Miss Appropriation: Steampunk, Feminism, and the Allure of the Alternative History

Today’s post comes from Rachel Cochran. 

History is big right now.

By big, I don’t mean vast, although history is of course also vast.   By big, I mean in, hip, and fashionable.  I mean that music, television, literature, and film are returning to the past with increasing enthusiasm, fluency, and success.  Thanks to DIY and Rockabilly culture, the 1940s and ’50s are having their day.  For those stricken with Edwardian nostalgia, there’s the juggernaut of emotional turmoil that is Downton Abbey.  Show me a decade of the twentieth century, and I’ll show you a counterculture that has developed around it.


Not all countercultures are created equal.

But the further back you go, the harder history can be to sell.  As progress distances us from our pasts, we begin to realize what L. P. Hartley meant when he wrote that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  Mod and Rockabilly women already have to justify to their modern sensibilities why they feel such kinship with a far more gender-restrictive age.  Going back in time means going back to an age before Civil Rights, before Roe v. Wade and women in the workplace.  Before homosexuality was decriminalized.  Going back in time means peeling away layers of progress one by one until minority groups who have fought so hard for so long to be heard become voiceless again.

My own nostalgia for the Victorian era sometimes makes me feel like a criminal.  In my own life, I’ve struggled to cultivate many of the skills that would have been expected of any proper Victorian housewife–knitting, sewing, cooking, all the traditional duties.  For me, it’s not a question of gender roles, but rather an attempt at autonomy, a broke-grad-student attempt to lessen my dependence on department stores and Chinese restaurants.

Walking a mile in tradition’s stylish spats, however, has not blinded me to the atrocities committed under the Victorian English empire.  Besides my own feminist qualms with the Victorian constellations of family and society, half a year of studying abroad in Hyderabad, India, closely acquainted me with some of the ways the Empire caused lasting damage to the rest of the world.  Why would I revel in the work of racist writers like Kipling and Doyle?  Why celebrate the oppressively heteronormative plotlines of the Brontës, or Dickens’s anti-Semitism?

This is where steampunk comes in.  For those who don’t know steampunk, it’s best described in terms of genre, although it’s also for some people a way of life.  It’s nineteenth century science fiction, an alternative history fashioned out of brass, copper, gadgets, goggles, and gears.  It’s dirigibles and hot air balloons and carnivals, Lovecraft meets Verne meets Wild Wild West.

One important distinction: steampunk ≠ hot-gluing old watch parts onto all the things.

More and more, this fringe subculture is infiltrating the mainstream.  There are steampunk romance novels, action stories, and online comics.  There are at least two steampunk-influenced television shows currently in production.  Steampunk fashion staples are showing up all over.  Lace cuffs, waistcoats, high collars, and Tim Burton-esque thick black and white stripes are positively ubiquitous, and nearly every pair of ladies’ boots today comes in brown leather, complete with at least three extraneous bronze buckles.

If these steam-curious elements were merely ironic appropriations of a way of life that is no longer relevant, surely they would not have become so pervasive.  There’s something in the heartbeat of the 2010s that’s hungry for Victorianism, but not as it really existed–not empire and subjugation, not “traditional” gender roles and white, male domination.  (If nothing else, the 2012 election proved how archaic a notion that is finally becoming.)  Alternative histories like steampunk often turn out to be about separating the positive elements from the negative–focusing, for instance, on the increased cultural awareness brought about by Western global expansion, rather than colonialism, slavery, or the exploitation of resources.

Yes, the pistol-toting, corset-wearing Victorian mademoiselle has the problematic tendency to border on the fetishistic, but her sexuality is much more likely to fall prey to the restrictive gender roles of today’s romance novels than to those of her own time.  I see steampunk, not as a way of denying the hard facts of our shared cultural past, but of reimagining more diverse histories.  At the very least, well-executed steampunk allows its aficionados to bring modern sensibilities anachronistically into a bygone setting, offering the opportunity of empowering those who were in reality powerless.  And when those steampunk-inspired TV shows begin to air, we apologetic Victorian nostalgists can hold our breaths and hope for strong female characters, gay-friendly stories, and powerful racial diversity without stepping on the toes of history.

Rachel Cochran received her BFA from the University of Evansville. She is a current MA candidate specializing in Creative Writing – Fiction at the University of Missouri.