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.