Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steampunk is a Subculture, not Escape

Whenever people talk about steampunk as "an escape," I used to snarfle out loud. Of course I'm usually reading such sentiments, so my obnoxious laughter is usually kept to myself, and in offline contexts, I strain a smile. I don't really want to ruin anybody's fun, you know?

I've said it before, and I've said it again, there's something very apt about the term "subculture," which we should be paying attention to. It means that steampunk is a part of a larger culture. I've yet to hear steampunk referred to as "counter-culture," and I suspect the reason runs along the lines of how we don't wanna end up vilified like the goths, or we don't want to be seen like those angry punks. Not that all of us are averse this, of course.

I could go on with theory on how steampunk is not counter-cultural (check out, for example, Brian Ziff and Pratima Rao's anthology Borrowed Power: essays on cultural appropriation), but I want to keep to the community aspect of steampunk for the moment and speak to concerns that I suspect many people aren't thinking about when they say, "steampunk is an escape."

Earlier this year, a friend of mine was kept in a room against her own will. This is a complex situation that continued with an escalating relationship over several months, and ending with him cutting her off completely, leaving her heartbroken. She calls it "coercion," so that is the term I'm going to use. The basic facts remain the same: a man using his physical strength and charm to keep a woman from leaving, even though she has clearly stated "no". Both of them met through steampunk. Arguably both of them have gained some fame in the North American steampunk world.

And more recently, another friend, a Jewess, whom some of you may known as Steampunk Emma Goldman, was at a steampunk event, and some dude wandered around in a dieselpunk outfit, with the Nazi swastika on display. Nazi symbolism remains illegal in Germany to this day, for a very good reason. Just because the Holocaust happened some 60 years ago doesn't make it irrelevant, and it doesn't make the use of Nazi symbols any cuter. It is still a racist symbol (doubly so, since Hitler adapted the symbol from other religions, mostly Asian, where it is a symbol a peace and the sun). She had to explain to this clueless man why it was problematic; he was apologetic, but then some other woman bore down on my friend to tell her off, that dude had a right to wear whatever he wants to wear.

And of course ya'll know my beef with Nova Albion.

I'm not interested in resting on resentment; I'm interested in addressing this idea of steampunk "as an escape".

A woman doesn't escape being a woman wherever she goes. She lives in danger of being raped, wherever she is, because no one can ever tell when there is a rapist present. She lives in danger of sexual and emotional predator. This danger is so ubiquitous we don't even notice it anymore; we sort of just assume if it happens, it happens. If a guy makes a pass at us that makes us feel uncomfortable, we're told that it's just a little thing. If a guy corners us, he's just really into us, and trying to be friendly. If a guy rapes us, it was a misunderstanding. We have been conditioned to accept that this is the natural way of things, and there is no shortage of mansplainers there to pontifate on how we are wrong, if we express our discomfort.

Similarly, a racialized person lives in danger of being ignored, dismissed, demeaned, or outright abused. We can count on there being That One Bigot out there to ruin our day, at some point. We can then count on our friends to dismiss this moment as "just a jerk" or "not really important" or "how do you know he really meant to be racist?" followed by well-meaning encouragement to "let it go." This is wearisome on our psyches; it erodes our spirit to fight back. It is, in fact, a form of violence inflicted on us by a racist society. But we learn early on that we are supposed to pretend this is the natural way of things, and if we disagree, there will be someone, somewhere, who will be sure to tell us otherwise.

This doesn't even go into issues of disability and whoa we got some issues here, okay.

So, an escape? Really?

I say steampunk is a subculture, because we are made out of members from a larger mainstream society. Our perceptions and perspectives are formed and informed by the larger culture. The way we have shaped steampunk is also in response to what we see in the world at large. And when we participate in steampunk, we bring what we have learned.

No one has a natural filter for racism, and no one can truly know how complicit they are in racism. No matter how much you defend yourself as having worked in such-and-such organization, no matter how varied your background, you cannot judge yourself to be perfectly harmless.

And you know what? It's okay to not be perfectly harmless. I'm pretty sure I trigger someone every so often, because I swear, and I use harsh language, and I talk about experiences that are intensely traumatic for some of us. And sometimes they cannot choose to avoid this.

But it is deeply disingenuous, and downright dismissive, to claim that steampunk is an escape, and thus any concerns we may have from the larger world would be irrelevant in steampunk. Steampunk as subculture requires participation, of human beings. We as human beings are shaped by the world that is not steampunk.

The steampunk subculture cannot offer guarantees that people will keep their biases and prejudices out of their performance in steampunk. In fact, the steampunk subculture offers avenues for such biases and prejudices to play out, hidden under a veneer of play-acting.

When I see folks claiming that steampunk is an escape, I often wonder, escape from what? Especially those who are clearly white and middle-class. What is so terrible about your life that you need an escape? What are you escaping from?

It is telling that we use the term "escape" for what appears to be the doldrums of daily life, but we rarely speak about the actual little violences that happen day after day to so many people. It is even more telling when we are indulging in a deeply-historical exercise that could lead to understanding how these violence remain in place, what has changed in how they manifest, what could be better, under the pretext that "it's all better now, look how awful it was then!"

If you say something like this? You're just reproducing shit we already hear in "real life". You are enacting the same oppressive structures, the same problematic discourse that perpetuates the problems we face on a daily basis.

In short, you foreclose "escape" for many people in steampunk.

There are ways to deal with this, of course, but let's start by really thinking what we mean by the word "escape."


  1. Why, oh why, Jaymee, did you not write this for Steampunk Week? :)


  2. Because! You asked for it too early! XD

    You can cross-post, if you like :P

  3. Thanks, Jha!

    As I've been exploring all of this, there's definitely been a lot of times where I've had to raise my eyebrow.

    Such as conversations at conventions where people suggest imperialism did good things for the colonized. That almost made me walk out of the room, but it didn't feel constructive.

    When I pitch the idea of steampunk to the Lao community, there's usually a definite excitement for the aesthetic and alternate history.

    But that enthusiasm gets tempered right at the edge of "So, this is a genre that roots for foreign powers trampling all over us, only now they've also got zany steam-powered gadgets?"

    It takes some explaining that it's more than that.

  4. Thanks for this - I've been intrigued by how steampunk gives us (okay, some of us) an opportunity to engage with some of these ideas of cultural dominance, bias, and prejudice in a not-quite-real setting - 'play-acting', as you put it, but asking serious questions (as the better sorts of plays do, rather than just being idle entertainment...).

  5. Bryan: "Such as conversations at conventions where people suggest imperialism did good things for the colonized. That almost made me walk out of the room, but it didn't feel constructive."

    Yeeeaaaahhhh, it's gotten to the point for me where I roll my eyes and go "OH WHITE PEOPLE" because it's almost always white people for me. There's some internalized racism on the part of some Malaysians too.

    But yeah, trying to explain "Yes, FOR NOW" to folks can be awkward!

    MacAuslander: Yea, that's what this blog is all about!

  6. I still remember my jaw dropping at the notorious convention pic where a 'dark elf' has been captured, pushed down to his knees and tied up by a pack of blonde 'Crusaders' all dressed in white.

    To the other conventioneers, it's just another fantasy scene, but if you were from the outside looking in, it's pretty incriminating and looks just short of a prelude to a lynching and some people running around in blackface.

    It's that continuing argument of desires to appropriate vs. participate and what are healthy expressions?

  7. Yeah... years ago I wouldn't even have clued into what was wrong with the picture, but getting to know N. American race dynamics? I can't see how people here don't see how wrong it is.