Two bearded ladies take a stroll at a Louisiana steampunk festival. Photo credit: infrogmation, via Creative Commons.
During the quarter century since novelist K.W. Jeter playfully invented the term “steampunk,” the neo-Victorian movement has grown into a full-blown literary genre and an energetic subculture. Steampunk is airships and corsets and bizarre glowing weapons. It’s gears and top hats and goggles and mechanical butlers. It’s no-nonsense pistol-toting female scientists and the oppressive cultural restraints that tries to shape them into proper ladies.
We can find steampunk in novels and comics (The Anubis Gates, the Clockwork Century series, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), television series and films (The Adventures of Brisco County Junior, Wild Wild West, Hugo), and material culture (faux-antique octopus jewelry, DIY bustles, brass-and-leather flight goggles). In steampunk, gender and sexuality are always loaded. They have to be. Steampunk is an aesthetic where masculine and feminine are clearly visually defined. It’s a high-contrast, gendered aesthetic: ladies and gentlemen, soft and hard, frills and metal, shiny and tarnished, pastel parlors and dirty back streets, conformity and individualism, the past and the future all wrapped up in one.
But while steampunk revels in the gendered aesthetics of the Victorian era, many people use steampunk to play with those categories. In many steampunk texts, objects, and garments, masculinity and femininity are more like design elements than like absolutes of nature—which makes gender more fluid and far less moralizing than the nostalgic style might initially suggest.
Defining any genre is tricky, and steampunk is new enough to be foggier than most. Steampunk is a little bit alternate history and a little bit science fiction. Although steampunk-like texts were produced way earlier (and enthusiasts claim precursors all the way back to Jules Verne), the word didn’t even exist until the 1980s. Further complicating matters, “steampunk” isn’t just a literary genre. It’s also fashion, music, art, erotica, movies, television shows, comic books, games, and—naturally—sex toys.
Two examples of women remixing traditional Victorian fashion into steampunk costumes. The woman on the right goes by the name Lady Clackington and also makes steampunk-themed sex toys. Photo credit: HyperXP (left) and GreyLoch (right), both via Creative Commons.
Outside the subculture, the steampunk aesthetic is often reduced to a sort of pretty-meets-tech where the gender issues become boringly clear: according to steampunk crafters quoted in the upmarket Victorian Homes Magazine, for instance, steampunk-inspired designs combine “masculine and feminine style, balancing the hard lines and industrial look of the Machine Age with the softer edges of the Victorian era.” But in the literary texts, the material creations, and the lives and wardrobes of steampunk enthusiasts, matters are far more interesting.
I suspect steampunk’s charged relationship with the gender binary grows partly out of steampunk’s neo-Victorian vibe: modern perceptions of the Victorian era are caught up with binary oppositions, especially when it comes to gender roles and sexuality. This is nothing new. Since the moment Victoria died, Western artists and writers have played with and reimagined Victorian prudery and Victorian pornography. In novels, plays, and essays, scores of writers—notably including Virginia Woolf, John Fowles, Caryl Churchill, A. S. Byatt, and Sarah Waters—have tried to understand how the Victorians thought about men and women, what they were up to in their bedrooms, and what that means for us.
Even when we don’t realize it, our experiences of gender and sexuality are deeply informed by Victorian currents. Lisa Hager, a professor of English and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin, Waukesha and an energetic advocate for queer inclusiveness in the steampunk community, details how now-familiar phenomena grew out of the nineteenth century: in that period, for example, scholars began to study human sexuality, drag become popular, and the new technology of photography moved pornography toward the forms we know today. The women’s movement also exploded. In Hager’s view, steampunk imaginatively visits a time when now-ossified concepts around sex and identity were new and messy, offering “a deliciously flexible space for sexual and gender identities.”
Two photos of Victorian-era drag star Vesta Tilley, whose male characters were a big hit onstage. Photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum.
Still, lists and articles like Wikipedia’s “Steampunk” entry too often imagine the core works of steampunk—‘real’ steampunk—as largely by and about men. In conversations about the genre and its texts, a distinction is sometimes drawn between “hard” and “soft” steampunk: masculine steampunk with male heroes and a lot of attention to science and technology, as opposed to feminine steampunk with female leads, Austen-influenced humor, and paranormal, fantasy, and romance elements. The hard steampunk is, of course, pure: the soft version is a spinoff, not really steampunk. Faced with such a book, some commentators grope for new descriptors: perhaps this is bustlepunk instead? Mannerpunk? Any term that leaves “steampunk” for the serious books, please, not those girly ones.
In the genre’s self-policing, we see interesting echoes of steampunk’s high-contrast aesthetic. As author Brooke Johnson (The Clockwork Giant) describes it tellingly when asked as “a woman writing steampunk” to comment on this “notably male-dominated genre,” Johnson reflects:
“From what I’ve seen, most male steampunk writers focus on the science, politics, and nitty gritty of steampunk, right in the gears and grease, while women steampunk writers tend to be the ones who combine their steampunk with fantasy and paranormal elements, or focus only on the posh characters of upper society. […] I definitely looked down on other female authors; they were the ones dirtying the genre with their paranormal creatures and half-assed attempts at trying to fit into the genre by tossing the story into a Victorian setting and adding a few gears for good measure. I’ve since come to appreciate the paranormal and fantasy steampunk subgenres, but at first, I was upset that these women were ruining my definition of what steampunk was. I can see why the male writers in the genre would be just as miffed as I was. These women changed the genre. […] And I don’t know if these women created these stories in response to the science-based steampunk of male writers, if they were retaliating against the sexism in science-fiction by writing THEIR stories, the ones THEY wanted to read (just as I was retaliating against them), but they’ve since carved a new place in steampunk, and they belong there.”
The impulse to define "real steampunk" in a prescriptive way involves an urge to separate all things hard, serious, and scientific from mere romance, mere fantasy. Steampunk texts involve emphatically feminine signifiers (corsets, bustles, copious skirts, handbags, dressed hair, fanciful hats, tea services, embroidered and be-frilled cushions, courtship) and emphatically masculine signifiers (monocles, top hats, cravats, firearms, gadgets, big powerful machines, hard science, politics). There is danger in these absolutes.
Two examples of male steampunk fashion, which incorporates traditionally masculine clothes—but many women, like the female cosplayer on the right, also adopt men's vests, jackets, and pants for their steampunk character design. Photo credit: Cayusa (left) and Greyloch (right), both via Creative Commons.
Similarly, steampunk’s optimism and whimsy can veer into a troubling nostalgia. After all, many of these texts draw on a time (the nineteenth century) and place (Britain or the American West) steeped in imperialism, white supremacy, and sexism. As Amanda Stock, a steampunk enthusiast and community organizer, puts it, “One of the uniquely problematic areas of steampunk that is different from other sci-fi is the fact that with adopting a historical time period you become inextricably tied up in the culture and social mores of that period. They will inform how people in the community roleplay around each other, for better or for worse.”
While acknowledging the creative and progressive possibilities around gender role reboots and historical curiosity, Stock worries about the neo-Victorian aesthetic serving as an excuse for twenty-first-century sexism. She describes a “retrosexual” nostalgia for the manly men and ladylike women who supposedly thrived before feminism ruined everything, observing:
“Such sentiments are present within the steampunk community at large, often flying under the radar, but really coming across in the widely espoused view that steampunk is helping to bring back proper manners. […] Male steampunk enthusiasts seem to have a propensity for holding doors exclusively for women (preferably with a certain amount of pomp and ‘After you, Madam’) unrivaled by any other group of science fiction fans and this sort of action is defended to the very end by those who consider it to be proper.”
Like so much current pop culture revolving around the Victorian and Edwardian periods, steampunk culture does tap into this potentially-retrograde nostalgia. It also participates in a broader obsession with The Fancy Clothes of the Past, a loving and often DIY aesthetic that involves fraught class dynamics as well as gender ones. As many commentators—including Stock—mention, women in the community often struggle against objectification, too often regarded as just a pleasing set of breasts heaving over corsets rather than as actual fans and creators.
Two major features of steampunk push hard against the movement’s gender-retrograde currents. First, steampunk mixes and matches. Men in the community wear corsets, too. Lisa Hager, that delightfully geeky English professor, likes to cosplay steampunk Dorian Grey. Women in big dresses and elaborate Victorian-inspired undergarments also tote stylized brass weaponry, gears and cogs, and goggles (for flying in dirigibles, of course). In Gail Carriger’s bestselling Parasol Protectorate series, readers find a flamboyant vampire who dresses himself and his home absolutely to the nines, a scientist and inventor who wears impeccably-tailored men’s clothes and stashes anti-supernatural weapons all over her person, and (as protagonist) a badass soulless woman who likes tea, adventure, reading scientific papers, and being dominated sexually by her werewolf husband.
At a deeper level, steampunk unsettles. It’s not just that "masculine" and "feminine" categories are often mixed or violated. It’s also that the very ideas of masculinity, femininity, and normalcy draw attention to themselves in steampunk contexts and invite people to think, hmm, maybe that’s not an absolute. With Victorian and contemporary gender ideologies so visible in their world, steampunk texts can push readers to think more carefully and more creatively about all these "rules."
In other words, 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.
Recommended reading: For more on issues of race, empire, and multiculturalism in steampunk, I’d recommend delving into blogs Silver Goggles and Beyond Victoriana. For more coverage of cosplay, check out our Dress Up podcast episode.
Molly Westerman is a writer, book nerd, PhD, parent. She blogs about gender and parenting at First the Egg and is currently working on a book for feminist parents. Follow her on Twitter at @mollywesterman.