Clockwork, corsets and fabricated beasties: women and identity in YA steampunk

Document Type

Conference publication

Publication details

Seymour, JL 2012, 'Clockwork, corsets and fabricated beasties: women and identity in YA steampunk', Encounters: place, situation, context: 17th Annual Conference of AAWP (Australasian Association of Writing Programs), Geelong, Vic., 25-27 November, Australian Association of Writing Programs, Canberra, ACT. ISBN: 9780980757360

Peer Reviewed



Steampunk is a genre which lends itself particularly well to young adult fiction. There is a sense of optimism present in the pages of a steampunk novel, and a particular aesthetic which accompanies the impossibility of futuristic technology in the pre-1900 era. That’s where the ‘steam’ element comes from; steam power was the most predominant form of power available at the time. The ‘punk’ element is representative of the genre’s tendency to fly in the face of convention, to question prevailing ideologies and disregard those elements of societal order which don’t suit it. It is interesting, then, to explore the position of women in a steampunk novel. Identities slip and slide in steampunk, depending on what a person represents of what they are rebelling against. Women are particularly representative of the ‘punk’ element because of the societal pressures on them which did not extend to men during that era. Women must fight for their opportunities, often expressing their identity in unusual ways in order to escape the oppressive force of their culture. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series is a popular steampunk/young adult series set in the years leading up to World War 1. He uses three female steampunk archetypes: the lady boffin or scientist, the girl rebel or engineer, and the girl dressed as a boy in order to take the freedoms which were denied to her in skirts and corsets. These fictional women not only disturb the status quo of their situational context, they provide a textual representation and expression of the identity issues felt by adolescent readers who are almost in a position where their own place in society will need to be determined. This paper will analyse how Westerfeld’s fictional women turn societal constraints into opportunities and build their own subversive identities against the gendered assumptions present in their time period.