Monday, July 20, 2009

Steampunking: Eurocentrism

So, steampunk in its current form is Eurocentric.

I've been reading a wonderful book called Unthinking Eurocentrism and while it deals with Eurocentrism within cinema and other such visual media, the same principles apply to steampunk: that the subculture revolves around a Western culture, holds it up as a model, and ignores everything else.

I noticed this when I was speaking to a friend in England, and he said, "steampunk is Victorian, so it all starts here!" He meant well, but it wasn't what I was talking about: I was talking about steampunk manifestations in non-white contexts.

I also recall a discussion on Madame Butterfly, in which I denounced it as being Orientalist, portraying the titular character as a helpless victim. The person I was talking to said, "Oh, but Pinkerton (the Western officer who marries and deserts Madame Butterfly) is painted as an absolute cad!"

Not. The. Point. Was I talking about how white people are portrayed? No. I was talking about how an Asian character was being portrayed on stage (and often in yellowface). But somehow, the discussion got defaulted back to the White Characters and how they relate to everything else in the Non-White Setting.

Eurocentric means that we take our cues from what is recognized as Western culture. Today, we may not hold Western culture up to be the source of everything good (not overtly, anyway; mass media shows otherwise) but even in discussions of "what is bad" we would still inevitably point fingers at Western culture. It's still centering the discussion on the West.

I made mention in my Racialicious essay on how I grew up Westernized in Malaysia, to the point where I felt alienated from my own culture. I really thought the West was the bastion of liberation. Now I know it's not, that it's also where colonialism stems from, where imperialism still extends long arms and holds down other countries, where racism oozes out subtly. It's difficult, in my own life, to catch myself, sift out what's useful and what's not about the things I've learnt.

We need to recognize that steampunk is Eurocentric, and we need to un-learn ways of thought which center Victoriana as a good. It does steampunks little good to denounce, vocally, the colonialism and imperialism of Victoriana if it does nothing to impact the after-effects of the era. We need to de-construct our actions, catch ourselves, call each other out on our -isms.

We can have the best of intentions, but intention matters little when in the larger picture, we are still unequal.

1 comment:

  1. (Here via links to the Asian Women Carnival.)

    Cosigned!

    I've been reading more steampunk lately, and I get the feeling a lot of it is either unabashedly "Good ol' England" or "Well, England and colonialism had it's problems but is still better than anything else at the time!" apologism.

    For comparison, I point to Avatar: The Last Airbender, with it's steamtanks, boats, and giant drills as a non-european steampunk which seems to go over a lot of folks heads, simply for the mysticism and martial arts... But then again, they're still not able to see the characters as asian or inuit... so...

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