Tonight, I finally sat down and started to read through the whole whole big RaceFail’09 drama over in the sci-fi writing world. I had read the first bits on Elizabeth Bear’s blog back in January, but now saw how much it had morphed into this huge, sleep-depriving, time-suck that triggered all of my political kinks.
When I first read it in January, though, it brought up a lot of concerns I had been having about steampunk. Particularly about “Where am I?” in steampunk culture. After all, steampunk is all about the sci-fi, and if people of color are having issues with sci-fi in general, then would the turf here be any better?
Now I’ve only been gaining interest in steampunk since the end of last year, because a bunch of Ash’s friends had their own steampunk crew and she was always telling me about the cool stuff they do. And so, I looked into steampunk and realized how awesome it simply was.
There are waistcoats and coattails and tall boots and lovely lace patterns and pocketwatches and all that glorious fashion and cool gearwork! And Victorians! I mean, I’ve been wearing and squeeing over this stuff for years and now, look! There was a whole movement about it that I never fully realized!
So, spurred by the RaceFail debate and my own curiosity, I tried to find what steampunking Asia was like. I did a lot of Googling. I did a lot of LJ-journal reading. And, well, what did I find?
I found some awesome examples, but those were few and far between. For the most part, I found…. Nothing. Or what I did find, upset me.
Like this website:
The text on this steampunk site gives this opinion about Asia in the Steampunk world: (Bold parts are my own emphasis)
“With the increasing contact with the East and its ensuing colonization, people in the West became increasingly fascinated by this strange new world. For centuries adventurers, novelists and romantics had been interested in these lands beyond the horizon. Europe had all been explored and people became more and more familiar with the world they lived in. The Orient was still a realm of mystery, inhabited by alien people, exotic and sometimes cruel, with customs that Enlightened Europeans thought of as barbaric; a place where time had apparently stood still.”
“An age-long orientalist tradition of those who studied the East has in our times been criticized for its presumed bias and even racism. In the realm of steampunk fiction however, we can safely recreate the Orient as it was described and depicted by nineteenth century authors and artists who might never have actually seen it. In steampunk all the myths and miracles of the East that enchanted the Victorians can come true.”
What? Safely recreate the Orient? That’s like saying now that lynching African-Americans is frowned upon today, we can “safely recreate” pointy white hoods as a fashion statement. Or that we can “safely recreate” half-naked men in deerskin loincloths and feathered headdresses as “Indians from the Weird West” because, since we know that image is racist, so it’s okay to use today.
And then I realized something that made me sad about this cool, geeky subculture that I’m so eager to participate in: The steampunk movement romanticizes a time period where imperialist and racist attitudes prevailed. When Queen Victorian sat upon her throne, a lot of other Western powers were doing not nice things to people in Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa and the Western US, and now, a over hundred years later, people want to live in that time period again, or at least use it as creative inspiration.
And so, questions arose.
By participating in steampunk, am I further endorsing it and shunning my family history as an oppressed colonial?
Silly question at first, until you realize that my family history does not mean I’m coming from somewhere generations past my ancestors were surfs or something. I’m talking about my parents. I’m talking about not only that, but the idea that steampunk, could be, just could be, rooted in an attitude that promotes European/American culture, once again, as superior to other cultures. That every other culture, once again, does not count.
And even more discomforting, another question: by participating in steampunk, are my fiancé and her friends, indirectly, promoting racism?
That thought made me kind of sick, because I know that obviously is not their intent.
But then again, all of them are also white. They may have never thought about this at all. Are they even aware of the thoughts I’m having? Ash knows, because I’ve talked to her about this already, but I’m not sure if I want to mention it to her other friends, because they don’t know me too well and I don’t want to be “that” type of “minority with an agenda.”
And now, enter my conflicts.
If I cosplay wering a Brit-influenced wear, do I see myself as being assimilated into Western culture? If I decide to “go eastern” and happen to wear Chinese/Japanese influenced clothing, I’m promoting the stereotype of “only two countries in Asia” (because, of course, India isn’t part of Asia at all :p)? Is it fair that in order to participate in a subculture that appeals to me, I have to either pretend to be European or Chinese (while I’m not either)?
A second issue, besides flawed (and lack of) representation.
Whenever I see Asian steampunk mentioned in steampunk journals or fashion websites, the word “oriental” pops up a lot. In fast, in the steampunk fashion comm on LJ, all Asian-inspired steampunk wear is tagged as “oriental.” Is it un-PC to use this term to describe Asian-influenced steampunk fashion? After all, you can’t call an Asian-American “oriental” in today’s world.
The site could have its own basis for using the term “orientalism”: it could refer to an artistic movement at the turn of the century, when Western nations became obsessed with the Near East after the British and French built colonies there; later on with the open contact with the Far East lead to Japonisme . But as a result of that obsession, many (not all, but many) portrayals of the Middle East and Far East Asia emphasized those peoples as the eroticized, backward, morally corrupt, and racially inferior “Other.” (I encourage you to read more about this definition of Orientalism by prominent post-colonial academic Edward Said.) From a “steampunk historical” perspective, then, is it still offensive if someone is simply being faithful to the Victorian attitudes during this time period?
I say we should own up to the fact that steampunk takes place in an “alternative” universe, and not use old terms, such as “oriental” to describe Asian steampunk, even if it was in reference to “orientalism.” Yes, because aspects of the artistic Orientalist movement had been patriarchal and racist, and, even in a fantasy-world, we don’t have to promote these same “White Man’s Burden” concepts about people of color and about non-Western cultures. Not only is it insulting for People of Color, but, in my opinion, dangerous, to promote these ideas. Because portraying “orientalist” attitudes, even if the original steampunker knows better, will lead to stereotyping and generalization by people who don’t know better. And, with so much of that ignorance already rampant in modern, mainstream culture, reinforcing it in minor, geeky subcultures won’t help.
In the end, does it really matter?
Sure, here I go ranting about how much of steampunk portrays Asian culture inaccurately and possibly offensively, if it is portrayed at all, but what about how steampunk portrays the entire Victorian era in general? It isn’t all accurate; sometimes, it isn’t even meant to be accurate. Essentially, steampunk is artistic expression, rooted in fantasy-escapism and based on a cross between Victorian pulp fiction and a wave of New Romanticism. It’s freaking running around in top hats and waistcoats firing souped-up Nerf guns at each other. If taken as simply a fashion concept and entertainment trend, why should people be concerned? Why should it matter? Should white fans suddenly have to worry about Bigger Implications, and thus, spoiling the fun they’ve having?
And then I realize oh YES it matters, and YES other white steampunkers should take note (and Steampunkers of color should consider, if they haven’t already). Because every time someone says it doesn’t matter, they’re further promoting that outdated attitude that a diverse and complex portrayal of Asia does not matter. That it can be packaged into chopsticks, jade dragons, and kimonos for general consumption, to conform to any fashion trend, to mold to any entertainment purpose. And I’m not comfortable with being part of a packaged deal.
Steampunk bucks a lot of the norms concerning actual Victorian culture, such as their attitudes toward gender roles, sexuality, and class. If steampunk can have women wear trousers and become sky pirates, endorse the public mingling of street urchins and aristocrats, then steampunk can – and should – treat ethnicity with the same modern respect and understanding towards diversity. So we’re going to go steampunk in a non-Victorian, non-Europeancentric/America-centric sense – drawing from not only Asia but Africa, the Middle East, or the aboriginal peoples of America, as well – we should also take some revisionist thinking along with it.
And thus, my Mission
But why does Ay-leen exist? And why did I see the need to explain her to you?
To the first question – well, I decided to jump into the steampunk movement, headfirst. But if I’m going to create a character, I’m going to help broaden the steampunk culture while doing it. Ay-leen, I hope, will help knock some down some misconceptions about Asia, and Asian culture. And, at the same time, be an outrageous, ironical character to boot – became damn, I want to have fun too. And not have to be British or Chinese.
And the second? Because, I’m hoping to find some fellow, representation-mindful steampunkers to join me. And that we can get together for some crazy shenanigans together.
Or we can at least be MySpace buddies.
That’d be awesome.