Monday, January 27, 2014

Steampunk Community and Gender Roles

I recently read the article "How Steampunk Screws with Victorian Gender Norms" by Molly Westerman published on the Bitch website.  And I have a response.

The article is well-written and covers a lot of ground.  Although the title and ultimate conclusion of the article is that
 "steampunk can create feminist imaginative spaces by putting curiosity where assumptions used to be. With all its flaws and all the possibilities for racism, sexism, and other isms inherent in steampunk’s embrace of a reimagined nineteenth century, this trip back to what never was can be an illuminating and progressive one—as well as a rollicking good time."

The article itself, however, spends a lot of time dissecting all the ways steampunk can be sexist and touches on the issue of colonialism.  I don't particularly disagree with anything in the article, but it doesn't really reflect my feelings on the steampunk community.

For one thing, I think there is a big difference between steampunk as a literary genre and steampunk as a subculture.  Outsider's articles about steampunk often equate the two things because it's much easier to read a novel than to do an anthropological observation of the culture.   In addition to looking at gender roles in steampunk literature, the author draws on internet sources.  Which, again, can give an incomplete picture of what lived steampunk is actually like.  Internet forums tend to be dominated by the loudest and most talkative participants, who are often objectionable and limited in their views of complicated issues.  (In other words, they can be jerks.)

As always, I can only speak to my own experience in steampunk, based on my interactions with people in my local area.  There are always regional differences in these things, and definitely steampunk styles vary by region.

In asking myself whether steampunk enforces traditional gender roles or not, I have to decide what are the most important aspects of gender roles.  Is it the clothing, the corsets, the long skirts?  If we only look at style and fashion, yes male and female clothing tends to be pretty different in steampunk.

Women tend to wear dresses and skirts and corsets, men tend to wear pants and vests.  But that's hardly a rule.  Lots of steampunk women dress in pants, work clothes, bloomers, vests, and top hats (traditionally a male only style).  The men, as always, have less variation to their style, but many steampunk men enjoy the sumptuous fabrics, lace, rich colors, and other aspects of steampunk clothing that aren't found in modern "masculine" attire because they are considered too effeminate.  It's common for steampunk men to wear kilts and corsets.  (Don't kill me, kilt, people, I know kilts aren't women's clothing, but it's also a deviation from "normal".)

Moreover, steampunk brings out an enthusiasm for fashion in men that I suspect they don't often get to express in their daily lives.  Men in steampunk are generally excited about their outfits and get to wear a much broader range of prints, colors, and styles than they normally would.

But beyond fashion I'm more interested in how gender roles function within steampunk society itself. Do men and women fulfill separate and distinct roles within the community?  Is one gender privileged over another?  I think it's difficult to answer those questions when looking at the steampunk community in a void.  What are we comparing steampunk to?  Society in general?  I think it's better to compare it to other similar subcultures and costuming communities.

First of all, one of the best things about steampunk, in my experience, is that the community tends to be very equal in numbers of men and women.  This is NOT the case in all other costuming communities.  Historical costuming gatherings are almost completely dominated by women.  Any men present are usually husbands, with the occasional male costumer.   It seems that "mainstream" cosplay is also tilted in favor of female participants, at least among the more passionate makers.

Steampunk may resemble Renaissance communities more in its gender numbers, then.  But I feel that steampunk engages a higher percentage of its followers in active making.  And there does tend to be something of a gender divide in what kind of making steampunks undertake.  Women are more likely to sew and men are more likely to make guns or do leather working.  But it's hardly a cut and dry divide. A ton of exceptions to that rule immediately spring to mind.  I know a lot of men in steampunk who sew, or are learning to sew BECAUSE of steampunk.  And I know some very skilled female leather workers.  Not to mention that most steampunks try many different types of crafts, although we all tend to find one or two things we enjoy most.

And what I'm getting to is this: over and over I have talked to male/female couples who love steampunk because it's something they BOTH can get excited about.  It's a style and a community with something for everyone.  There are a lot of married couples in steampunk.  And my favorite thing is that it's not a situation where one half of a partnership drags the other one along, but something they share.  Finding a hobby that a husband and wife can both be excited about and involved in is unfortunately rare in our culture.

Ultimately it doesn't really bother me that in steampunk there are lots of women in pretty dresses and lots of men in armor.  Because there's no problem with women being in armor, with men wearing lace and velvet.  Women are airship captains, ships mechanics, and armorers within the community and no one cares.

Steampunk isn't perfect, by any means.  Steampunk communities reflect the larger community in their prejudices, biases, and privileges.  There are sexist steampunks, and racist steampunks, and homophobic steampunks, certainly.  But when I look at this community and how it functions around the issue of gender roles, I'm actually pretty proud.  I'm happy that steampunk has let me meet married couples who finally have something to do together, discuss sewing techniques with men in their 60s, and help a trans woman feel more comfortable in a costume.

 I really feel that the steampunk community has a place for everyone, regardless of who you are.  And that not even the roles of female characters in steampunk novels reflects the diversity of all the awesome steampunk women I've met.  Steampunk is a big, messy community, with room for lots of complicated women, and that's awesome.


  1. I think it is important not to judge people by the clothes they wear too, for instance, wearing the fancy upper class dresses doesn't mean that women want to fulfil traditional womens clothes or the status quo of rich over poor. I love to dress in beautiful dresses, but am also feminist and definitely don't believe that rich are better than poor, etc. I just like to wear the nicest things I possibly can if there is a chance to dress up, and most people really feel the same way. I actually spend a lot of my life in long skirts, and they really don't stop me from doing anything!

    Likewise, the fact that possibly a (visual) majority of Steampunks are white should not be taken to mean it is racist. There are lots of people from all different places in the Steampunk world, and, if you look around, there are pictures to show it, too. Steampunk stories often also show a greater range of nationalities. As an (albeit very white looking) mixed race person, I feel more at home in Steampunk culture than anywhere else.

    The book, The Anatomy of Steampunk: The Fashion of Victorian Futurism has lots of both makers and models that show this. One of the best things about Steampunk is its diversity, taking bits and pieces from different cultures and putting them together to make an ideal world that never was! It's one of the things I love about it!

  2. Excellent points, Laura. I totally agree about feeling comfortable in fancy clothes and long skirts and also being a feminist. One of the essential elements of steampunk, I feel, is rebellion against the norm and the expected, and that applies to both modern and Victorian fashion rules.

    I'm glad to hear you feel at home in the community. It does tend to be dominated by white folks, and as a white person I can't really speak to how welcoming the community is to POC, but I certainly feel that everyone is welcome and that seems to be true for the POC in the community that I've known.