The Specter of Elitism

Someone explain how Justin Bieber’s use of a steampunk glove spells the doom of our subculture?

Justin Bieber
Justin Bieber

Recently, an image of Justin Bieber wearing a steampunk glove or gauntlet was going around on the ætherweb.

There have been a wide range of reactions regarding the photograph. Many have voiced their disappointment or even disgust of steampuk going mainstream and someone like Justin Bieber using steampunk paraphernalia. Several commenters on Facebook and a number of forums and blogs have even declared steampunk to be dead because of it.

Well, excuse me, but could somebody please explain to me how Justin Bieber’s use of a steampunk glove and other apparel can spell the doom of a global subculture?

Style police

Granted, the quality of Justin’s music is open to debate and his fan base is not exactly the kind of people you find in the steampunk scene, but do you honestly expect legions of little girls now logging on to Etsy and Ebay and draining them of steampunk supplies? No? Me neither.

It is basically the same phenomenon as the flood of vampire-related material hitting mainstream media after the success of the Twilight series of books. There has not been an influx of squeaky teenage girls in the Goth scene either. People, please relax! What is this elitism and protectionism all about?

I can fully understand if steampunk parties, conventions and other events have a certain dress code, no problem there. What I cannot understand is this bickering and finger-pointing by self-declared arbiters of true steampunk judging what is good and what is not, who can call themselves steampunk, who cannot.

Interestingly enough, the emergence of a style-police already proves steampunk has gone mainstream. When a scene is truly underground, new members are always welcome, everybody is welcome. People are excited about and very welcoming toward newcomers. The scene has to grow to a certain point for a style-police to emerge.

Thus, the style-police is a self-defeating concept. It is meant to exclude people and keep a scene “pure”, but by the time a style-police is active, the scene is already to large for policing.

Times change

Besides, if steampunk wants to remain vibrant, we cannot afford to exclude people. Times change, people change. I am heading toward forty, I remember the Goth and metal scenes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was quite different from what it is today, but this does not mean it was somehow more “real” or “true”, it was just different. Both scenes have changed but are still alive.

On the other hand, Germany had a very active sci-fi literature scene as early as the late 1950s. The scene has managed to keep newcomers out. At a recent convention, one sci-fi fan club was present in force, all sad, overweight men in their fifties. They are actively hostile to new people since those are all wannabes in their eyes. In another ten years, this particular scene will be basically dead. Their elitism killed them.

As this example shows: Do not keep people out because you do not like their style, age or background! In the long run, it can only hurt the scene!

To give another example, a good friend of mine in the steampunk scene was not even alive when I first read A Nomad of the Time Streams by Moorecock and The Time Machine by Wells. My friend grew up never having seen the Berlin Wall and knowing about the USSR and the GDR only from history books. We have vastly different views, simply because our childhoods happened in two completely different worlds.

Yet we are friends. I do not look down on my friend because I am twenty years older, have seen more of the world and are more experienced. I do not even want to know how the “old Goths” thought of me when I went on my first Goth night out.


So, please do not summon the specter of elitism, it can only hurt. If you see someone whose style you do not like, remember: It is their style and their interpretation.

Also remember, in the current economic situation, some people have neither the funds for steampunk gear and accessories, nor the time to create things themselves. By excluding them you basically punish them for being less blessed with money, time or skill.

And if a celebrity you do not like discovers steampunk, well, in the air kraken’s name, so what? Are you so fragile in your character you have to leave the scene simply because someone you dislike is present at the fringe? What does this say about you? Why are you here?

Let us keep the steampunk scene as open and welcoming as it used to be, and if Justin Bieber decides he is a steampunk now, good for him. Maybe it improves his music, too.

I, for my part, would have absolutely no problem if he would show up at an event I am at. He may be a celebrity, he may sing songs I do not like and perhaps I would not like him as a person, who knows. But as far as the steampunk scene is concerned, he would be just another guy enjoying his leissure time. Who am I to tell him, to get lost?

To say this again, fellow steampunks, just relax! No need to cry havoc because a, ahum…, controversial celebrity has discovered the steampunk style for himself. And there is also no need for self declared guardians of purity, steampunk is by its nature inventive and dynamic. To nail the style down would kill it. Elitism is absolutely counterproductive in our subculture, let it go! Banish the specter!


Add Yours

I have to admit I never know what to think of it when a celebrety goes Steampunk. Not because I fear the influx of people that are only there because their idol is, but because I fear that the style will be so thoroughly misrepresented that people who don’t know steampunk will be presented by the wrong image.

As far as I’m concerned everyone is welcome in the Steampunk movement, as long as they behave like a decent human being (no one likes a jerk) and are respectful towards the movement and it’s members. Regardless of what fandom they follow.

Leave a Reply