The Case of the Missing Men's Underwear: Is Steampunk Sexist?
I recently set out to do a roundup post on the state of Steampunk underwear, but what I found surprised me: There wasn't any men's underwear! Did I accidentally stumble onto sexism in Steampunk?
Before we move on to men's clothing, let's, ahem, cover women.
There was an absolute glut of ridiculous "Steampunk" underwear for women, many of which could only qualify as Steampunk if you squint and wish. For example, this little number is Steampunk because... it has leather straps?
I don't think they're really made of leather, either... I think they're faux leather. However, there were plenty of examples of underwear that felt a little more Steampunk both in concept and design. For example, this little combination:
It's a sexy blend of Victorian and modern styles, and does a pretty good job of hitting the "Steampunk" button, so to speak. There are even more modern, practical styles for women who want a little Steampunk flair, but don't want to sacrifice comfort.
And then don't forget the recent Victorian-inspired line from Victoria's Secret! That show made huge waves in the Steampunk community a few years ago and, while it looked like a lot of fun, it wasn't exactly underwear. More like outerwear.
Try to fit huge clockwork wings under your clothes, I dare you.
In far less abundance is underwear inspired by the actual Victorian era, such as the ones worn by the lady below. It's modest, cute, and will probably look good on nearly anyone.
Look at the wonderful range of underwear available to Steampunk women! There's a style to fit everyone, from folks who want to show off their bodies, to people who prefer a more modest approach. It's great to have such diversity available, isn't it?
Which is why I was so sad when it came time to search for men's underwear. When I did a Google search for "Steampunk men's underwear", I got pages and pages of women's underwear, and exactly one picture of men's underwear. This was it:
Yup. It's a completely modern pair of boxers that say "I heart Steampunk". It wasn't until I started doing searches for really specific things like, "Steampunk boxers" that I got any other results.
For example, apparently there's a company that will screen print a mechanical owl on any underwear that you want, as there were several examples of boxers and boxer-briefs with the same owl printed on them. No gears or anything, just owls.
Well, okay. We're getting there, I suppose.
Unfortunately, that was all I could find. Where was all the sexy Steampunk underwear for men? Where were the men in sexy poses in their underwear? Nowhere, that's where. Not even a single sock garter to be seen.
So what went wrong, here? Why is there such a lack of men's underwear in Steampunk? There's plenty of regularly sexy underwear for men, such as bikini briefs and even thongs. Men's underwear in general is rife with sexy-looking men. When I go underwear shopping in the department store, every single package of underwear has ridiculously muscular men rocking a pair of underwear with more sex appeal than I could ever hope to muster. Why can't I find that in Steampunk?
To try to answer that question, let's first take a look at Victorian underwear for men.
During the Victorian era, women had a plethora of underwear, most of it they were required to wear all at the same time. Still, it was often frilly and feminine. Men had pretty much one option, depending on when in the Victorian era we're talking about.
In the first half of the 19th century, when we talk about men's underwear we're generally talking about loose boxers that would have been tied with a drawstring. They usually had a hole in the crotch, too, for easy access. In fact, they weren't all that different from the boxers of today, except that they had no elastic. So I'm a little surprised that I didn't see any photos of Steampunk men wearing drawstring boxers, but okay. I'm willing to let that one slide, considering how close that underwear was to regular boxers.
However, in the second half of the 19th century we saw the rise of the union suit. Yes, the humble union suit. It was called "union" because it was all one piece, joining the top and bottom halves into one glorious whole. In fact, here's a picture of Victorian men wearing union suits:
Sure, it looks vaguely like the above gentlemen are about to be shot out of a cannon, or fly through their air with the greatest of ease on a trapeze, but at least we're getting somewhere, right? In addition, when I did a Google search for union suits, I finally, for the first time, found sexy man underwear!
Granted, it was coupled by a ton of men looking utterly ridiculous in their union suits, but at least it was something! Interestingly, the union suit started out as women's underwear, but gained popularity among men until it was the most common form of men's underwear for many decades.
Union suits also have a buttoned flap in the back, so that you don't have to take the whole damned thing off in order to poop. Now we sort of look at union suits as silly or comedic, but they were all the rage during the Victorian era.
And yet I didn't find a single one when I did a search for "Steampunk underwear". Even Gentleman's Emporium, which has the name Gentleman in the title, features a nice selection of women's underwear, but none for men.
What gives, Steampunk? I'd like to say that this is just a representation of the larger inequality between the sexes, but as I mentioned earlier, there's plenty of sexy underwear for men available in mainstream stores.
So is Steampunk sexist? Unfortunately, I have to say yes. That isn't to say that Steampunks discriminate against women; quite the opposite. Every group has a few bad apples, but on the whole, I've never met a nicer, more considerate group, and active sexism is, pardon the pun, a thing of the past.
That said, women are clearly sexualized in Steampunk. Do a search anywhere for "Steampunk woman", and the vast majority of images that come up will be highly sexualized, even if they aren't showing off all the goods, so to speak. For example, this is what comes up when you do a Google image search for Steampunk woman:
It's a large image, feel free to click on it and look more closely. It may not even look very sexualized to you, depending on your perspective.
Now look at what comes up when you do an image search for "Steampunk man". I challenge you to find a single photo in this picture that could even remotely be construed as sexualized:
These are both the first sets of results, and are both pretty radically different. Just look at the differences in poses, and in how men and women hold their bodies differently. Look at what parts of each photo are accentuated, and what the focus is.
One of the very first things you should notice is how many photos of men are from the waist up or higher, whereas nearly every single photo of a woman is at least from the thighs up. In fact, let's do some quick metrics based on these photos.
- Total image results on first page of "Steampunk woman" search: 64
- Total images results on first page of "Steampunk man" search: 57
- Full-body pictures of women: 38
- Full-body pictures of men: 22 (several were robots, but I counted them anyway)
- 3/4-length pictures of women (thighs up): 15
- 3/4-length pictures of men (thighs up): 9
- Half-body pictures of women (waist up): 4
- Half-body pictures of men (waist up): 5
- Portrait pictures of women (chest up): 3
- Portrait pictures of men (chest up): 9
- Exposed chests of women: 16
- Exposed chests of men: 0
- Rear shots of women (or with visible buttocks): 8
- Rear shots of men (or with visible buttocks): 3
I hope that this quick look at the metrics of the Google results tells a better story than my non-numerical assertions. Of particular note is that there are three times as many portrait shots of men as there are of women (because clearly a woman's worth isn't in her face). I also hope you found the numbers of chests and butts instructive, too, for those of you who didn't see anything sexist about the above collection of pictures of women.
You can blame this on mainstream media all you'd like, but as a countercultural movement, we should be better than this. I used Google because it was the easiest, most visual example, but you'll find more or less the same distribution across any image sites out there.
So is Steampunk sexist? Sadly, yes. Is it worse than any other variety of fandom? Maybe, but probably not. Does that make it okay? Absolutely not.
If you're offended by this, good. You should be, because it's offensive. Let's turn that anger into action, okay?
The first thing women can do is to stop emulating Hollywood movie posters and book covers, and not pose like a ridiculous, contorted wreck. Author Jim Hines does a great job of drawing attention to this practice:
The first thing men can do is to be more sexy! Don't be afraid to embrace your sexiness and show off your butt, or your chest, or whatever. It won't suddenly make you gay, I promise. If you take pictures showing your (clothed) butt and suddenly find yourself having sex with another man, you can call me and complain. Unless you enjoy it, in which case, you're welcome.
Let's all work together to try to make things a little bit more even!