Steampunk and representation revisited

It’s been a busy day — productive but busy. And as I often do at the end of the day, I sit thinking about the blog and not having much to say.

The good news is that my post from Tuesday attracted quite a bit of attention, and many people posted interesting and sincere comments on the relevant Facebook post. I was talking about it with a friend yesterday and I mentioned that although I had enjoyed reading the posts, many of them were responding to things I hadn’t said. In particular, censorship, even self-censorship, was decried in a couple of responses despite the fact that I hadn’t said anything about it at all.

My friend mulled this over and then observed “you didn’t say much about anything.” And it’s true! It was a three-bullet-point open question, but because it was about a topic people care about (diversity, representation) and think is cool (steampunk) it got people discussing; just sometimes they were discussing something slightly different from the post itself. Which is fair enough, I suppose.

I find questions of representation in historical stuff a little tricky; it’s nice to see historical diversity represented, but there are periods where for certain kinds of media there are no good options. I was thinking about this the other day in the context of Red Dead Redemption. It has an unusually late setting for a western — around 1910 or so — and while this may not be any more complicated than “you know, like The Wild Bunch,” it does get the game out of having to apply the usual “edgy” Rockstar approach to the national trauma that underlies most examples of the genre, i.e. the Civil War.

I actually thought that it was doing the same with Native Americans, but in fact the third chapter of the game addresses Native American relations with white Americans in a characteristically ham-fisted manner. Of course, by this point you’ve already sat through the whole Mexico section, which is as visually striking as it is eehhhhh Greeengo sorry I was having a flashback there. As always, the saving grace (check this – ed.) is that the game portrays everyone as filthy, venal, bloodthirsty degenerates, not just its Mexican characters. What I’m saying is that you won’t even make it to the Native American bit if you’re not detached enough to stomach the Mexican bit.

Viva la revolucion, I guess? 

Anyway, my point is that I think the Civil War would have been one of those minefield subjects that would have been really hard to handle in GTA “mixture of photorealism and high absurdity” style. You’re either going to trivialise it or insert a giant heavy-handed buzzkill into your cowboy game. Mind you, I thought that about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a movie that portrayed the Confederacy as literal monsters. So what do I know?

To tie this back in to Steampunk, what most people think of as “Steampunk” is what I like to think of as “Victorian Scientific Romance.” And that means something not unlike pulp — perhaps without the seamy elements of pulp, but with dashing heroes, dastardly villains, etc. And when your genre expectations contain those things, you wind up with stereotyped portrayals. That’s a feature, not a bug.

But when those stereotyped portrayals are ones that are not quite gone from the actual world we live in, it gets a little … awkward.

No nearer a conclusion than before? Check. No definitive statement of a position? Excellent. My work here is done.


Steampunk and representation revisited

One thought on “Steampunk and representation revisited

  1. Trimegistus says:

    Steampunk seems to be the flip side of what you describe about Red Dead Redemption: in the western computer game, everybody is dirty scum, Indians and Mexicans and Americans alike. In Steampunk, everyone is clever and dashing and technically-skilled, British and Sikhs and Africans alike. Steampunk is more obviously ahistorical, because while greedy amoral white Americans weren’t exactly uncommon then (or now), native African Babbage-computer engineers are vanishingly rare (then and now).

    If you do a semi-realistic Steampunk setting, with technically-advanced Englishmen interacting with (essentially) pre-technological Africans, people will yell “Racist!” at you, so writers go with the fantasy. When they’re really scared of being called racist, they make the technically advanced Englishmen greedy and amoral, and make the pre-technological Africans noble and wise, which of course is just as racist, but people who complain about racism don’t complain about that kind of racism, so it’s okay.

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