Women and Whitechapel Gods

I knew I had Whitechapel Gods by S. M. Peters waiting on hold for me at the library, so I waited until I could read it to read Steampunk Scholar’s review of it. I finally got through both of them, and this quote from the review stuck out to me:

”Despite some narrative missteps, S.M. Peters’ Whitechapel Gods is one of the most representative works of twenty-first century steampunk currently in print. No other book is as successful as capturing the secondary world of grit, grime, and gilding that the subculture, art, and fashion have suggested.”

And indeed, the world Peters’ has created is fantastic. I didn’t give it as careful a read as it deserved, but it was undoubtably steampunk-y, full of big dark machines and people with mechanical arms and factories and uprisings and all those lovely things. Only one element was glaringly lacking, and that was women.

There are, for the bulk of the book, exactly three women of any importance:: Missy, our “hooker with a heart of gold;” Giselle, who runs a brothel and mostly is in Missy’s head calling her a whore; and Mama Engine, one of the gods of Whitechapel. There’s Mrs. Flower and her girls who run an opium den and don’t really do anything for the plot, a handful of Missy’s fellow prostitutes at the end, and occasional references to someone’s wife, or to the women and children hiding safely while the men do the fighting.

At first, I didn’t notice because Missy is a pretty interesting character, and by the end she helps save the day. But there are long middle parts where she’s either being noted for her unladylike behavior or a helpless pawn of the Bad Guy, and when she finally gets the revenge she’s spent the whole book seeking she’s treated like a madwoman. Of the other two women who contribute to the plot, one is a generic Evil Woman with no character development of any kind, and one is a machine-deity whose biggest contribution to the plot is having an “affair” with the Bad Guy which is written more like a sexual assault.

It’s a very Victorian steampunk world, for all its techno-monsters, and conversations with women (read: Missy) throughout the book are invariably laced with references to propriety. After killing the bad guy in a delusional, suicidal rage and saving the day, we don’t see Missy again until she’s out in the English countryside, every bit the proper young woman, restored from her evil whoring ways. There aren’t any women to be seen in any of the Big Final Battles – they’re mentioned as victims of the gods and their abuses, but while the men do the manly thing and fight back, the women are sent to hide.

This is just one book and a pretty shallow analysis, but if bothered me to see women so poorly represented in “one of the most representative works of twenty-first century steampunk,” especially when I’m not sure the problem is unique to this work. (My favorite steampunk anthology, Extraordinary Engines, features exactly one story with a female main character.) Suggestions of books that do the whole gender thing better would be greatly appreciated!

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9 Responses to “Women and Whitechapel Gods”

  1. Wow, I guess I’ll be skipping it then. I got a copy of Jonathan Green’s Leviathan Rising last year (at Lincoln?) and read a few pages before giving up and giving it away–in the few pages I read the men were described as characters while the women were described by how revealing their clothes were and what that implied about their sexual availability. OK, maybe that’s the way the author wanted us to view his narrator, but why should I be interested in reading descriptions like that of people like me? Thank you for writing posts like this–I think it’s important for all of us to realise how pervasive the ‘man=person’ meme is in our ‘post-sexist’ culture.

    I usually make it a rule to only see movies or read books with women in them, but I finally got around to watching Das Boot the other night, which I’d wanted to see forever, and thought it was great :).

  2. Oh–suggestions! I wish I could think of some off the top of my head! I have a vague idea that Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine features a genuine woman character, but don’t hold me to that. I honestly think there were more female people in stories up to the ’70s (and more women writing those stories), and that they’ve been disappearing, or becoming more and more disrespected, since the ’80s.

  3. I agree that the depictions of women in Whitechapel Gods aren’t any better than Gibson and Sterling offered us with The DIfference Engine. Peters definitely handles his male characters better than his females. That said, you may wish to check out Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone, Karin Lowachee’s Gaslight Dogs, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, any of Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, and of course, both Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and Gail Carriger’s Soulless for some strong females in steampunk.

    I should clarify that my “Most representative” statement is tied to the setting and not the characters per se. I think strong, independent females should be one of the “anachronisms” of steampunk. Missy should have gotten her due in the final conflict, definitely.

  4. Yay, Mike, glad to hear from you! (And thanks much to both for the recommendations! I’ve read a few of them, and will definitely be hunting down the rest…)

    I got that the statement was about the setting, but it kind of stuck in my head after spending the whole book fuming about the women in it. After all, part of world building is establishing gender norms and the like, and Peters pretty deliberately put women in the background at the same time he was building his fabulous towers and metal creatures. (Which was a shame, because other than that the book was such fun.)

  5. Can I just second Mike’s recommendation of “The Blue Glass Books of the Dream Eaters”, for strong female characters and general Steampunkiness.

  6. I you want to read really good fantasy/steampunk novels, read Soulless, Changeless and Blameless from Gail Carriger.
    These books are fantastic!

  7. I’ve read both Glass Book of the Dream Eaters and Soulless, both excellent! (Though the former took FOREVER to get through… Loved some of the characters, though.) Haven’t yet gotten to Changeless or Blameless, but looking forward to them!

  8. […] I was bitching about the lack of satisfying female characters in steampunk literature. Mere days later, through the magical powers of Twitter, I received an answer to my rant: an […]

  9. […] I was bitching about the lack of satisfying female characters in steampunk literature. Mere days later, through the magical powers of Twitter, I received an answer to my rant: an […]

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