Fri
Oct 9 2009 11:58am

No Elitism Please, We’re Steampunk

One of the best things about the steampunk community is that it’s very grassroots-based. Small groups mushroom here and there, people get together to hang out and share ideas, and on the whole, there’s a focus on having fun.

That doesn’t mean we’re never in danger of elitism. As I said before in Steampunk as Subculture, we steampunks are still part of a larger cultural context that has taught us many behaviours—and most of us have learnt some form of elitism. It can be as ordinary-looking as preferring a certain method of steampunking and looking down at others who do it differently, or it can be as nasty as cronyism and ruining other people fun at events.

I think we all can agree that we got into steampunk because, on top of everything else about this which is terribly shiny, it is a hella lotta fun. And some of us, we don’t realize it when some things we say or do quash the fun for others. This is all right, but for those of you getting defensive—and some of you probably will—remember:

We are not immune to assuming certain standards are better than others. This is really fairly normal, as far any gathering of people go. Some steampunks think that everything that is built should be functional, and others scorn inaccurate costuming. Some steampunks expect a certain look from everyone who claims to be a steampunk. Others may simply think a slapdash look and feel to costuming or prop-making just isn’t good enough. It’s okay to have standards, not okay to complain about steampunk being cheapened by someone doing something you don’t think is good enough.

We are not immune to snobbery. Snubbing is the activity of the snobs who feel we must adhere to specific standards of behavior, dress, and craftsmanship. At an event, everybody should be having fun with each other, not sniping in the corner about someone we don’t like and look down on.

We are not immune to politicking. Oh, politics, and I don’t mean mainstream R vs. D politics, I just mean the tendency for some to try to grab authourity over others. If you want to take on a leadership role in your own spaces and events, that’s fine, but ultimately, the leadership position belongs to someone who wants everyone else to have fun. If the competition to get it is making things un-fun, you’ve completely defeated the purpose of it, eh?

We don’t all act like this. We know that steampunk is one of the friendliest subcultures out there. The people it attracts are, as a general rule, friendly, willing to share and participate, and not necessarily given to grousing their grievances.

However, it can happen. It may not have happened yet, but that’s no reason to not look hard at our own privileges and behaviours, our ways of imposing standards and judging others. There is no way of knowing how free we are of these little habits which will lead to elitism. It behooves us, as a community, to watch ourselves and, because we may not always be aware if we’re behaving obnoxiously, not get defensive if we’re called out on bad behavior.

Elitism has affected a great deal of other small communities—from calling for higher standards of dress to people being shunned because they’re “not [X factor] enough.” Let’s make sure it doesn’t affect steampunk.


Jha is an unbelievable snob, sometimes takes herself too seriously, and admits it. She would like to be ensconced in a high ivory tower, but academia takes money.

This article is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
23 comments
Daniel Cole
1. zaldar
Um this is all fine and good except some standards ARE better than others. Just like some ART is better than others. Lets not take our anti-elitism so far that we can't see that bad things (like the movie version of LEG) are actually bad.

Frankly I am proud to consider myself an elitist. Life is not about fun but doing things that are worth doing. Or to quote Plimy it is about doing what is worth being written about and reading what was worth writing about.
Jon Baker
2. Kendu
Way to express the extremes.

@1
Perhaps we can find a middle ground? True, everybody views the world around them by establishing inevitable (and often quite helpful) systems of hierarchy (e.g., things that take precedence of other things, not necessarily people), but in order for growth and the prevention of mindless conflict it's generally best to build into certain systems a Wiggle Room Factor.

Furthermore, the argument that some art is better than others is difficult to argue without identifying what is meant by the term "better." Perhaps you mean the way in which it is received by the audience, in which case it is purely a matter of opinion? Or in the intent of the artist, which is also subjective except in places where the art meets or fails to meet generally accepted ideas of What Art Is (a loaded question in itself). Reapply that metaphor to steampunk and you begin to run into exactly the same problems.

Be nice. Accept others, but don't compromise yourself. There. :)
C.D. Thomas
3. cdthomas
This makes no sense.

Steampunk's one of the most elitist forms of fandom simply because it depends on modeling itself on the penultimate Western empire that wasn't Nazi Germany. That culture's conventions depend on Lords, Ladies, people of independent means able to fashion shiny gew-gaws that assert craftsmanship and competence. That bespeaks vast material resources to support even roleplaying in that culture.

I thought one of the draws of steampunk *was* the relief in being able to discard relativist moral viewpoints, and again make fine distinctions concerning craft and character. It's the refuge we run to after the Bomb lent atrocity a larger weight than innovation in shaping modern scientific reputation.

Back in the day when one could paint Asia and Africa red with native blood, no one dared question the scientist's collaboration with Empire. It was a stripped-down morality. Pretending that morality is now race-, class- and gender-neutral does a disservice to the past -- that's why we have to be so cautious now, in not reviving those prejudices disguised as standards.
etchlings
4. etchlings
"Life is not about fun but doing things that are worth doing."

Even if Pliny, Muhammed AND Burt Reyonolds said it, that's an opinion. Whether your base your life on it has no bearing whatsoever on whether person A, B, or C should or would want to base their life on it. One's viewpoint cannot be universal, but this likewise doesn't invalidate it for that single person. Or whether they consider the aim of life to be enjoyable, challenging, selfish or selfless, etc.

I think it behooves every individual to keep an eye on themselves for elitism. It's often very small, and innocuous, but can cause a lot of snowballing disorder and hurt when those people gather in larger groups of any sort, be it subculture or political gathering.

"Elitism" and "standards" are two different things and shouldn't be equated too easily, in the same vein. For example: preferring something one way over another is OK. Judging another who doesn't prefer the same sets is not OK.

I thought that went without saying, but maybe I'm wrong.

As fas a a "stripped down" moral code goes... that was never the draw for ME to steampunk. The aesthetic of craft taken as it is NOW. There's nothing saying we have to relive the prejudices of the past simply because we appropriate the aesthetic of that era. Any student of history can find out why something was the way it was, culturally, but that's no reason not to enjoy the achievements of that regime's artistic/mechanical sensibilities.
Lannis .
5. Lannis
I think it's perfectly acceptable to have standards, as long as they're not imposed on others... something you have chosen for yourself is one thing, but if you start dictating how things should be to other people, you're walking not only into the realm of snobbery, but that of control freak as well... why not just let it go and have fun with it, yes?

Especially when we're talking about a subculture like Steampunk, a relief from the everyday grind and a dip into fantasy, hrm? Having to obey someone else's rules just sounds a little too much like work... :/

(Besides, the control freaks totally water down the cool!)
etchlings
6. Terry Martin
When things (movements in this case) become popular they start to become elitist. But at the Steampunk Convivial in Lincoln a few weeks ago there were people who were proud to have bought most of their clothes at Primart but still managed to look authentically Victorian. Yet others had obviously cashed out a lot of money for the real thing - or for imaginative Steampunk versions of what ought to have been. Then there were those whose efforts could be called minimal or unrealistic. Despite all that, everyone was made to feel a part of the scene.
etchlings
7. Jonny B. Goode
I was talking to someone the other day who had complained that they had recently been to a function with some other steampunks from other areas and had gotten a feeling of cliquishness or snobbery from one group. To which I quipped, "our plastic spraypainted gears that we've pinned to our vests are better than your plastic spraypainted gears..."

Sure, some of our uniforms or costumes or DIY projects or whatever may be more elaborate than others; we are not all blessed with the same gifts or the same level of income. But we all do the best we can with what we are given, especially in this community. And seriously, looking down on someone else because your cosplay is more "authentic" or your goggles are real brass or whatever, is just silly.
etchlings
8. fractal
I like your message about not ruining other people's fun, but I think that your method of avoiding elitism and politicking is not internally consistent.

Many people in the steampunk community got into it out of a love of craftsmanship and beautiful utility. When other people have non-functional props, it can lessen the satisfaction that craftspeople get out of steampunk. I think this is why many people who prefer craftsmanship in their steampunk become elitists. They're trying to preserve the fun that they originally got from the subculture.

Some people who get into steampunk do it *because* of the elitism. As cdthomas said, some people simply like being able to have a stripped down moral code for a while. They are elitist in order to enjoy steampunk.

In general, I think that your advice to not be elitist and to not engage in politicking may actually remove a lot of the fun that some people get from steampunk. I don't think that proscribing this behavior is a good solution to the problem.

Instead of advising people to not be elitist, I think it would be better to advise them to not purposely ruin someone else's fun. If you like being elitist and that's annoying other people, go be elitist elsewhere. If tacky props annoy you, maybe help people get better equipment instead of looking down on them.

On the other side of things, if someone starts calling your brand of steampunk inferior or treating you poorly, I think the best solution is to ignore them and avoid them.
Joshua Pfeiffer
9. VernianProcess
The only time I get all elitist about Steampunk is when people try to shoehorn every random form of media into the "Steampunk" genre, just because they happen to like said piece of media.

I.E. People that constantly try to call Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" Steampunk. That bugs me to no end, because it's painfully obvious Brazil is an homage to 1984, Brave New World, Atlas Shrugged, etc.

The only reason people call it Steampunk is because the technology is mostly pre-WW2. I know it's a minor quibble, and kind of pointless. But if enough people do it, eventually the entire point of Steampunk becomes lost. Then what happens? It's the same thing that happened to the Goth scenes. All of these random people started referring to all of these random bands by that term, and now people seem to think that music like Limp Bizkit, Korn and Slipknot is somehow related to Goth.
Jaymee Goh
10. Jha
zaldar: What Kendu said.

Kendu: If you don't know what extremity is, then you don't know what moderation looks like ;D

cdthomas: Yes. And no. (You're going to very quickly get sick of me at this rate.) Some of us are attracted to the fandom because it offers an alternative to greatest empire before Nazi Germany.

etchlings and Lannis: Yes, exactly. The roleplaying and persona thing is cool and all, but some of us just like the DIY, or the clothes, or some other facet. We should be able to watch ourselves to make sure we don't call into behaviours that ruin each other's fun.

Terry Martin: And ain't that a rub! Yay, mainstream love! Boo, mainstream jerks. Although, I've heard tell of a steampunk project that has been able to positively affect the mainstream.

Jonny B. Goode: That is exactly the kind of boorishness I'm talking out against, and I've heard similar complaints before as well. I do think it's one of those things which varies depending on locale.

fractal: To me, being an elitist is specifically about ruining another person's fun by holding different standards and expecting them to conform to it. It sounds to me that you're saying some people get into steampunk so they can keep others out? Most people join groups because they get something out of the group - a bonding experience, a place for support, a creative outlet - it's counter-productive to assume people join groups so they can be mean to others. Even those assuming obnoxious personas don't do it to piss other people off.

Maybe I'm totally optimistic, but I don't think most people who exhibit elitist behaviours do that to be purposefully obnoxious.

VernianProcess: Yes, that's a peeve of mine too. I think the more we explore different facets of steampunk, though, the easier it will be to better delineate what being steampunk means. I know I would very much like to avoid the traps that subcultures preceiding ours have fallen into; I happen to think elitism is one of these pitfalls.
Brady Allen
11. akabrady
I mock your subculture and replace it with my own! Long live Bradypunk.

You, in the corner, your boondoggle needs more red!

And I told you pink bunny mittens and yellow tap shoes, not yellow bunny mittens and pink tap shoes!
Jon Baker
12. Kendu
My apologies, Jha, I was referring to both the entry and the first post together. A poor joke, perhaps. Still, there's wisdom in your comment. :)
Jaymee Goh
13. Jha
akabrady: it could be how late it is and how little sleep I've been getting lately, but that made me laugh so loud my walls almost shook.

Kendu: Oh, all righty then. ^^ Well, your point about being true to yourself also still stands!
Joshua Pfeiffer
14. VernianProcess
akabrady sounds like Michael Alig from Party Monster lol.
etchlings
15. Deathfaerie
I love steampunk, the costumes, accessories, literature and movies, but I've felt a bit insecure about truly calling myself steampunk, simply because I'm not quite confident enough and lack the cash to make the accessories, I've started spray painting a toy gun, but it looks like crap compared to the stuff I saw at Dragoncon, plus I can't sew.

Of course most of the steampunks I've met have been very friendly, fun loving people ; )
etchlings
16. Cory Gross
So long as the ideal of enough Steampunks is to not be like other people - the mundane, uncreative, passive consumers they somehow imagine "normal" people to be - then elitism will be inescapable. There will always be someone they have to define themselves against. Once they've disposed of tophatless "mass society", they must turn their attention to within Steampunk and creating a hierarchy of "doers" vs. "talkabouters". Like a number of Bohemian movements, they mistake their possessing an alternative aesthetic for being truly revolutionary, and therefore must constantly assert that theirs is the most genuine, advanced, difficult, all-encompassing and unique shape of that alternative aesthetic.

That is only a particular expression of Steampunk fandom, though. For those who aren't "revolutionaries", whose interest in Steampunk is a genuine affection for Victorian Sci-Fi and cosplay, elitism should be much easier to shake. That alternative aesthetic is simply an interest shared by some and not shared by others, rather than a pseudo-revolutionary judgement on everyone who doesn't share it or do it the same way as oneself.
Joshua Pfeiffer
17. VernianProcess
Exactly Cory,

My only rule for whether someone qualifies as a Steampunk, is whether or not they like the Steampunk aesthetic.

That's it. No more, no less. Do you like this stuff? Yes? Well then you are a Steampunk.
etchlings
18. Meowwl
Steampunk for me is about taking the good ideas and inventions of past eras, and taking the possiblities of the technology to their furthest extent, while either ignoring or eliminating the negative aspects of those cultures and technologies. That means either taking steam tech and doing what would have happened with it if more modern methods hadn't been invented, what would happen if our modern technological base failed, and the steam powered devices that would take their place in a post apocalypse world, or taking our typically sterile looking modern tech, and wrapping it in the elegance and style of the victorian age. None of it includes the classism, racism, or eurocentric attitudes of that time period, nor should it ever.

Also remember...Just because you can do something better than someone, doesn't make you a better person, nor does it mean that anyone should kowtow to you. I've run into this in SCA circles as well, where someone thinks that because their costuming is more accurate, period, ornamented, or artistic, that people should bow and scrape and kiss their behinds. So you have the most elaborate, period correct, brass goggles and everything costume...All that matters squat if you're making disparraging comments about someone else's outfit. If your making nasty, snarky remarks about someone else's effort, then you're not better...you're just an ass.

Art is in the eye of the beholder. Good, bad, or mediocre are mere opinions...and I think one should take the advice of so many parents and grandparents, and simply refrain from saying anything, if what you are going to say is unpleasant. If you can't say something nice, then don't say anything.
etchlings
19. Piechur
Exactly Cory, Meowwl & Josh (I can't believe I said it).
etchlings
20. Lupine
Thank you to all. I'm an older (as in Fine bottle of wine) woman who just discovered the steam punk look, music, books, ect. last fall. Several of my friends and I have become very interested in all it's facets. Our big fear was that we are older and might not be accepted in the groups around us. Being the one in our group who tends to do what I want whether I'm the usual in any situation, I said let's go for it. So we are even now working on costumes that feel right for each of us. Listening to Abney Park, who I must say is excellent. Reading books, watching movies and generally checking out all the amazing stuff we can! Who knows, perhaps we'll start a "senior" Steampunk group. It's nice to see so much discussion of the pros and cons. However, beware or older steampunkers. We may truely surprise you.
etchlings
21. Sp666ky
I so look down on elitists. Does tat meen I should look down on myself?
Actualy I think different standards are different not better. There could be so many different views contributing to SP. I look forward to seeing more diversity.
etchlings
22. Sp666ky
My spelling standars leave something to be desired though.

Sorry
etchlings
23. Bookgal1977
I'm late to the party but I wanted to just add this:

I'm having fun. If someone doesn't like the fact that I glue gears to my hatband because I dig the way it looks, thats their issue not mine. I'm too busy having a good time dressing up and hanging out to be bothered. Just like some cosplayers get a wedge in their panties if they think I'm too fat to cosplay a character. Its a shame what I'm doing affects you so badly. If it didn't, maybe you'd have the time to be over here with me and my friends having a blast. Oh well.

So yes, I will happily slap some gears on it and call it steampunk if thats what I want to do for myself. You go ahead and do what you want for yourself. If you can deal with the fact thats how I enjoy my hobby, come have tea with us and I'll praise how cool your crafting is. If you can't, then bug off. :P

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