I’ve talked quite a bit about my obsession with steampunk, which I think is a healthy and constructive artistic outlet for my pent-up English major’s frustrations with having spent seven perfectly good years wandering the hedgerows and dark back-alleys of 19th century English-language literature. Little Dorrit coughed up blood on my shirtcuff, and Jude whined obscurely in my garret; Heathcliff stood naked in the rain, howling on my moors (or maybe that was King Lear; different period I know, but it was a long time ago and these things start to blend together); Whitman sang and celebrated himself in my shower, while Emerson strode, a long-legged eyeball, across my desk; Ahab stabbed at me straight from hell’s heart, the mermaids did not sing to me, and the fog was everywhere: fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. There’s something about that century, or at least the second two-thirds of it, launching from the ascension of its titular Queen, reaching its zenith in the Crystal Palace and a century of confident and sunny Empire, and sliding on into the next century’s early years as its complicated construct of diplomatic niceties intended to tame the world led it directly and inexorably to its end 1918, its future buried in the bloody mud of silent French and Belgian farms.
Dearie me, that was a paragraph, now wasn’t it. Somebody’s showing off for sure.
Speaking of showing off, let’s return, then, to steampunk and the point of this (as will be revealed shortly) extremely cleverly-titled blog. So steampunk is a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, it’s dark and strange and swaddled in brass and steam and alchemy and not a little madness, levened by a touch of whimsy, and all made possible by an orderly, enlightened, and progressive culture of science and invention, presided over by a serene Victoria. At the same time, I’m concerned about the inevitable social stratification (even with the new influx of scientific and engineering nobility), or the air made unbreathable by a thousand thousand engines (that fog isn’t just a “marine layer” rolling in from the fresh and sparkly sea, and those goggles are for seeing through the coal dust as much as for discerning aetherial composites and magnifying tiny gears). I can’t help but think of the coal miners across the globe, toiling in the dangerous, acrid dark to power the engines if Empire, or the masses of unemployed laborers thrown out of their livelihoods by the phenomenal explosion of industrialization. So it’s not all shiny goggles and silk vests and lacy corsets and fancy fascinators.
Oh that’s right: corsets. Back to business.
It has come to my attention, the more time I spend in the glorious and wonderful subculture of steampunkery, that there’s a significant thread of something not altogether modern about the neo-Victorian mindset. Specifically, in the world of steampunk photography, it has quickly become obvious to me that the preferred aesthetic is comprised of upper-class white men with fantastical firearms and busty upper-class white women in corsets and not much else. (In point of fact, actual Victorian women, while perhaps overly susceptible to the vapours, women’s complaints, and occasional fits of dithering over whether or not the incident with the handkerchief in the hedgerow really meant something or simply meant something (oh yes, I’m looking at you, Jane Austen, with your misplaced billets-doux and ambiguous hankies) rarely went out and about having forgotten their skirts.) Google “steampunk” and sort by “Images” and you’ll see what I mean.
In short, much of steampunk art that depicts persons tends to depict persons in a thoroughly stereotypical, traditional gender-roled, male-centered manner. Now, while this may be in keeping with the general notion within steampunk of the need for–within the context of the fantastical alt-hist that’s been created–verisimilitude to the point of obsessiveness (steampunk crafters have told me the specific season of the specific year their clothing represents, and are sticklers for eschewing fabrics and sewing techniques dating after 1890). That only goes so far, though, as I am personally keenly aware: my more Wildean inclinations would, if we’re being strictly versimilitudinous to the Victorians, land me in hard labor for the next ten years, so let’s not get carried away. The simple fact is that steampunk is artifice, a history that is being created and told and spun out by steampunkers all the time. I bloviated on about my vision in the first two paragraphs here; others will have very different stories to tell. But all of it magically blends together into a subculture of Steampunk, and we have control of that subculture.
Here’s the thing: I am second to none in my admiration for a woman in a corset (well, OK, maybe second to some). But something in that cheesecake, pinup aesthetic has always struck me a little…not right. Now, I am not opposed to depictions of strong, brilliant, adventurous women looking fabulous, but when all the strong, brilliant, adventurous women appear to have cascading bosoms and an aversion to clothing, I have to wonder just a bit about why that is. I think (to get theoretical here for a moment) it’s not dissimilar to the way female superheroes are depicted: in ridiculously restrictive and inefficient costumes that expose a lot of skin (see, e.g., Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Batgirl, Laura Croft), whereas Batman, for instance, is covered from head to toe in more armor than King Arthur. So there’s a cultural thing going on, and it bothered me (just a little bit), and I thought to myself, “Someone ought to do something about this. And then I thought back at myself, “hey, stupid.” So I was going to do something about it.
So, being of a jolly-natured, tradition-disruptive character, I did this:
And also this:
And I’m working on some more. (You’ll be delighted to know that there will be a print and digital photobook, and possibly a pin-up calendar if purely for irony’s sake). But for now, I wanted to try a little experiment.
I love my fellow steampunkers. Every single one I’ve met, without exception, has been smart, funny, kind, and creative. I suppose it comes with the territory. But I felt the need to see if I could poke at this thing I saw, so I did. I posted a couple of those images on several of steampunk-related Facebook pages and websites, and the result was exactly in line with my working hypothesis:
I’m no Lady Gaga in the social media sphere, so when anything I post gets over fifty responses it’s a very good day. In this case, a whopping 58 women “Liked” the beefcake-steampunk photo on Facebook; only 7 men did so (and most of them are friends of mine). All the comments from women were positive: “Thank You!” and “Hooray!” and “So refreshing to see something other than a size 00 model wearing a corset and little more. Bring on the steampunk man candy” and so on. On the other hand, there were virtually no positive comments from men. Men had this to say: “Porn.” they said, “sexist,” and bandied about words like spam, exploitive, and unnecessary. One male commenter wrote, apparently without perceiving the irony, “but if they were scantly-clad girls all these women would be bitching about sexism and exploitation…… funny how that works.”
What’s good for the goose is apparently not always good for the gander, but sometimes the goose likes to take a bit of a gander herself, I guess.