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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

With 'Dune,' Frank Herbert Designed the Maxi Pad of the Future

Don’t tell Frank Herbert (or the people at Thinx), but he actually came up with a pretty genius pair of menstrual underwear. Back in 1965. Only, well, his was outerwear—and it did a lot more than collect blood and endometrial lining.

Herbert’s invention is, of course, the stillsuit. One of the iconic pieces of tech in his novel Dune—and an iconic piece of sci-fi tech, period—it’s an invention born of necessity. Arrakis, where most of the novel takes place, is a desert; to survive, the planet’s native Fremen construct form-fitting suits that collect all of their moist excretions—sweat, urine, feces, droplets from exhaled breath—and recycle them into potable water. The idea is actually kind of brilliant and would, if you think about it, be hugely beneficial for a few days a month to anyone menstruating. The stillsuits would just wick away any discharge and recycle it with everything else!


To be clear, Herbert never mentions this specific purpose in the book. (“No, that’s a very, very good point,” says Jacqueline West, Dune’s costume designer, when I ask her about my maxi pad notion. “Maybe Frank Herbert back in those days didn’t think that far, but he thought of everything else.”) The author describes the stillsuits in great detail in the book—the tubes that collect air from the nose, the way body motion powers the pumps, the “micro-sandwich” that works as a “filter and heat-exchange system”—but he didn’t seem to consider that some bodies have different functions than others. (Though, let the record show that there is an entry on Fremen menstruation [Fremenstruation?] in the Dune Encyclopedia.) Herbert also got the science wrong. There’s no way any suit could properly recycle the body’s fluids the way he describes without violating basic thermodynamics. Still, what he came up with back in the 1960s would’ve provided a great way to deal with period blood without spending hundreds of dollars a year on tampons, underwear liners, or menstrual cups.

Of course, Herbert’s not alone here. Spacefaring sci-fi stories rarely consider periods. Ripley, as I recall, never went around the Nostromo looking for a tampon. Rey didn’t search the Millennium Falcon, either, though you can imagine her wrap garment could be put to some creative uses. It’s hard to imagine what would’ve happened if The Martian’s Mark Watney had a uterus. Even the current adaptation of Y: The Last Man, which features a cast almost entirely composed of period-havers, doesn't talk about menses much. It just isn’t a topic often covered in science fiction, unless it’s speculative fiction like Handmaid’s Tale that primarily deals with reproduction. 

And, let’s be real, it’s not like sci-fi never deals with matters of the body. For decades the genre has been littered with cyborgs, transhumanism, and even virtual worlds—all of which challenge modern ideas of what bodies, and their functions, are. There is ample room for discussion of periods, but rarely do those discussions happen. (Perhaps technology has rendered them obsolete.) Even though stillsuits act like a second skin, they in no way make desert-dwellers cyborgs, and in Herbert's world such a thing likely would’ve been nixed anyway considering the forbiddance of thinking machines. Instead, his genius analog piece of equipment doesn’t perform what could be one of its key functions. 

It’s hard not to imagine what could've happened if more writers broached the topic. Sci-fi tends to dream up the things humanity ultimately seeks to put into the world—artificial intelligence, robots, smartphones—and perhaps if Herbert had planted the idea in his groundbreaking bestselling novel, someone at Procter & Gamble would’ve thought it was cool to invest in developing something beyond dry-weave and pads with wings. (Though, TBH, those wings are clutch.) Instead, period technology has been the same for decades—and NASA once suggested Sally Ride take 100 tampons on a one-week trip to space. 

Look, maybe nobody wants to read about any bathroom activity in a sci-fi book—such mundanities are for life, not the page (or screen). But considering Herbert did explain moisture recapture from urine and feces and not menstruation, it does seem like an oversight—one indicative of his novel's blind spots when it comes to the roles of its women-identified characters. (There are no trans characters in the Dune novel.) The Bene Gesserit are some of the most politically and spiritually powerful women in the Dune universe, yet they’re also spoken of as threatening space witches. Paul Atreides’ mother, Jessica, a powerful member of the Bene Gesserit herself, is a strong central figure, but her narrative is mostly there to serve Paul’s. Same with Chani, the Fremen who becomes his concubine. (A lot of these characterizations led to Denis Villeneuve amplifying the roles of women in his film adaptation of Herbert’s book.) Perhaps their bodily needs weren’t considered because their actual lives weren’t considered. 

Luckily, though, there are now people finally doing what Dune didn’t. DivaCup and others are out to disrupt the menstrual cup market; GladRags is bringing back reusable pads; Knix, Modibodi, and others have all kinds of absorbent period underwear—pretty much hyperlocal stillsuits without all the water reclamation functionality. Period products are now a $20-billion-plus industry. Just imagine if Frank Herbert had foreseen that.

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