I’ve written before about how the steampunk genre has brought us excellent female characters who are well-rounded role models and all-around impressive women. Steampunk excels in breaking molds, crossing lines, and forging new paths (when it wants to!). And I think steampunk has just as much to offer as a platform for a better breed of leading male characters as well.
Just as modern media all too often portrays the “ideal” woman as a helpless sexual object, our media is equally guilty of presenting the “ideal” man as a simple-minded brawler (hopefully with a heart of gold). And this hurts all of us.
No matter how much we tell ourselves that “it’s only entertainment” the reality is that we’re drowning in images of heroes who are violent, emotionally stunted, and intellectually bankrupt. We’re selling ourselves short, and I for one am sick of it.
So how is a steampunk hero any better?
Well, first we need to make an important distinction. There have been numerous books and movies that we might describe as steampunk with male heroes, but many of these heroes really are not at all steampunky themselves. When we look at movies like Wild, Wild West, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sherlock Holmes, or Van Helsing, we see lots of steampunk “stuff” on screen but the leading men tend to be fairly generic action heroes.
The most important reason why these two characters are true steampunk heroes is because they themselves are deeply ingrained in the steampunkery itself. They are inventors. They are engineers and artists, as well as independent freelancers, anti-establishment activists, and caring protectors.
Both Ray and Caractacus are introduced as inventors, individuals who are not only bright and creative but also technically skilled and hard-working. We’re immediately reminded that there doesn’t need to be some cultural gulf between creative dreamers and industrious laborers. In fact, the greatest creations come from men who are smart enough to be the first and strong enough to be the second.
They are also dedicated family men. Ray is helping to support his mother in the absence of his father and Caractacus is supporting his children in the absence of their late mother. They understand the need for balance between their personal goals (and obsessions) and their responsibilities to the people around them. They aren’t emotionally damaged or skewed. They are whole and solid, reliable and trustworthy (although perhaps a bit eccentric!).
And lastly, when the powers that be (Baron von Bomburst and Ray’s father) attempt to unleash the darker side of industry to oppress the masses, Caractacus and Ray have the courage and the skills to confront those evils and save the day (without resorting to shooting people).
So we see that a truly steampunky leading man is intelligent and capable, loving and courageous, dutiful and rebellious, as well as funny and charming. For far too long the mainstream media has been feeding us the same narrow male stereotypes: the fragile genius, the stoic fighter, the immature goofball, the sensitive loser, and the rebellious lunatic. And that’s not good enough. Not nearly.
Why? Because we have the capacity to be the best of all those characters at the same time. We can be intelligent and tough, funny and daring, and we can do it all without a gun. These are the sorts of heroes I want to see more of, and that I want our sons to watch growing up.
(For me, the best part of Iron Man isn’t when Robert Downey, Jr. is blowing things up. It’s when he’s building the suit, both as a blacksmith in a cave and as an engineer in a high-tech lab. Hard-working genius trumps tank missiles any day of the week!)
Instead of defining the male hero as someone who fights and destroys, how about presenting him as someone who solves problems and builds wonders? As a pioneer and a visionary? As someone who forges peace instead of war? As someone with style and brilliance as well as iron and resolve? As someone who is a scholar and craftsman, lover and dreamer, and yes, a protector and savior, too?
That’s who I want to be. That’s what I want to see. And I think steampunk could be one of the best places to find it.