which multiple forms of belonging in difference adhere to a belonging in collectivity”: reading Jose Esteban Munoz

Continue reading ““The field of utopian possibility is one in which multiple forms of belonging in difference adhere to a belonging in collectivity”: reading Jose Esteban Munoz”

Quotes from Introduction: #TravelingWhileTrans, Design Justice, and Escape from the Matrix of Domination by Sasha Costanza-Chock

Some notes Introduction: #TravelingWhileTrans, Design Justice, and Escape from the Matrix of Domination.

As Browne discusses, and as Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, technically demonstrates, gender itself is racialized: humans have trained our machines to categorize faces and bodies as male and female through lenses tinted by the optics of white supremacy.

I misread this the first couple of times which led me to think aloud that the idea that types of ‘seeing’ create an analogous identity in the the thing doing the seeing is soooo necessary in order to get away from notions of ‘objective’ analysis/algorithms/information receptors etc.

  1. We use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems.
  2. We center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.
  3. We prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer.
  4. We view change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process, rather than as a point at the end of a process.
  5. We see the role of the designer as a facilitator rather than an expert.
  6. We believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, and that we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a design process.
  7. We share design knowledge and tools with our communities.
  8. We work towards sustainable, community-led and controlled outcomes.
  9. We work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the earth and to each other.
  10. Before seeking new design solutions, we look for what is already working at the community level. We honor and uplift traditional, indigenous, and local knowledge and practices.


Our work is guided by two core beliefs: first, that those who are directly affected by the issues a project aims to address must be at the center of the design process, and second, that absolutely anyone can participate meaningfully in design.”

According to design scholars Robert Hoffman, Axel Roesler, and Brian Moon, the designer as a specific kind of person, or as a profession, emerged with the Industrial Revolution. Until then, knowledge about how to create, use, and maintain specialized tools was transmitted via craft guilds. However, the craft guild model could not support larger-scale designs that required the distribution of skills among many specialists. Accordingly, “this new task—designing for a class of people with whom the designer did not interact—helped mark the origin of industrial design.”50 At this time, they also note, designers took on a new role: “to reshape formerly hand-crafted processes into ones that machines could do. Mass and assembly-line-based production stimulated, or necessitated, the creation of many designs for artifacts aimed at a broad mass of consumers and for machines designed to help in manufacturing other machines.”

Design is also a way of thinking, learning, and engaging with the world. Reasoning through design is a mode of knowledge production that is neither primarily deductive nor inductive, but rather abductive and speculative. Where deduction reasons from the general to the specific and induction reasons from the specific to the general, abduction suggests the best prediction given incomplete observations.

In his recent book Designs for the Pluriverse (2018), anthropologist Arturo Escobar sees design as an “ethical praxis of world-making.”55 He urges us to consider the ways that design practices today too often reproduce the totalizing epistemology of modernity and in the process erase indigenous worldviews, forms of knowledge, and ways of being. Escobar calls for an approach to design that is focused on the creation of a world “where many worlds fit.”

Crenshaw notes the role of statistical analysis in each of these cases: sometimes, the courts required Black women plaintiffs to include broader statistics for all women that countered their discrimination claims; in other cases, the courts limited the admissible data to that which dealt solely with Black women, as opposed to all Black workers. In those cases, the low total number of Black women employees typically made statistically valid discrimination claims impossible, whereas strong claims could have been made if the plaintiffs were allowed to include data for all women, for all Black people, or both. Later, in her 1991 Stanford Law Review article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,”65 Crenshaw powerfully articulates the ways that women of color often experience male violence as a product of intersecting racism and sexism, but are then marginalized from both feminist and antiracist discourse and practice and denied access to specific legal remedies.

To bear in mind for future writings on dealing with statistical methods in understanding users.

Collins also emphasizes that every individual simultaneously receives both benefits and harms based on their location within the matrix of domination. As Collins notes, “Each individual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression which frame everyone’s lives.”70 An intersectional Black feminist analysis thus helps us each understand that we are simultaneously members of multiple dominant groups and multiple subordinate groups. Design justice urges us to (1) consider how design (affordances and disaffordances, objects and environments, services, systems, and processes) distributes both penalty and privileges to individuals based on their location within the matrix of domination and (2) attend to the ways that this operates at various scales.

Design justice is a framework for analysis of how design distributes benefits and burdens between various groups of people. Design justice focuses explicitly on the ways that design reproduces and/or challenges the matrix of domination (white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, settler colonialism, and other forms of structural inequality). Design justice is also a growing community of practice that aims to ensure a more equitable distribution of design’s benefits and burdens; meaningful participation in design decisions; and recognition of community-based, Indigenous, and diasporic design traditions, knowledge, and practices.


Ethics as requirements: justifying the interrogation into methodology

Every now and then I re-read Moor’s 2006 paper ‘Why we need better ethics for emerging technologies‘. It’s become one of those permanent tab items and has been saved in pretty much every cloud platform and external hard drive I own.

Generally, I find it a stark reminder of the stakes when it comes to discussions about ethics of technology, particularly in discussions about inclusive design and the entanglements with capitalist modes of production. My first ‘proper’* paper on critical approaches to design of technology was at the 2018 Techno-Resistance and Black Futures conference, over a decade after Moor’s paper was published, and even then I remember saying that, as we’re sitting in lecture theatres mutually assuring or dismaying each other in turn with our findings, in many ways we’re too late – this stuff is already out there in production, being maintained, gathering data, justifying metrics and changing user’s paradigms; it’s not just in the lab or an interesting thought experiment. One can’t reset complex systems to t=0, so if we’re serious about stopping algorithmic bias etc., then we might need to start acting like it.

Even now, in a time when the amazing Algorithmic Justice League is much more familiar to people of tech, we still get news stories like this wherein a Microsoft AI was (in the process of being tested on an unsuspecting public) revealed to be incapable of differentiating between two famous women of colour.

But whilst Moor’s paper is generally a healthy reminder that we still have a very long way to go, different things will stick out depending on my mood.

Continue reading “Ethics as requirements: justifying the interrogation into methodology”