I’m glad they didn’t turn Paul Atreides into a girl

It’s notable looking at the beautiful Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya side by side at Dune photocalls that they are near identical in height and build…and beauty.

“We all admire toxic masculinity when it’s being played out by a young woman”

It would have been all too easy to gender-flip their roles. Have Zendaya knife training with Gurney Halleck and freaking out about her destiny as a mass murderer while dreaming prophetic visions of a gauzily robbed Chalamet beckoning her on to her destiny.

But I’m glad whoever it was resisted the temptation.

It’s the fashion of the day to cast young women into masculine heroic roles. We all admire toxic masculinity when it’s being played out by a young woman who meets all our standards of feminine beauty, while also being able to beat the shit out of men the size of WWE wrestlers.

The gender flipping only goes one way, however. Mother’s aren’t ready to take their daughters to see Elsa from Frozen I & II played by a boy who looks like Shrek the Ogre. Yet. There are still archetypally female journeys that we want embodied in a female character.

Paul Atreides is an embodiment of the archetypal young male journey. Or one version of it. Not the Jock but the Nerd hero. Less Thor, more Loki. The small, fast, intellectual young man, challenged not so much by the outer world as by his own inner existential angst. What…I’m going to murder billions in a Jihad? WHY ME?

Unlike so many power fantasies for young men, Paul Atreides is both the hero and the monster who must be defeated. Paul doesn’t get to just destroy the Baron and reclaim his inheritance then live happily ever after. A man who unleashes the violence needed to take power inevitably becomes the monster of their own story.

I don’t know the coming-of-age story young women need. I’m not a woman. But I know what young men need to be told.

As men come into our strength we need some older, wiser man to take us aside and tell us two stories. One, yes, is the story of the hero who serves their community. The other, just as essential, is the story of the monstrous man. Of the toxic masculine. Who destroys those he most loves out of pride, greed, and ego…all while believing they are still the hero.

Because every man has that potential within us.

In the mass society of the 21st century it’s stories like Dune that provide the coming-of-age tales for billions of young men. It’s why these stories get the obsessive response from one generation of adolescent boys after another. It’s a cheap fashion to casually gender flip such stories. And probably does more to create the toxic masculinity of our age than to defuse it.

I take a deep dive into the mythic masculine meaning of Dune interviewed by Rebel Wisdom.
Explore the 7 levels of meaning in Frank Herbert’s DUNE
Join the course in Advanced Scifi & Fantasy : Writing the 21st Century Myth to learn how Dune works as a Savior Story.
Subscribe the the Science Fiction podcast to hear my thoughts on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune

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Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.


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