Does Baron Harkonnen Have To Be Gay? Examining Homosexual Representation in Dune

Curator's Note

Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is diabolically evil and gay, two traits notoriously linked in media. A product of Frank Herbert’s homophobia, the novel explicitly connects Harkonnen’s homosexuality and villainy. He sexually assaults underage male slaves and has incestuous attraction to his nephews, specifically Feyd. In David Lynch’s adaptation (1984), the Baron becomes a visual symbol for the growing fear of the AIDS epidemic, depicted with boils, sores, and an obsession with bodily fluids. A characterization not in the first novel. Sci-Fi (Syfy) Channel’s three-part miniseries (2000) loses Lynch’s grotesque imagery but keeps the subtext of the Baron’s sexuality. However, Denis Villeneuve ignores the Baron’s homosexuality in his 2021 adaptation. In a Vanity Fair article, Villeneuve discusses his changes saying,” ‘As much as I deeply love the book, I felt that the baron was flirting very often with caricature,” says Villeneuve. “And I tried to bring him a bit more dimension’” (Breznican). Though the depiction of Baron Harkonnen, the only gay character in Dune, is an outdated, harmful stereotype, I would argue that his homosexuality is unfortunately necessary to his character.

Bessie Yuill acknowledges the Baron’s sexuality as a central theme in Dune, stating,

"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. […] 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” (Yuill).

Even with Villeneuve’s textual removal of homosexuality, subtextual instances occur. You can find an example of this during Duke Leto’s death. Baron Harkonnen reveals that he has killed Leto’s family, emphasizing the significance of bloodlines and inheritance. This scene has subtextual moments of gayness with Leto and Harkonnen sitting on each end of the table—the parents’ place in heteronormative eating habits—, Leto being naked, and the intimate use of poison through breath, symbolizing a kiss of death.

Homosexuality is inherent to Dune as a tension of heteronormative reproduction and inspiration for Paul. Brian Herbert stated that his father drew inspiration for Paul from T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), who documented having a homosexual relationship with his companion Selim Ahmed (Yuill, Aldrich). To ignore the problematic representation of homosexuality in Dune ignores its impact on the entire franchise. Though it is easier to erase this indiscretion, as Villeneuve attempts to do, ignoring the Baron’s homosexuality ignores how homophobia plagues Dune’s narrative. I do not want more harmful gay stereotypes. The Baron’s sexuality is one of many problems in Dune, such as the White Savior trope, colonization themes, and race representation. Nevertheless, to answer my title question, the Baron’s gayness is an essential antagonism to the theme of legacy Dune champions. If we cannot have a nuanced conversation about complex representation, maybe we should stop remaking Dune.



Work Cited:

Aldrich, Robert. “Captains of Empire.” Colonialism and Homosexuality. London, Routledge, 2003.

Breznican, Anthony. “Behold Dune: A New Look at Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, and More.” Vanity Fair, 14 Apr. 2020, Accessed 1 Feb. 2022.

Watson, Averie. “Dune: How Villeneuve’s Film Handles Baron Harkonnen’s Sexuality.” Comic Book Resources, 14 Nov. 2021, Accessed 1 Feb. 2022.

Yuill, Bessie. “Dune: Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and Queer Menace.” The Companion, 12 Oct. 2021, Accessed 1 Feb. 2022.

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