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Dune | Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and Queer Menace

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When the trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s new Dune adaptation dropped, fans of Frank Herbert’s massively influential sci-fi series were impatient to see how their favorite characters had been interpreted for the screen this time around. Timothee Chalamet would be taking on the role of the young Messiah figure Paul Atreides, Zendaya would be playing the desert-dwelling Chani, and Stellan Skarsgård had inherited the complicated legacy of a classic queer-coded villain: the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

When the original novel was written in the 1960s, it reflected issues like environmentalism with a prescient and progressive lens. Through Herbert’s comprehensive world-building, he raised intelligent questions about how to live within an ecosystem and deal with natural resources, even if his characters happened to be facing huge Sandworms at the same time. But Dune had a blind spot when it came to another burgeoning movement: the underground fight for gay liberation that would emerge after the Stonewall riots in 1969.

The Baron Harkonnen, an incestuous pedophile, is the only gay character in the series. And everything about the Baron is designed to be as repulsive as possible to a contemporary reader so that he would be singled out as the most cartoonishly villainous character out of the book’s antagonists. His physical appearance is described as “grossly and immensely fat” with “suspensors” under his robes to actually hold up his flesh, making him yet another fat villain demonized for their weight. Herbert contrasts the Baron’s large body with the young and lithe slaveboys that he lusts after and exploits, in order to further drive home the horror of him using his immense power over them.

[See also: Dune | Cultural Appropriation? How Frank Herbert Decentralised Western SF by Levi Eddie Aluede]

The Baron Harkonnen and his sinister sex life

Even from the Baron’s first appearance, the author doesn’t shy away from portraying his attraction to boys. When his conversation turns to our hero Paul, who is heir to the Atreides family, he considers the idea of sending an assassin after the teenager. “Ah, but the lad has such a sweet young body,” the Baron muses, before accepting that he is too dangerous to survive. Later, after murdering a doctor who had defected to his side and watching his guards dying from a poisonous gas attack, the remorseless villain requests a distraction. “I’ll be in my sleeping chambers,” the Baron casually tells a guardsman. “Bring me that young fellow we bought on Gamont, the one with the lovely eyes. Drug him well. I don’t feel like wrestling.”

The implication that the Baron regularly drugs young slave boys to avoid a fight can hardly be brushed aside. Herbert has established that his queer antagonist is a rapist, fixated on sexually assaulting youthful and beautiful boys. And at the end of the chapter, the Baron observes that “the one with the lovely eyes” resembles Paul, which establishes that he poses a sexual threat to the young protagonist as well. That choice of words is also later repeated when he reflects on his young nephew Feyd’s future as a leader, making it clear exactly what the Baron would like to do with him. “He’ll learn. And such a lovely body. Really a lovely boy,” the villain thinks to himself. He had already noticed “his nephew’s lips, the full and pouting look of them,” in their first scene together – revealing to the audience that this monster is not only a predator but an incestuous one.

Sam Weber’s gruesome depiction of the Baron Harkonnen for Folio Society’s 50th-anniversary release of Dune. | Folio Society, 2016.

Feyd attempts to use his knowledge of the Baron’s sexual proclivities to his own gain when he tries to assassinate his uncle, by hiding a poisoned needle in the thigh of another young slave boy. Although the attempt fails, the fact that Feyd knew his uncle would try to put a hand on the slave’s thigh is telling. The Baron’s sexuality is clearly an open secret amongst the Harkonnens, as he reluctantly admits in the same scene. When his nephew asks why he hasn’t ever obtained one of the Bene Gesserit women for himself, given their superhuman abilities, the Baron snaps: “You know my tastes!”  This single portrayal of homosexuality combines predatory stereotypes, incestuous desires, and body shaming. As it turns out, these uncomfortable tropes probably reflected Herbert’s own views. 

The man behind Dune

Although he’s mostly avoided the kind of publicity that has dogged fellow sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card, whose hysterical rants against gay marriage are infamous, Herbert’s political beliefs definitely leaned towards the right-wing. As his son Brian recalled in the biography Dreamer of Dune, he actually worked for several Republicans over the years. Before he was known worldwide for his science fiction, the author earned his keep by writing speeches and creating publicity for the campaigns of conservative candidates. He even worked for Oregon senator Guy Cordon, who was a fervent Joseph McCarthy supporter. And Herbert’s opinions led to a distant, complicated relationship with his other son Bruce.

[See also: Dune | How We Made the Epic Sci-Fi Channel Miniseries by Ben Falk]

The brothers had a difficult childhood, raised by a man who would rig them up to a lie detector machine whenever they were in trouble and punish them regardless of the result. Bruce would grow up to be a gay photographer and activist who participated in “Act Up” marches after he moved to the queer scene in San Francisco. According to Brian, their parents were “not at all pleased by this information” and wished that he had never chosen that lifestyle. Their relationship remained difficult even during the dying days of Bruce’s mother, who was reportedly “troubled” by him “exposing himself to grave dangers in the gay community.” Herbert, who shared similar concerns, told his son not to visit his mother on her deathbed.

Bruce knew how his family felt about his homosexuality and never fully made up with Herbert. Although both sons outlived their father, they went on to very different paths: Brian inherited the Dune series and still runs the estate, whereas Bruce eventually died of AIDS. This quiet family tragedy reflects that although Herbert may have been a hero to countless young sci-fi fans around the globe, he represented a slightly more complicated figure to his own children. Sadly, the author’s attitude towards gay men reflected the era he was born in and seemingly alienated him from Bruce.

Bruce Herbert’s obituary in the Bay Area Reporter, 24 June 1993. | GLBT Historical Society

David Lynch’s notorious adaptation

The 1984 David Lynch adaptation didn’t fix the original novel’s stereotypes but instead updated it for a new decade. In his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan – and Beyond (1986), film critic Robin Wood accused Dune of being “the most obscenely homophobic film I have ever seen” thanks to its antagonist – and one scene in particular. Lynch was coming off his two early hits Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980), which had both featured surreal and disturbing imagery, so he decided to leave his own stamp on this adaptation too. In a moment that traumatized a generation of young viewers, David Lynch demonstrated what kind of monster the Baron truly was. 

After a passionate monologue about how he will seize power, the villain, played by a menacing Kenneth McMillan, approaches a young slave boy. He then rips out his heart plug, a gruesome device invented for the movie that seems to keep slaves in line through the constant threat of death. The boy begins to rapidly bleed out through his translucent uniform as the Baron embraces him. Blood sprays across the wall as the music swells. Other Harkonnen men watch voyeuristically during the act; some are reluctant, some are impassive, and others are interested. Feyd, played by Sting, grins manically at the climax, as though sharing the sadistic lust of his rapacious uncle.

In this scene, Lynch also frames the Baron as another classic trope of sexual threat: the vampire, which has been associated with seduction and homoeroticism since Lord Byron provided inspiration for John Polidori’s novella The Vampyre (1819). A suspender belt gives the Baron the supernatural ability to fly around despite his size, which he uses to cover himself in some kind of filthy black oil. When the villain then approaches the slave boy, he physically towers over him, similar to how Bela Lugosi’s creature of the night looms over Renfield in the climactic staircase murder of the 1931 film Dracula. He also deliberately contaminates his victim, smearing the mysterious black fluid in his face along with the boy’s own blood.

The Baron (Kenneth McMillan) descends on his prey. | Dino De Laurentiis Corporation, 1984

[See also: Dune | Making Modiphius’s Adventures in the Imperium RPG by James Hoare]

The horror of HIV in the 1980s

In the following decade, the vampire genre would begin to invoke the spectre of AIDS too. It had always been associated with contamination and plague (some have argued that the word “Nosferatu” itself is derived from the Greek for “disease-bearing”) but the invisible infection of a fluid-transmitted curse no longer just rang a bell when it came to Bram Stoker’s own alleged syphilis. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 interpretation of Dracula, for example, played up the fact that Dr. Van Helsing is a specialist in blood-borne diseases. The film focuses on the blood transfusions that are supposed to save Lucy’s life after she’s been bitten, showing the glint of light off the doctor’s machinery. And Lynch’s cameras seem equally interested in fluids and disease when it comes to the villainous Baron.

McMillan’s portrayal of Baron Harkonnen in Dune was covered in sores, as critics pointed out at the time, which were also reminiscent of the ongoing AIDS crisis. Although the pustules had never been described in the novels, that detail was later incorporated into the sequels that his son wrote. Lynch’s film had started shooting in 1983, the same year that the World Health Organization held its first meeting officially addressing how AIDS was spreading across the globe. The New York Times also devoted a front-page piece to the epidemic for the first time, declaring: “HEALTH CHIEF CALLS AIDS BATTLE ‘NO. 1 PRIORITY.” Panic had set in across the country and pressure was beginning to build for the government to do something about this mysterious illness.

The Baron’s pustules are nursed by his sycophantic doctor. | Dino De Laurentiis Corporation, 1984

So it’s entirely possible that HIV was the intentional subtext of the movie, especially scenes where the Baron’s doctor tends to his skin. Working on the Baron with needles, the doctor and his assistant send mysterious fluids pumping through a nearby glass vessel. “You are SO beautiful, my Baron. Your skin, love to me. Your diseases lovingly cared for, for all eternity,” he promises the leader with slavish affection. Besides the homoerotic image of the doctor whispering intimately into his ear, referring to Macmillan’s obviously masculine villain as “beautiful,” contemporary audiences may have been alarmed by the reference to “diseases.” The words “for all eternity” are particularly key: like vampirism, like AIDS, whatever the Baron has is a lifelong condition.

Sexuality in the wider Dune universe

So why is any queer desire linked with violence and illness in this franchise? Why is homosexuality so vilified in both the original novel and its film adaptation, when it would have been so easy to not include it at all? Possibly because it symbolically disrupts the natural order of Herbert’s worldbuilding. Across the books, the point of sex is reproduction. We return again and again to the problem of inheritance, as indicated by the titles given to Baron Harkonnen, Duke Leto, Count Fenring, and Lady Jessica. The aristocratic hierarchy of the planets harks back to monarchies of a different era and rulers that had inherited their claim to absolute power.

Paul specifically is the result of a breeding program planned for centuries by the Bene Gesserit and their secret abilities. The all-female order had interfered in political situations and maneuvered genetic outcomes so that the Atreides line would produce an heir who would advance the human race. Paul turned out to be this “Kwisatz Haderach,” a son capable of expanding his mind to achieve extraordinary powers. And later, the primary outcome of Paul’s connection with the Fremen concubine Chani isn’t romance; the most important consequence is that they have a son who inherits his father’s crucial genetic material. Gay men cannot produce children or advance any bloodlines in the universe of Dune, so therefore any sex they have is automatically portrayed as wasteful and immoral.

[See also: Dune | Liet Kynes: The Blackness of the Real Messiah by Peter Herman]

Homosexuality is also connected in Dune’s universe to violent subjugation. “He who controls the spice, controls the universe,” the Baron famously spits in the 1984 film. And absolute conquest is his motivation, whether he is casually molesting and murdering a slave boy or plotting the elimination of the Atreides family. Herbert’s depiction of his sexuality could represent another facet of that despotic personality, as part of his larger motivation to consume and overwhelm. The Baron may not have any interest in women sexually or politically because he doesn’t see them as an equal who is worthy of being defeated.

The politics of Herbert’s sequels

The homophobic assumption that gay men are all predators applies to the wider world of the Dune books as well. In a later novel, God Emperor of Dune, Paul’s descendant Leto has turned himself into a god-like sandworm figure who must sacrifice himself for the good of the universe. And in his infinite wisdom, this Christ-like figure only allows women in his army, out of the fear that an all-male military force would descend into predatory behavior. “The Lord Leto says that when it was denied an external enemy, the all-male army always turned against its own population. Always,” the character Moneo reports, imparting the beliefs of the powerful Atreides successor. “He says that the all-male army has a strong tendency toward homosexual activities.” 

After another character objects to this theory, Moneo blames “adolescent attitudes” for creating an atmosphere that encourages both gay experimentation and sadism. “The homosexual, latent or otherwise, who maintains that condition for reasons which could be purely psychological, tends to indulge in pain-causing behavior – seeking it for himself and inflicting it upon others,” Herbert writes through this mouthpiece, adding the justification that according to Lord Leto, this “goes back to the testing behavior in the prehistoric pack.” Moneo also later casually claims that gay men are naturally “the berserkers of last resort” in battle, which is how they can be useful to an army. This is the same kind of pseudo-science that has historically been used to demonize homosexuality as a mental illness, justifying conversion therapy and depicting gay men as an existential threat to society.

Then again, that power-hungry tyranny applies to the world order of the whole series. The Lords and Ladies and Barons exist within a social hierarchy that looks a lot like old-fashioned feudalism, ruled over by one supreme emperor who delegates power to certain powerful families. Those families may wrestle for power among themselves, planning assassinations and arranging political marriages, but they ultimately fall in line. One of the heroes of the books suggests that this class system is the “best social form” for a civilization stretching across different planets. In order to keep humanity going, another character explains, the species requires the “ancient human demand” for a strict hierarchy “where every person knows his place.” But is Herbert himself actually advocating for a political system like this?

[See also: Dune | How We Made Sci-Fi Channel’s Children of Dune by Ben Falk]

Queer origins and shades of grey

There are no straightforward answers in the universe of Dune. Its moral ambiguity is one reason why fans love it so much: even our supposed hero Paul later kicks off a brutal 12-year Jihad to enforce the Fremen way of life on the rest of the known universe, sacrificing billions of lives. And Paul’s heterosexuality isn’t quite as fixed as his strapping young Chosen One characterization might suggest: becoming the “Kwisatz Haderach” requires him to open his mind to both male and female consciousness, which creates quite a potent metaphor for transgender and non-binary identity. The Atreides heir is also largely based on Lawrence of Arabia, a desert explorer whose own sexuality has been the subject of debate for decades.

Lt.Col. T. E. Lawrence, also know as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, in traditional Arab dress. | Australian War Memorial Photograph Collection

In his biography, Brian Herbert wrote that his father had read extensively about T.E. Lawrence and the mythology surrounding him: how the British explorer became a messianic figure to the Arab forces he led in a fight for independence against the Turks, his assimilation to the harsh desert environment, and his writings about the people he encountered. Lawrence’s life clearly influenced the journey of Paul in Dune: the heir to a great family who joins the Fremen people, a resourceful and religious desert tribe based on the Bedouin, and leads them to victory against oppressive occupying forces. As other critics have pointed out, it’s the original white savior narrative.

But Lawrence didn’t fall in love with a local woman, mirroring Paul’s romance with Chani. Instead, he formed a close connection to “Dahoum,” or Selim Ahmed, a water boy who taught Lawrence how to speak Arabic and later moved in with him as a companion. After Ahmed died of typhoid, the Englishman left a mysterious dedication in his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom to “S.A.,” which most historians now interpret as a tribute to his young friend. “I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the sky in stars to earn you Freedom, that seven-pillared worthy house, that your eyes might be shining for me when we came…” the adventurer wrote, hinting that his entire motivation behind joining the Arab forces might have been his love for Ahmed.

Where do we go from here?

So in a sense, queerness was baked into Dune from the moment Herbert started thinking it up. Science fiction in the 1960s wasn’t overflowing with representation, so this was yet another way that Dune separated itself from its contemporaries. But for any LGBTQ+ fans of the franchise, the Baron’s villainy is a tough conundrum. It would perhaps be easier to swallow if there were any other queer characters populating the planets of Herbert’s imagination, but sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a real demand for any gay bars on Arrakis or Caladan. 

And there’s never been a real attempt to explore the entire spectrum of sexuality in any of the adaptations: the 1984 David Lynch film, the miniseries from 2000, or the new Villeneuve epic. Although this new movie might have cut the overtly predatory elements of Stellan Skarsgård’s bald, gravel-voiced Baron Harkonnen, it also remains to be seen whether any LGBTQ+ representation will appear in the new movies at all – which might be a mistake. Arguably, if we want to give the great work of science fiction the full adaptation it deserves, we should address Herbert’s complicated view of sexuality and interrogate his homophobic preconceptions, rather than shying away from them.

After all, fear is the mind-killer.

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Bessie Yuill is an independent writer from the North East of England who is now based in London. She is interested in writing about culture, history and the unexplored corners of breaking news. Her work has been published in Slate, Buzzfeed, Discover Magazine and The Independent.

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