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

Just stick some cogs on it (and we’ll call it racist?)

So, some time ago there was one of those brief kerfuffles over calls for more diversity in steampunk fiction and art — some steampunk fans want more people of colour in the genre, while others read this as people calling them racist just because they like a fictional genre that tends (nowadays) to take a (more-or-less) uncritically positive view of 19th-century Europe.

This made me think of three things:

  • Steampunk celebrates (loosely) European, particularly British, history and culture without having an overt racist element. That is pretty rare, and you can see how that might appeal to people who are attached to their cultural heritage but don’t want either to give house-room to racists or constantly beat themselves up.
  • But the way in which steampunk (in its modern meaning) does this is to elide the context within which technology developed in the 19th century. And that context is one of colonialism; kind of unavoidably so.
  • But that’s the nature of historical or historically-inspired fiction. If you don’t focus on some aspects of the history and ignore others, you don’t have fiction, you just have a history lesson. Take Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance. No one (that I know of) objected to the lack of a scene where Jack Sparrow cruelly tortures some Catholics.

Of course, there are grounds for complaining about the way in which historical texts focus on things — so, for instance, most westerns dodge the presence of African-American cowboys like Nat Love. And that sucks. If people want to point out that most steampunk fiction elides the nasty aspects of a 19th-century setting while sort of dishonestly retaining its surface trappings, that’s fair. And if you’re going to ignore racial injustices in that era, the easiest way to do so is to remove their effects. So there’s no grounds for complaining if people want cyborg Ghost Dancers who really are bulletproof, or an elite regiment of Sikh mech pilots.

I’m not necessarily convinced about that first point, that the sanitisation of Victorian history is why steampunk appeals to people, mainly because a) not all steampunk is like that at all, and b) I think most people are attracted to it at a very simple aesthetic level. After all, this is the main criticism of steampunk fans — that they’re attracted to the appearance of technology but don’t really care about how it functions; that’s the “stick some cogs on it” meme. If people don’t care about how machines work full stop they’re hardly gonna care about how they work in their social context.

Anyway, yeah. Just thinking out loud again.


Just stick some cogs on it (and we’ll call it racist?)