Steampunk Femininity: Subculture, Gender and Romance in the Twenty-First Century Dr Claire Nally Senior Lecturer in Twentieth-Century English Literature University of Northumbria Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
‘The Men that Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing’ ‘Ghostfire’
Still from Justin Bieber’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ video, 2011.
Steampunk ‘Lady Adventurer’ corset http://www.harlotsandangels.co.uk
Romance and Visual Culture • ‘…the genre’s careful attention to the style, color, and detail of women’s fashions. Extended descriptions of apparel figure repeatedly in all variations of the form… Romantic authors draw unconsciously on cultural conventions and stereotypes that stipulate that women can always be characterized by their universal interest in clothes.’ Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1991), p. 193.
‘”That’s a hell of an outfit”, he said, and before I could say anything, moved around behind me, examining the back side. “Incredible. It’s just incredible. I love the scarlet coat. Steampunk, right? You don’t see much scarlet in steampunk outfits. Most folks go in for browns and blacks, but the scarlet looks really good, even though you have red hair. I was always under the impression that redheads weren’t supposed to wear red, but it looks good on you. And I really like the corset… I mean, what man wouldn’t love the effect of a corset on a woman’s…”’ (p. 40).
The Hero • Invariably tall, lean, white, and ruggedly handsome • Has animal magnetism • Someone to be obeyed both professionally and personally • Sexually proficient and experienced – discovers heroine’s sexuality • Affluent and successful ‘since no one dreams of marrying a wimp’ (Mills & Boon). • Represents paternal power and a hint of violence • Not dangerous or wicked at all, but misunderstood.
The Heroine • Beautiful white woman (‘young, spirited and inwardly vulnerable’ – Mills & Boon) • Sexually inexperienced • Can be an independent working woman and may be ambitious but is concerned with upward mobility (secret desire for the security of marriage) • Tormented by uncontrollable urges – women suppress their instincts and are confused by a desirable man’s attentions. • These unruly emotions are then expressed as anger (anger as sublimated desire)
‘…contradictions within the genre have been intensified by a tendency to consolidate certain feminist agendas for women in the character of a working, independent heroine even whilst disparaging the women’s movement itself, usually through the speeches of the hero.’ Radway, p. 15.
‘”You have delivered your message, and may return to your duties”. I spoke in what I hoped was an authoritative, yet kindly, tone. I didn’t want to be perceived as an ogre to the crew, not on this, my first assignment. Yet the seven other individuals on board must acknowledge my position of command, or it would all end badly. Firm but tempered, that was the key.’ Steamed, p.15.
Women and Science ‘No, you idiot! The lid is off and you’re shaking the canister. It’s very volatile!’ ‘This?’ She looked down at the helium. ‘It’s just a thermos of coffee. How can coffee be volatile?’ ‘It’s not coffee – it’s liquid helium’ ‘Helium?’ She held the canister up as if she could see through the stainless steel walls. ‘What on earth are you doing with helium?’ ‘We use it to cool the core of the chip when it’s being tested. Now set it down very carefully.’ ‘Oh, like canned air? I use that all the time at home on my stereo. I like the way the bottle frosts up when you use it for a while.’ (Steamed, p. 12)
Women and Science • how ‘the traditional naming of the scientific mind as “masculine” and the collateral naming of nature as “feminine”’ is still a prominent binary opposition in academic discourses. Evelyn Fox Keller, ‘Gender and Science: Origin, History, and Politics’ Osiris Second Series, Vol. 10, (1995), 26-38, 29.
‘reconcile women’s stories with the existing historical narratives of science, to show their relationship to that history.’ Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, ‘Women in the History of Science: An Ambiguous Place’, Osiris Second Series, Vol. 10 (1995), 39-58, 41.
Genre Tropes in Steamed • Male pursuit, female unwillingness: ‘”I am not going to be charmed by that rogue” I muttered to myself as I stalked down the hallway toward the galley’ (p. 68) • Rivals for her affection and his jealousy: ‘”I assume it’s from your friend – it’s just signed a at the bottom. It says My very dearest Octavia.” He frowned and shot me a look. “You did say everything was over between you two?”’ (p. 164). • ‘Discovers’ the heroine’s sexuality: ‘my body was suffused with warmth that started in my nether parts, and spread in big, rolling waves of pleasure outward to the farthest points of my body.’ (p. 176).
Same-Sex Desire and The Steampunk Novel Alexia thought, without envy, that this was quite possibly the most beautiful female she had ever seen. She had a lovely small mouth, large green eyes, prominent cheekbones, and dimples when she smiled, which she was doing now… the woman was also dressed head to shiny boots in perfect and impeccable style – for a man. Jacket, pants, and waistcoat were all to the height of fashion. A top hat perched upon that scandalously short hair, and her burgundy cravat was tied into a silken waterfall. Still, there was no pretence at hiding her femininity. Her voice, when she spoke, was low and melodic, but definitely that of a woman. Gail Carriger, Changeless (London: Orbit, 2010), p. 64.
Genre Tropes – Male Violence • ‘Conall had committed many a violent act around Alexia during their association, not the least of which was savage a woman… at the supper table, but Alexia had never been actually afraid of him before. She was afraid of him now.’ Changeless, p. 298. • ‘One standard Mills and Boon formula, for example, is precisely the taming of the male “boor” and the heroine’s eventual love for the civilized beast’ Romance Revisited ed. Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey (New York: NYU Press, 1995) p. 16.
Queer potential? • ‘Green eyes met her brown ones for a long moment. Two sets of goggles were no impediment, but Lady Maccon could not interpret that expression. Then the inventor reached up and stroked the back of her hand down the side of Alexia’s face. Alexia wondered why the French were so much more physically affectionate than the English.’ Changeless, pp. 123-4.
Implications for Teaching Practice • Interdisciplinarity (fashion, film, music, popular culture, subcultures) • Complication of genre categories • Interrogation and revision of history • Engagement with the relevance of gender politics and the world around us