Dev Notes 7 - Sexism and Power in Steampunk (Part I)

“The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.” 

― Elizabeth Cady Stanton


In our third Dev Note, we discussed the overall tendency of historical settings of games and fiction to gloss over and romanticize the more troubling aspects of the age they are presenting. The purpose of that note was to point out the positive conversations that can arise in addressing those issues more directly in your setting. In this installment (presented in two parts), we would like to focus the lens of that question more specifically on steampunk as a genre and steampunk games in particular.

For the purposes of these notes, we will be looking more closely at the roles of women in steampunk roleplaying game settings first from a historical perspective and later from a genre perspective. There is also quite a bit to be said about the roles of minorities and other disenfranchised groups, but we're going to have to break this into two parts as it is. We can pick up some of those other topics later. If you are interested in that side of the conversation, we highly recommend spending some time at Beyond Victoriana.


Part I - The Historical Problem

I sincerely hope that I don't have to explain the struggles that women faced during the 19th century in Europe and North America. If for some reason you require proof that women were socially, politically, and emotionally oppressed throughout the Victorian era, this probably isn't the Dev Note for you. Assuming you have some small grasp of history, we can move on to the main argument.

A game that is set anywhere in the latter half of the 19th century has a responsibility to acknowledge the socio-political tension between men and women. No matter how much tinkering we might do with history, this undercurrent is too pervasive to ignore. The only way to render it irrelevant would be to alter events so far back and to such a degree as to be completely unrecognizable. It would no longer be history.

Sadly, this is in fact what many Victorian and steampunk game settings do. They provide bland examples of female characters without pointing out any of the difficulties such characters would have faced at the time. When they do that, the female characters lose some of what makes them distinct and interesting. It takes away an important part of their arc. It can even render them into the steampunk version of what Anita Sarkeesian recently dubbed the "Ms. Male Character" - one that is not identified as female based on any particular experience or attitude, but simply by visual signifiers that indicate femininity (such as the corset).

Many game settings even go so far as to create entirely fictional worlds with a Victorian flavor that is nevertheless magically egalitarian. Creating such a setting may be easier and less controversial, but it can actually insidiously promote a sexist approach to roleplay. Consider a player who wants to ask questions of empowerment with regard to race or gender, but is playing a game set in such an idealized fictional setting. That player is suppressed from having that conversation by the setting itself. Gamemasters and players are given permission by the setting to disregard the concerns of the player who wants to discuss real Victorian oppression.

In effect, these steampunk games not only romanticize the Victorian era, but they do so in such a way that it actually discourages critical examination of the politics and mores of that era. It becomes more like the Ren Faire approach to steampunk: cover it in gears and airships and Tesla coils. Forget historical accuracy, especially that depressing stuff. Who cares? As long as it's entertaining and I get to wear goggles. (We discussed why many games end up with this approach in our first Dev Note.)

Not that one shouldn't be allowed to enjoy the occasional Steampunk Day at the Ren Faire

Let's look at a more specific example: Apart from all of the ongoing cultural disempowerment, one of the most disheartening shifts for women in the late 1800s was the betrayal of the abolitionists. After fighting so hard for universal rights, women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton watched their fellow activists turn their backs and content themselves with suffrage for all males. The women were told to wait their turn, and then they were told their turn would not be coming.

In Steamscapes, we have not removed this betrayal. We have in fact made it even more poignant. The American Consolidated Union (our fictional country that occupies the area between the Atlantic coast and the Mississippi) grants citizenship and voting rights not only to freed men who were formerly slaves, but also to the essentially genderless automatons that were able to declare their personhood. Automatons are seen as neutral, which in a Victorian sense would of course mean "default male." In essence, they can be granted full rights not because they are anatomically male, but because they are socially not female. This raises very interesting questions for the female gearsmith who is working on an automaton that may one day have more rights than its creator. A player should be allowed to explore those questions.

On the right in blue: lots of freedom for everyone but women

Note that we are not celebrating this rejection of women's rights and suffrage within our setting. It is intended to feel frustrating and unfair. We certainly could have granted anything we wanted to the women of Steamscapes, but that victory would have felt hollow and incredibly unrealistic. The sad truth is that an honest appraisal of post Civil War attitudes must conclude that the men in power would have been more willing to give the vote to an object than to women. The fact that this remains true in our setting is an indictment of real history, not a romanticizing of fake history.

But does this mean that women are without power in our setting? Absolutely not. They could be said to have slightly more than they did in the real 1870s, which - and this is worth noting - is actually much more than we are given to believe by popular understandings of history. Culturally, women were indeed very restricted, but on an individual level there were many more exceptions than are taught in most American schools. Plus, as we've mentioned before, we can use our alterations to provide even a few more opportunities. For instance, we designed the tribal saboteurs as a very natural outgrowth both of the traditional role of women as menders and also the greater equality women enjoyed among the Sioux specifically.

However, it would be disingenuous of us to presume that we could change human nature so much that we could entirely remove the barriers that women faced. And more to the point, it would be counterproductive to do so. By opening some doors while maintaining a certain degree of realism, we make it possible to create and play more genuine female characters rather than "Ms. Male Characters."

Of course, the steampunk aesthetic goes out of its way to make sure that female characters have a very distinct look. But that aesthetic creates additional problems that we will examine next time in part 2. Until then, feel free to comment on our Facebook page. I don't mind if you disagree, just keep it respectful.

-Fairman Rogers