Chauvinism in Steampunk

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Justin Bieber's steampunk transformation
Justin Bieber’s steampunk transformation

Late last year, when an image of teenage pop star Justin Bieber wearing something of a steampunk outfit appeared online, the vast majority of steampunk fandom seemed appalled. For such an icon of contemporary pop culture (or lack thereof) as Justin Bieber to delve into the steampunk aesthetic was anathema to steampunks’ self image as defying the mainstream culture. Some said this marked the end of steampunk as an alternative culture altogether.

That in itself, our Marcus Rauchfuß observed at The Gatehouse blog, was evidence of steampunk having gone mainstream already. “When a scene is truly underground,” he wrote, “new members are always welcome. People are excited about and very welcoming toward newcomers. The scene has to grow to a certain point for a style-police to emerge.” Yet that has happened to steampunk. And it’s not something we can blame Justin Bieber for.

There have been debates about what is and what isn’t steampunk for several years. Especially in the fashion area, there are rather authoritarian figures who seem to believe that they can individually decide what colors and styles qualify for a steampunk outfit and which do not. The devil wears spats, you might say.

To an extent, this may be necessary. Yours truly is no fashion expert but I do see outfts being labeled “steampunk” quite often that, as far as I’m concerned, clearly are not. Not everything can be steampunk even if people want to be part of it. There have to be limits to what can be considered steampunk else the very concept is meaningless.

It’s not the style I’m particularly interested in here though. It’s the attitude. Marcus lamented what he saw as an “elitism” in his blog post. I would say it’s more like chauvinism — an exaggerated pride if not sense of superiority on the part of some steampunk enthusiasts who look down on those who see it “merely” as a hobby.

Herr Döktor summed it up pretty well when he wrote at The Steampunk Forum in April, “If you can live a ‘steampunk’ lifestyle 24/7, please go and do so, and stop telling those of us that can only manage a few hours a day that we’re just pretentious dilettantes!”

It’s this appropriation of the culture by some who take it more seriously than others that I worry about. Some of the writers and undoubtedly many of the readers of this magazine have considered themselves fans of steampunks for years yet by the definition that seems to be prevalent in some quarters now, they wouldn’t be considered “proper” steampunks because they don’t wear a pair of goggles to work!

This is ridiculous. And it’s hypocritical. If they want steampunk to be a lifestyle and believe that the ideas encapsulated in the genre will somehow make the world a better place, shouldn’t they applaud the likes of Bieber for promoting the steampunk aesthetic? Yet they denounce his “shallow” appreciation of steampunk and insist that they alone know what it means to be a “true” steampunk.

Steampunk has boundaries, however difficult they are to define, but we should be on guard against attempts to monopolize the culture. Also, we should be careful not to let a few who want to “be” steampunk spoil it for the rest of us. If that means standing up for Justin Bieber, well, I’ll be damned but I must!

This article originally appeared in Gatehouse Gazette 22 (August 2012)

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