Racialicious writer Jha has a very fascinating essay up about Steampunk and the mixed feelings one may have about it due to the neo-Victorianism aspect of it. I’ve brought this up at a couple panels now, and made some uneasy or unwilling to talk about it, but Jha nails my dual issues (and this is speaking as someone who calls his first novel a Caribbean Steampunk novel, by the way) with how to juggle enjoying an aesthetic that comes form a culture that was oppressive to minorities:
one of my main issues as a steampunk of colour: if I buy into this aesthetic, what does it say about how I feel towards my own culture? Do I appropriate Victorianism as someone who’s clearly a minority? (Is that possible?) How does my cultural identity play into my steampunk’d sense of fashion?
This is a question that many a steampunk asks, even those who are white and descended from peoples that the Victorians oppressed. How do we take the trappings of the enemy and use it against them without simply assimilating into the imperialist’s culture?
Another major problem with steampunk is that it romanticizes a Victorian era. While the British empire was arguably cosmopolitan (cue the ORLY owl), it was still racist, classist, sexist, and all-round oppressive. The Victorians, busy with industrializing their country, couldn’t even be bothered to care for their own, and their Far East colonies were Oriental, spaces of Other, where they got tea, mined for tin, and imported their fine china from.
But steampunks are not necessarily racist. Many steampunks don’t feel weirded out by PoC wanting to participate in their subculture, and a few welcome them (for reasons I personally find suspect). Steampunks are not necessarily sexist – the average steampunk woman is as likely to wear trousers as they are petticoats, and we like to wear our corsets on the outside to express our sexuality. Nor is classism a steampunk dominion, as steampunk outfits are just as likely to be cobbled together from thrift stores as they are bought from craftspeople. Anybody with some time, resources, DIY ethic, inspiration can contribute to the bricolage nature of steampunk’s aesthetics. It’s not just for the elite.