Steampunk and the Performance of Gender and Sexuality

Martin Danahay
Martin Danahay

While steampunk originated as a literary subgenre, it is now an aesthetic that can be found in multiple contexts, including conventions, the web and online social media. As Beth Palmer has argued, “performance and theatricality have become key terms for scholars working across wide reaches of Victorian culture” (Palmer 2011: 1), and “performativity” is equally powerful as a heuristic in analysing steampunk. The most obvious location for steampunk performances is at conventions, but images of steampunk costumes and written descriptions of bodies and clothing in novels provide a wider framework within which to situate such displays. Steampunk costumes circulate in a media environment of images and texts that may subvert or reinforce the performance of gender and sexuality by the performer. An interpretation of a steampunk performance, therefore, requires attention to the ways in which such images are consumed to assess its relationship to gender and sexual norms in terms of performativity. In this article, I intend therefore to contrast steampunk performances at conventions with images that overtly eroticise female costumes and draw attention to the body of the performer.

While adopting steampunk costume at conventions has been interpreted as destabilising accepted regimes of gender identity and thus as a form of performativity (Westerman 2014: n.p., Onion 2008: 153), such performances actually reinforce cisgender norms. Furthermore, the images of steampunk costume for women on the web and in social media emphasise sexuality, adding an erotic element to the heteronormative clothing. Overall, performances and images of men and women in steampunk costume reinforce rather than subvert established definitions of gender identity.

Discussions at conventions with participants in steampunk costume in North America reveal a wide array of sources for their steamsonas and outfits, including general knowledge of the Victorian era, Gothic novels, movies, television shows, web resources such as Pinterest, and graphic novels such as Joe Benitez’ comic book series ‘Lady Mechanika’ (2015–present). Many of these sources, particularly examples such as ‘Lady Mechanika’ and the Facebook group “Girls of Steampunk”, represent steampunk through eroticised images of women in costume. The array of costumes on display at steampunk conventions presents a dramatic contrast to such images that emphasise revealing outfits and sexuality.

As a post entitled ‘Does Sex Really Sell?’ on the ‘Cogpunk Steamscribe’ blog site noted, such eroticised images do not match the demographic or appearance of steampunk convention participants (Cogpunk Steamscribe 2014: n.p.). In response to this post-John Naylor wrote of the Asylum Steampunk Festival in the United Kingdom that “we have one peak in the age group 16-24 and a second peak in the age group 46-54. The intervening intervals are well represented too. A straw poll at the recent Comicon in Birmingham which is very heavily under 25 had lots of young women in tight outfits.” (Cogpunk Steamscribe 2014: n.p.)

His comments underscore the presence of an older cadre of participants at steampunk compared to anime conventions, and the relative absence of “young women in tight outfits” such as those to be found on the web.

The 2015 Grand Canadian Steampunk Exposition in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, corroborated John Naylor’s experience. One group of women at the convention, for instance, belonged to The Red Hat Society and wore neo-Victorian purple dresses, while one family was attending because the son had learned about steampunk and wanted to come dressed as a mad scientist. Neither of these groups carried any weaponry, and their costumes contrasted with the militarised and hypersexual images of steampunk that can be found in popular culture generally, which emphasise sexuality and violence in ways that contradict the messages of civility and inclusiveness that many attendees cite as the positive features of the subculture. The costumes also aligned sex and gender in that the women wore recognisably female costumes, and men wore conventionally male attire. In the terms used by Judith Butler in ‘Gender Trouble’ (1999), these were performances rather than performativity in that they did not subvert accepted gender roles.

Judith Butler has admitted that in her discussion of performativity in ‘Gender Trouble’ “my theory sometimes waffles between an understanding of performance as linguistic and casting it as theatrical” (Butler 1999: xxv. This confusion of bodily action and written descriptions can very readily be used as a way to compare steampunk performances across multiple media. As Judith Butler herself goes on to say this “waffling” suggests that “a reconsideration of the speech act as an instance of power invariably draws attention to both its theatrical and linguistic dimensions” (Butler 1999: xxv). Physical acts and representations in words or images can thus both be analysed through performativity. Furthermore, as Salih argues, the “discursively constructed body cannot be separated from the linguistic acts that name and constitute it” (Salih 2007: 61); costumes at steampunk conventions, images circulating on the web and descriptions in texts all construct the performing body through words and clothing.

Judith Butler’s theories are most frequently cited as subverting heteronormative regimes and emphasising the precarious and discursive basis of gender identity. However, she also describes the ways in which repeated gender performances serve to ossify heteronormative identities. As Judith Butler puts it, “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance”, make gender identities appear “natural” rather than constructed (Butler 1999: 43). The images that circulate around steampunk in visual images and texts are the “regulatory frame” that serves to reinforce gender norms, which those involved in the subculture may wish to actively combat. While steampunk performances may attempt to subvert unquestioned gender binaries, a wider discursive regime naturalises male and female identities as separate and reaffirms their polarisation.

Participants in steampunk conventions are free to create their own steamsonas rather than imitate models from anime or movies; this was one of the advantages of steampunk that was emphasised repeatedly by people who have participated in both subcultures. Unlike other fan cultures, steampunk looks to a historical period for its inspiration, making it analogous to Goth or vampire lifestyles rather than sports or television show fandom. There is in theory much greater latitude involved in creating the costume for a steamsona than for one based on an anime character. However, while it is common in large cosplay venues based on anime to see gender norms subverted in so-called “crossplay”, steampunk costumes tend to hew to a Victorian dimorphism.

At the Grand Canadian Steampunk convention, for example, amongst approximately 1,000 attendees, there was one slender young man in a dress, accompanied by his mother, and one young woman dressed as an engineer with trousers and a grease-smeared face. The rest of the attendees were in costumes that accorded to their gender, with women most often wearing elaborate dresses and men appearing in variations of a suit and waistcoat, adhering to gender-based conventions in Victorian clothing (Entwistle 2000: 156-7). A Google search for images from the 2015 Asylum Steampunk Festival produced a similar range of images, with men wearing trousers and jackets and women attired in dresses or skirts, with both genders sporting goggles and hats, but no evidence of crossplay.

A transgender member of the steampunk community has commented on the cisgender emphasis in steampunk cosplay. Ashley Rogers, writing under the steamsona Lucretia Dearfour, notes that “the media has a certain view of what Steampunk is and aren’t [sic] interested in questioning that”; moreover, “anything deviating from that perfect Caucasian/Victorian Steampunk would confuse people, would horrify people, or would lose ratings” (Rogers 2012: n.p.). Ashley Rogers does say that the situation is improving, but asserts that the general image of steampunk is decidedly cisgendered. Also, while Molly Westerman has claimed that steampunk “screws with gender norms” and that participants subvert such categories (Westerman 2014: n.p.), the photo that heads her essay does not really support this argument in that the two depicted women are wearing corsets and skirts with obviously fake beards (one of which seems to be made out of bottle caps), so that their sex is still easily recognised. Established gender categories are played with but not radically subverted in this photograph. My own experience at conventions has been closer to what Amanda Stock terms a “retrosexual nostalgia” for a time “back when ‘men were real men’ and ‘women were ladies’” rather than steampunk costumes upending gender norms (Stock 2010: n.p.).

Joel Gn has argued that cosplay has been spread globally by “the simultaneous exchange of information, images, and commodities within urban spaces across the globe” (Gn 2011: 584), and the same can be said of steampunk as a subgenre of cosplay. Joel Gn is particularly interested in the implications of crossplay but argues that in such apparent gender-bending the body is still marked by signs that denote a specific sex, even when the costumes reference nonhumans such as elves (Gn 2011: 589). This argument underlines how whatever the intentions of the performer, the costume will be “read” in conventional gender terms and be placed within existing narrative structures regardless of the sex of the body underneath the clothing.

The body is constructed by the performance and costume according to wider gender regimes whether the performer’s sex is visible or not. The way the text or costume is consumed, in other words, may reassert heteronormative identity because of the narrative frame around the performance. Quoting Rosalind Morris, Joel Gn argues that “cosplay should be viewed as a practice that locates the movement of the individual within a ‘systemised world of collective schemes and images’” so that the media context of the performance influences how it is received” (Gn 2011: 589). Similarly, Alexis Truong has argued that “because playing engaged different frames of experience, playing with the costume sometimes meant very different things, even inside of cosplay” (Truong 2013: 41), with different interpretations of a costume most likely depending on the assumptions of the viewer. There may well be a discrepancy therefore between a steampunk performance and the images with which it is associated in other media.

Furthermore, in steampunk costumes, sex and gender are most often aligned so that the performance reinforces rather than subverts the gender identity of the performer. Even when fairy wings or elfish ears are included as part of the outfit, as in a steampunk elf costume, the gender of the performer is evident.

The steampunk elf, despite the nonhuman ears, is still identifiably female, as is the case with steampunk fairy costumes where wings are combined with skirts. Presumably, an elf could be any gender, but a Google search for “steampunk elf” results almost entirely in images of women in recognisably female costumes, including all the usual steampunk signifiers such as goggles, corsets, anachronistic machinery, and weapons. Goggles and weapons are the constants that unite male and female steampunk costumes and are the only accessories that seem to subvert conventional Victorian dimorphism in clothing. In this sense, steampunk costumes seem to represent a nostalgia for past gender norms in their adoption of neo-Victorian attire.

Far from disrupting either Victorian or contemporary gender norms, steampunk texts and costumes often enact a recuperation of what Judith Butler terms “the public regulation of fantasy through the surface politics of the body” (Butler 1999: 417). However, as Milly Williamson notes in her study of Goths and vampires, nostalgic costumes often have an ambiguous relationship to femininity, enacting a simultaneous rejection of contemporary gender norms and a nostalgia for clothing “which nevertheless continues to embrace notions of femininity by looking to the past for sartorial inspiration” (Williamson 2001: 150). Such costumes, therefore, give off very mixed messages.

Both steampunk texts and cosplay create imaginative spaces within which it is theoretically possible to play not only with current identities but also with those from the past. As Jerome de Groot argues, this recycling of history can be placed in performance theory terms insofar as “the postmodern play involved […] might seem to undermine any fixed conception of ‘historical’ or ‘social’ identity” (de Groot 2009: 106). The cautious “might seem” in Jerome de Groot’s formulation points to a tension within steampunk between play an anachronism and the gesture of invoking an established historical category like the Victorian era with its attendant stereotypes.

In its playful invocation of the nineteenth-century, steampunk could be accused of being an adult form of childlike “dress ups” rather than part of a social critique, because it does not destabilise Victorian gender categories. Kate Mitchell, by contrast, takes the position that the repurposing of Victorian fashion is, in fact, a postmodern critique of historical knowledge (Mitchell 2010: 3). However, I would argue that both readings are only partially correct in that re-creating the Victorian era through performance is (at least potentially) an act of resistance to contemporary consumer culture, but one that also signals nostalgia for Victorian gender dimorphism in clothing.

Overall, the role of both gender and sexuality in the performance of steampunk identities is contradictory, not just because of contradictions within steampunk itself but also because of conflicting representations of gender roles in the wider culture within which the performance takes place.

The gendered choices made in texts and in costumes reflect the evolving and yet still troubled relationship between gender and sexuality in popular culture, especially where women are shown holding weapons. Eroticised images of “weaponised” women in steampunk costume are particularly contradictory in their performance of gender because they incorporate signs of both stereotypical femininity and masculinity in an uneasy mix of gender and sexual identities.

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