Writing Against Heteronormative Gender Stereotypes: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Union soldier Frances Louisa Clayton, who enlisted (with her husband) in 1861 as Jack Williams.

Union soldier Frances Louisa Clayton, who enlisted (with her husband) in 1861 as Jack Williams.

The Steampunk genre is open to many interpretations of the industrial era. I am writing a Steampunk YA novel, with a female protagonist. In the Victorian era, a respectable woman was restricted to wearing dresses, and layers of cloth and whalebone between her skin and the fresh air. My Alice conforms when she is out in public, but in the privacy of her own estates she wears ‘masculine’ clothing.  It is more comfortable, and much safer, when she is working in her laboratory. In this era, the wearing of masculine clothes is considered quite shocking.

So, what do you do when you have a character that doesn’t conform to societies expectations of gender and sexuality?

Don’t make a big song and dance about it.

We live in an era that is trying to achieve a culture of equality and tolerance. The best way we can achieve that is not to define a character by her (or his) gender or sexuality. If a woman (or a man) wants to wear unconventional clothing, may have someone comment on it the once, and leave it at that – unless of course the manner of dress is the point of the scene. Just like you wouldn’t harp on someone’s age or ethnicity or religious beliefs, you shouldn’t harp on their sexuality or gender. A person is just a person, and not a jigsaw puzzle made of parts. Your character should be seen as a whole and well-rounded personality, or they may be defined by the stereotypes linked to certain traits.

Miss Martha Jane Canary,  around 1874, and Dr Mary Edwards Walker, circa 1870s, after serving as a surgeon and receiving the Medal of Honour during the American Civil War.

Miss Martha Jane Canary, around 1874, and Dr Mary Edwards Walker, circa 1870s, after serving as a surgeon and receiving the Medal of Honour during the American Civil War.

The same strategy works best when a character doesn’t fit the heteronormative ideals of gender stereotypes. It is lazy writing to construct a character using any sort of stereotype, and you need to keep an eye out for ones you may not even realise are stereotypes. The butch lesbian. The effeminate homosexual. The flamboyant transsexual. People are complex, and if you don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) someone who doesn’t conform to a heteronormative lifestyle, don’t write about them.

However, if you want to warmly embrace the concept of a full spectrum of human genders and sexualities, don’t feel that a Steampunk setting will restrict you. Quite the opposite, in fact! Because you are working in an alternative timeline, you can write about a Industrial Age with teeming with tolerance and understanding. You can make a world of your own!

Cross dressing Michigan farm boys.

Cross dressing Michigan farm boys.

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under Alternative Subculture, Characterization, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, Stereotypes, writing

5 responses to “Writing Against Heteronormative Gender Stereotypes: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

  1. Yes, my Steampunk setting is very “real” (close to the world as it was) which means there’s a vast amount of prejudice but in the first book I have a TV and gay characters; the second has none; the third has a TV character and a lot of sex; the fourth (coming out this week) has TV and gay characters again (having and trying to have relationships). In another series (same setting) the second book has a gay couple.

    • Remember when it was a teacup-sized perfect storm about Dumbledore being a gay character? What I liked the best about the discussion it generated was the fact that Rowling never defined Dumbledore by his sexuality. It was just one part of the whole package of Dumbledore, the person. It wasn’t important to his characterization, because it played no part in the plot. The sexualisation of our society plays a large role in creating issues about people’s sexuality and gender roles, and it is something I prefer to work against. It sounds like you are doing the same.

  2. Kara Jorgensen

    I love that you bring this up since quite a few of my characters are gay and one woman wears trousers at times. Thank you for bringing up not using stereotypes. It seems that many writers use them, so they do not have to develop their characters.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s