Dev Notes 8 - Sexism and Power in Steampunk (Part II)

"You're in Victorian garb? Where's your corset?"
"Under my dress. Where it's SUPPOSED TO BE."
-Actual conversation reported to me by a costume enthusiast


In our last Dev Note, we addressed some of the problems games face in developing a Victorian setting with regard to realistic representations specifically of women. It is important to note that we acknowledge the value of choosing to present an unrealistic and artificial equality. But we hope that we have presented some reasonable argument that realism (or at least quasi-realism) can be valuable in creating interesting and even important female characters for your game.

However, there is a more thorny issue in the steampunk genre, and particularly in steampunk games. Today we will tackle the subtle inherent sexism of the steampunk aesthetic, and it largely has to do with one particular article of clothing: the corset. In many ways, the corset has become the steampunk version of the "bikini armor" problem in fantasy settings.

Part II - The Aesthetic Problem

Okay, that's a controversial statement right there, but take a moment just for reference and compare the respective Google image searches for "Steampunk men's clothing" and "Steampunk women's clothing." If you're not sure what to look for, compare (for instance) the amount of body-hugging and body-accentuating going on in the second link versus the first. You can get slightly different results by swapping in the word "fashion," or you can see an even more pronounced difference by searching "steampunk gentleman" and "steampunk lady." (Also by having varying levels of safesearch enabled, but we're not going to link to that.)

Now, there are a number of reasons that this has happened, and it is important to understand them before we head specifically into the ways this aesthetic is used in roleplaying games.

First of all, we have to understand where modern steampunk costuming had its origins. The "neo-Victorian" look, as it is sometimes known, owes more to the goth club scene of the 1980s and 1990s than to its namesake age of 100+ years ago. The sexualization, particularly of females, derives from that club sensibility, as well as from fetish social scenes which have historically overlapped in no small part with both goth and steampunk scenes. In this context, the corset becomes an iconic and expected piece of female costume. Although for the Victorians the corset was considered an undergarment and therefore taboo, it has now become an undergarment that can freely be worn in public. Bystanders do not understand the connotations of doing so anymore, so those who are in the know can use it as a sort of rebellion. Also, because steampunk in many ways rejects the restraint and restriction of the actual Victorian era, showing the corset can be seen as literally turning Victorianism inside out. Essentially, the modern goths and steampunks have "taken back" the corset as a symbol of female sexual power, defying its origin as a tool of female suppression.

You know she's powerful, because that stuff is HEAVY.

But have they really?

We're not going to explore the question here of whether a "sexy" costume is inherently sexist. There is plenty of discussion around that topic throughout the internets, with quite a bit of it pertaining specifically to geek culture. As gamers and cosplayers ourselves, we accept that there may be some value and even empowerment in the ability to make the choice of a "sexy" costume. However - and this is the really critical point - it must be a choice.

When we step back and look at these Google image searches, taking in a sort of survey or big picture view, we are no longer looking just at specific differences in costuming for men and women. Rather, we are beginning to see differences of expectation. And because there is no one definitive guide for "how to steampunk," those expectations very quickly become normalizing and even repressive. Women (and girls) coming into the scene for the first time see this predominantly sexualized costume aesthetic as the essential steampunk look. They believe that their inclusion in the steampunk scene requires sexualization. Men do not receive a similar message upon their entrance, and thus we have the subtle sexism.

That's not to say that there aren't exceptions. Thankfully, there are various costumers out there doing more historical looks to inspire others. But these examples can get lost in the sea of cinched-up corsets. And again, we're not trying to say that the corset-on-the-outside look is in any way "wrong" in and of itself. The problem comes when "sexy" is seen as the only "right" choice. And when it is this prevalent, that is in fact how it appears.


So how does this apply to games?

Well, here's where we have noticed a particular problem. Without referring to specific examples, we will simply say that many steampunk RPGs contain female character art that is exclusively of the "sexy corset" variety. Now, because RPGs are often followers rather than creators of trends, it would not be fair to fault the artists for those games for perpetuating what was already made normal within the subculture. However, it is absolutely fair to pause and ask, "How can we do it differently?"

By taking a historical approach, Steamscapes tries to maintain a more Victorian context. This means that, for the most part, female characters are unlikely to be walking around our version of 1871 North America with their corsets showing. A very small number might, perhaps out in the wild west of the Rocky Mountain Republic. But we have chosen to present at least our sample characters with more realistic costumes.

Real ladies know that science safety = minimal exposed flesh.

To return to our critical point - we must provide the players with real choices. Female characters within a fictional game should not be expected to be simply eye candy for male players or characters. This should be true of all games, not just steampunk. If a player wants to create a sexually powerful female character and clothe her in a costume that makes sense for that attitude, that is a choice. However, since the imagery surrounding steampunk both as a culture and as a gaming genre leans so far in that direction, we feel it is our responsibility as game designers to offer concrete non-sexualized character examples. Only by clearly presenting these other archetypes will both gamers and steampunks begin to see them as real options.

This last point really summarizes both parts of this argument, so we will leave it at that. Again, feel free to discuss this wherever you see it posted. We had some great conversations about Part I and look forward to your thoughts on Part II. As always, we just ask that you keep it reasonably friendly.

-Fairman Rogers