Does Sex Really Sell? A Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Victorian Cabaret Thigh High Stockings; image from the website.

Image by Pixie Visions Photography

As we are constantly being told, SEX SELLS. This is used as an excuse to sexualize everything from children’s clothing to cars. I believe that marketing executives who believe this are selling the general population short. In particular, I notice a proliferation of images of sexy young women in skimpy Steampunk gear, but see no corresponding proliferation in handsome young men in skimpy Steampunk gear; nor do I see an increase in silver foxes or platinum vixens dressed in saucy Steampunk apparel. One can’t help but wonder if these photographs are taken by true enthusiasts of Steampunk Aesthetic, or by gentlemen who just like to see young women in corsets and stockings.

Absinthe Dreams  - image from Polyvore

As a feminist, I think a woman or a man should be allowed what they damn well like. By the same token, I do NOT want to see a woman or a man objectified and exploited. A person is a person, and worthy of having their identity respected. In my Facebook newsfeed on my site, Steampunk Sunday, images of underdressed young women completely outnumber all the other images of men and older women, and children. I did a five minute run through my feed, picking a random time, and only counting Steampunk images, and the results were:

  • 13 images of slender young women in tight or skimpy clothing
  • 4 images of young women in full Steampunk regalia
  • 2 images of a young men, both fully clothed (dammit)
  • 3 vintage images – all of men
  • 1 image of an older woman – fully dressed
  • 3 images of older men in Steampunk attire, showing off gadgets
  • 2 images of mixed groups in full Steampunk regalia
  • 1 image of a middle aged couple in full Steampunk regalia

As you can see from these numbers, I received as nearly as many images of ‘sexy’ and slender young women dressed in Steampunk attire as I did of everyone else put together. To be fair, at least half those images were ‘advertising’ for Steampunk clothing lines. (I also have an issue with the lack of Steampunk fashion options for bigger women, but let’s not diverge from the topic.)

For just about every Steampunk group of which I have personal knowledge, this pattern in my feed does not in any way match up with the demographics of the groups. In fact, the middle-aged people out-number every other age group by quite a proportion, and most groups seem to have a fairly equal number of men and women. At the Steampunk Charity Ball, this was most evident. I saw a huge range of ages, but the majority of people were between the ages of 25 and 60, with a sprinkling of people younger and older. And there was a range of gender orientations, and a range of body shapes. The only time anyone was in skimpy attire was when the burlesque dancers were performing (and they did a very fine and tasteful job of it). Yes, it was a ball … but ball gowns can be pretty skimpy, particularly around the shoulders, back and décolletage. Most people opted for something attractive without being revealing.

So, what am I (or you) to make of this inequality in photographic imagery? I try to even things up on Steampunk Sunday, by sharing a more balanced selection of images. In my writing, I try to keep an even balance in the demographics of my characters, even in my YA narratives. I try not to objectify or sexualize my characters. I try to make this balance part of my plot, when and where I can. Young people mix with young people, but they also mix with everyone else.

It might seem like I am fighting a losing battle. But even baby steps will eventually allow you to cross a desert.


Filed under Characterization, Plot, Sex, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Women in Science, writing

18 responses to “Does Sex Really Sell? A Steampunk Feminist Perspective

  1. John Naylor (aka Thadeus Tinker)

    I agree wholeheartedly with your basic premise here that we do not need all the overt sexualisation of steampunk and that it is often the product of outsiders or commercial interests.
    In the UK the steampunk demographics are quite clear. We have one peak in the age group 16-24 and a second peak in the age group 46-54. The intervening intervals are well represented too. A straw poll at the recent Comicon in Birmingham which is very heavily under 25 had lots of young women in tight outfits. This was not necessarily overt sexualisation (unlike the skimpy ones) but indicative of current fashion and style preferences within this age group.
    Some events will be self selecting by way of audience demographic due to costs, available income etc so should not be taken as indicative of the steampunk population as a whole. As you hint at certain events will also have a prevailing style or fashion. We are extremely lucky that steampunk does have such a wide appeal and for me one of the great thrills is to see a mixed group of people sharing a common passion.
    Please do not think I am disagreeing with you or negating your argument. Quite the opposite. I am merely commenting on demographics etc here and hope that no one uses such to counter your argument since this would equally be unfair and untrue.

    • Dear John, I didn’t think you were disagreeing with me for a second. Indeed, I really appreciate your thoughtful and reasoned comment.

      I so think that Steampunk has a much broader appeal than many other genres, but that could be my own bias showing. I do notice that it appears to be one of the most popular genres for older cosplayers and cosplaying families.

    • Martin

      Is there a source for demographic data on steampunk convention attendees?

      • I don’t know. I have never heard of a statistician has ever collected data on just Steampunk Enthusiasts, though maybe someone has taken stats for individual events for marketing purposes. Demographics is not my field of expertise.

      • We have done a large amount of research into our “market” in the form of the people who attend events organised by the VSS. This is fundamentally the Asylum which annually attracts thousandsof self identifying steampunks and people interested in steampunk. These have come from more than 30 different countries although the UK, not surprisingly, is the dominant group. My assertions are based on this information. As it is in effect commercial information however it is not published nor generally shared.

      • Thank you for kindly sharing this information. I can fully understand wanting to keep your marketing research in house, since you paid for it and did all the grunt work. Will/has any of the research be/been shared to an appropriate scientific magazine or textbook?

      • I am really sorry but the current data is extremely unlikely to be shared academically. Since my training is as a psychologist I can understand how frustrating this must be.
        It may be time for us to arrange a study that we can publish.

      • Indeed. But would you be able to get a grant for that, though? Half the issue with doing science these days is getting the funding.

      • I fear the academic funding route is a non-starter however the commercial aspects may be more fruitful. Since our event now has an annual footprint spend of around $1.5 million we may be able to secure funding from the tourism or business development offices. It is certainly something we will investigate and edited data may be available for publication. 😉

      • I’m certain that would be the easier way of getting funding. Good luck!

  2. Well gosh, m’girl! Steampunk is positively oozing with sex: reciprocating engines, throbbing boilers, pistons going up and down all over the place, and the constant vibration of the screws.
    They don’t call it ‘steamy’ for nothing!!

    As to your ‘losing battle’ – fight on, good Friend! This ‘silver fox’ has noticed the trend mentioned, and quite frankly I find it … well, just a whole lot inauthentic and basically the recurrence of an age-old imbalance that runs right through the Victorian era from a far deeper history.
    Usually, I have to avert my eyes!

    • Oh, I agree that Steampunk is very sexy …

      And you are perfectly correct; the “age-old imbalance” is just another Patriarchal construct, creating a market for erotic pictures of girls in Steampunk garb. I hope to at least make its foundations just a bit more wobbly.

  3. Alas, the dead hand of ‘marketing’ is everywhere. I’m heartened to see that many Steampunkers look to be the original punks…. real people. Commerce will give us the usual anodyne big haired, big eyed, barbie- heroine that they’ve been flogging for ever….on an airship, of course. Still, theres Missy and Madam Vastra!

  4. In reading your posting several times I see the beginnings of a theory but no real conclusion save “So, what am I (or you) to make of this inequality in photographic imagery?” and an acknowledgement that the number of pictures or size of presence of scantily dressed steampunk ladies in a single small, select online group is higher than pretty much all of the alternatives but is not so in a single offline instance.
    You do not take into account differences in both cultural age [the culture during a person’s “formative years”] and the evolution of perceptions due to actual age and cultural change. Nor do you take into account the other factors and facets in the marketing world aside from the statement that “sex sells.”
    The beginning of a great thought and something that could embark us on a lot of fantastic dialogue and, perhaps, some very interesting study.
    Interesting thoughts to chew upon and for that I thank you.

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