Disenfranchised and Underwhelmed: what Steampunk isn’t

At a lovely convention last year many of us were asked, “what is Steampunk?” Few of us, myself included, could come up with a one sentence answer. Some of us managed an elevator speech and could keep it barely under 30 seconds. In thinking about the various answers I heard, I’ve decided that the question we were answering was, “what is Steampunk Culture?” Steampunk is a fantastical genre where steam power and 19th Century life provide the foundations for inventiveness and adventure. But what is Steampunk Culture?

Culture is a combination of ideals, philosophy, language, and behaviors. Using this definition, Steampunk definitely has a “culture.” Not a “sub-culture,” but a culture all its own. It is a conglomeration of Victorian Ideals, Romantic Hopes, Obtainable yet Challenging Technologies, and the Promises of the 1960’s (which many Steampunkers lived through or at least understand.) Why did so many attendees at the convention go on and on about inclusiveness and tolerance, clothing and manners, to describe Steampunk? Because we were all talking about culture.

If you’re one of those who think we’re a bunch of weirdoes who just want to dress up, well, you may be right. It depends on your definition of “weirdo.” Personally, my experience leads me to believe Steampunkers (and Trekkies, and Rennies, and all those folks who shamelessly dress up in public) come from one or both of two sets: the Disenfranchised and the Technologically Underwhelmed.

I think I belong to both.

The Disenfranchised are pretty much anyone who isn’t a white, upper middle class, suburban living person who thinks history is boring and spends 30 hours a week in the gym so you can look just like that model on Vogue or GQ because that’s what you’re supposed to do. In case you were wondering, there’s a strong chance you fit in the Disenfranchised category. Welcome. Beer is on the counter, snacks in the fridge: help yourself – glad you could make it. Modern Western society has such strict definitions of who is an “OK” person and who isn’t, that very few in the real world pass muster. And yet, the tiny minority that does has a lock on punishing those who don’t – and because we live in a world hung up on Us Vs. Them, and we want to be US, we join in the teasing, bullying, and disrespecting of Them. It’s a human thing – don’t kick yourself for it – we do it to survive.

Remember the promise of the 60’s – Love, Peace, Tolerance? Western civilization appears to have forgotten that. The Me Generation got between then and now. Thus we have people who want that promise again: they want to be loved – period. They want peace and harmony. They want to be accepted for who they are. Steampunk culture offers exactly that. Your costume can be a disguise or an enhancement of your personality – your call. No one really cares if you’re not model thin or 6’8” with perfect hair. Do you smile? Do you offer to open doors for one another (yes, ladies can do that for men too, it’s all about kindness.) Do you find yourself cooing over a dress someone is wearing, not bothered in the least that it’s being worn by a bloke? These are the things that make Steampunk Culture so appealing. Yes, the adventure and technology is grand, but who cares if you can’t come, be comfortable, and be who you are without judgment. Steampunk culture doesn’t care who you are: you’re fine.

The other group is the Technologically Underwhelmed. I‘ve been looking at my fellow improve actors at Fairs from an anthropological point of view for some time. The vast majority of people willing to wear corsets or velvet in 90 degree heat or roll around in the dirt as a peasant – computer people for whom the technology really hasn’t delivered the real stuff. Sure, you’re reading this blog and that means technology has provided a means of communication and expression. But that isn’t enough, is it?

I for one sit behind a monitor 8 – 10 hours a day, 5 days a week. My coworkers don’t talk to anyone one. I communicate via typing. Anyone who knows me knows I am verbose. I chat. I talk. It’s a wonder anyone gets a word in edge-wise. And yes, thanks to Facebook I’m connected with old friends, but seriously – has technology really brought us together in a way that is better than before? I believe it has more often than not pushed us apart. I have coworkers who live near me – but they telecommute and I have never met them face to face. I get instant messages from people 25 feet away from me (yes, I have spoken to them about this.)

At the end of the day, my fingers are tired, my voice unused, and there wasn’t anyone to be clever with. Thank you has been reduced to TY or YW (you’re welcome.) My conclusion is that most of my fellow Steampunkers want some gracious interaction with people, in a way they don’t get every day. They want good manners, kind language, elegant or intriguing clothing to wear, thought provoking discussions, and chances for creativity. Computers are great: getting a steam engine to work and sharing with fellow enthusiasts – much better.

Steampunk is more than gears and goggles – it’s a culture in development. It is a chance for the majority to escape definitions heaped on them, to be who they are, and to take on (albeit cherry picked) trappings of a bygone era that makes us feel welcome and appreciated. Does that define us as “weirdoes?” If so, then I’m happy to be one. And Steampunk Culture doesn’t care.

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3 thoughts on “Disenfranchised and Underwhelmed: what Steampunk isn’t

  1. Very well done! I don’t agree with everything you said, but it is a matter of perspective. I’m from the Ren Fair/SCA side and we share some ideals and goals. I’m working on ideas for Steampunk now, I always dug the Victorian era! And the clothing is a lot more challenging too!
    Cheers!

    1. Thank you. I started exploring living history via the SCA and Renn Faires myself.
      And I completely agree – the clothing of the Victorian era is challenging. I love it. I’d wear it all the time if I could.

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