Mar 23, 2010

Disney and Steampunk

I'm fully aware I'm two posts behind, but when Gail Carriger said "This Disney steampunk thing is a far more complex issue than I had thought. Someone (not me) must do a blog" and then demanded "bloggage" from me on Twitter, I felt compelled to weigh in early, rather than waiting to read what others say.

Disney has steampunked it's most iconic animated characters in a new product line called The Mechanical Kingdom. Several posts on Twitter stated that this was the day steampunk had died, or that it was the day steampunk "jumped the shark" (@catvalente and @DawnTaylor666). Like so much of what I read on forums and twitter regarding steampunk, these statements are indicative of a movement that hasn't so much forgotten its roots as never known them. While there are steampunks who have read the original three (Jeter, Powers, and Blaylock), who watched Wild, Wild, West when it had nothing to do with Will Smith or giant steam-spiders, there are those who seem to think that steampunk is the product of the last three years of what I would call the steampunk boom years. Few steampunks read, and even fewer have read early steampunk, or proto-steampunk like Pavane or Nomad of the Time Streams, to say nothing of the handful that have actually read Verne and Wells. So I'm not too surprised when steampunks display an ignorance for the literary origins of the sub-culture. I am a bit shocked though, when people respond as they did to the steampunked Disney characters, being that Disney is a huge part of steampunk's cinematic roots.

The outrage seems to stem from the idea that this means steampunk is finally, incontrovertibly, mainstream, which stems from a gross misconception about Disney's use of steampunk. The misconception is the idea that Disney is appropriating steampunk, cashing in on something hip and cool as yet another way for the monolithic institution to cover the world in mouse-ears. My friends, Disney cannot be accused of appropriating steampunk, because Disney studios is arguably very responsible for creating what we call steampunk.

From Harper Goff's designs of The Nautilus in Disney's 1954 adaptation of Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which
SF giant Greg Bear conjectured as the beginning of steampunk at the 2009 Eaton Conference), to the '90s adventurous departures from the formulaic musical approach of their 2D animation with Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (remembering that the design work for Atlantis was done by steampunk fave, Mike Mignola!), Disney has been both inspiration for, and user of, the steampunk aesthetic (And while it wasn't made by Disney, one can't deny the studio's impact on the approach Albert Broccoli and Roald Dahl took in their fanciful highjacking of Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: Dick Van Dyke originally wanted Julie Andrews to play Truly Scrumptious, which would have resulted in a sequel-in-heart to Disney's Mary Poppins). 

Disney's live action adventure films of the '50s, '60s, '70s such as Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, and The Island at the Top of the World are among films many steampunk cite as being what they love about steampunk: the sense of derring-do and whimsical adventure. How about the design of the Tin Man or the evil Wheelers in Return to Oz (1985), or the incredible climactic battle amidst Big Ben's clockwork in The Great Mouse Detective (1986)? What steampunk (or dieselpunk) worth their salt didn't cheer to the on-screen adventures of Dave Stewart's The Rocketeer (1991)? Whether you loved it or hated it, Disney was still playing in the steampunk toolbox with the 2004 version of Around the World in 80 Days. And most recently (and at the risk of someone deciding to add Fairypunk to the ever growing list of punk styled fictions), the Tinker Fairies of the direct-to-video Tinkerbell films share a kinship with steampunk makers. Last year, images were released of what appeared to be a steampunked Disney video-game, which showed a clockwork Goofy, among other things.

Disney isn't jumping on the steampunk bandwagon: they helped build the damn thing. Like the recent release of Steamed, steampunks seem to be more interested in being upset over steampunk becoming popular, than celebrating the fact that more people are about to be exposed to it. This sort of exclusivity is the very thing I hear people paying lip-service to hating at online forums, and yet when the doors get opened wide, it appears that after all, steampunk apparently (and please hear the irony in my writing here), can't be everything.

I close with a quote from Jake von Slatt's keynote speech at Steam Powered in 2008, on the subject of steampunk going mainstream:

And Steampunk continues to attract more people. Recent coverage in the New York Times, Newsweek, and on MTV have introduced new people to our little hobby. Some of you may be here tonight because you spotted one of these stories and were entranced. Welcome!
But as Steampunk expands it will exhibit all of the characteristic of past movements and sub-cultures. Sub-cultures do have a natural life cycle. Some of you will likely find this irritating but it is natural, to be expected, and best ignored. There is no way that someone else can ruin the thing that you are passionate about by liking it too!
Since I posted this, I've had several people comment on how Disney's attractions have also employed the steampunk aesthetic. Check out these posts at Cory Gross's Voyages Extroidinaires to see what they're talking about:

Then go read Cory's post on the Mechanical Kingdom, which bookends where I'm coming from really well:


  1. Great post, and thanks for giving me something to send people off to read when they complain about "Disneyfication."

  2. Any institution as massive as Disney will have good reasons for people to throw stones, but I don't think it's a reason to throw the baby with the bathwater. Disney has done some things worth criticizing: steampunking Mickey ain't one of them. Thanks for your comment Niko! You would likely have enjoyed my M.A. thesis on fairy tale films then too!

  3. People are upset over Disney steampunk? Seriously?

    I mean, seriously, we saw the pictures out last year and we were like "cooooool" (because, goddammit, that clockwork Goofy is awesome). But seriously? People are upset over Disney steampunk? O_o Where are these folks? Am I in a hole in the ground or something?

  4. There was some discussion on Twitter, and so I entered Steampunk Disney as a search, and saw a number of people saying "oh, that's it man, it's over" or something to that effect. I would have joined in at Twitter, but it really demanded a full blog posting. The origins of steampunk are of interest to me, and I've been finding that people aren't aware of how much the films of the '50s and '60s have played in developing the concept of steampunk. I don't think people actually reference Verne when they cite him as an influence on steampunk: I think they mean all the crazy Verne adaptations and knock offs in film that came in the wake of Disney's *Leagues*

  5. How can something with such fuzzy origins that is so totally self-referential be "over"? At worst it whorls into itself and then explodes. I feel a blogpost coming on too.

  6. I missed all the wailing on Twitter about how this was the end of steampunk as we know it... I'll be over in the other corner, gleeful over the continued and expanding exposure of the genre.

    (The wailers, I assume, are the ones who want to pull the ladder to the Sooper Seekrit Clubhouse up so the people with cooties can't get in.)

  7. P.S. Cat Rambo of Fantasy Magazine is trying to dub stuff that has fairies like Tinkerbell in it "Tink-lit". That's what I'm going to go with from now on.

  8. You know, I heard the wailing of thousands of souls, rending the fabric of the universe ... as though a Cultural Death Star had been fired ...

    Seriously, good thoughtful post. While a grand unified theory of steampunk has yet to be embraced by all comers, it's useful to note the many influences and origins - whether one approaches steampunk from a design/graphic esthetic, a literary genre, or a DIY movement.

    Besides which, if you're from the Lessig/free culture school, you can argue that Disney habitually takes objects/characters from popular culture, adds a gloss/sheen to them to make them more accessible to a mass audience and lets it loose -- but Disney's products do not and should not replace the original items. So, Disney cannot "take over" or consume steampunk, unless the steampunk community throws up its collective hands and fades away, muttering about sell-outs and clueless mundanes ...

  9. Thank you for the post!

    Additionally, our talented friend, Jake Von Slatt, observed the issue in a very concise and mature way.

  10. Thank you for the thoughtful post. It made me retract my description of the same article on Steampunk Canada (Facebook)...and I have posted a link to this as well so everyone can see why.

  11. That was a HELL of a well considered and thought out article! Big kudos to you!

  12. Thanks everyone! I appreciate the feedback and support. And I love how magzkam closed out his post!

  13. Art, where did Jake post about it? On Twitter?

  14. Words cannot describe how cool you are for doing this.

  15. I agree with this article completely. Also, I love the idea of steampunk spreading, let others join in on the fun! Finally, I am eagerly anticipating the pins because it will combine two of my greatest loves: steampunk and Disney

  16. I never really considered Disney as a "founding member" of steampunk but now that I look at all of it, it totally makes sense. Thanks for bringing that up. Fantastic post.

  17. Good list, but you missed a huge bit of Disney-steam, that which is found in the parks.

    There's Disneyland Paris's "Discoveryland", a Jules Vern inspired re-imagining of the standard Tomorrowland decked out in brass and gears. That version of Space Mountain is even based on "From the Earth to the Moon".

    Sadly, Walt Disney World recently closed "The Adventurer's Club", an adult themed interactive theater and drinking establishment.

    The best example has to be found at Tokyo Disneysea's Mysterious Island area, which cranks up the steampunk to eleven! You can tour the Nautilus and "Journey to the Center of the Earth".

  18. As i have stated repeatedly-THERE WAS NO REASON FOR DISNEY TO CHANGE THE STORY. In any of their adaptations. Disneys Visual creativity in unparalleled , but why do they have to alter perfectly good stories and make the books unreadable to every generation of children who saw the movie first and objected to the "changes in the books".
    Tim Burton could have made Alice in Wonderlans absolutely true to the book and it would have been *just* as creepy as the film he ended up making.
    I blame my parents. They made me read the book *first*. I never saw "Bambi". And I always cringe at the changes, in any of the films I managed to see before I decided my parents were right.
    I've missed out on some incredible animation in my life. But I've maintained my principles.

  19. CoffeeJedi, I'm in your debt! I knew of those attractions, but didn't feel qualified to post on them, as I've never looked into them at length, whereas the films I've listed here are first-hand experiences for me. Thanks for filling in the blanks! That's the best way the comment thread can be used!

  20. QatanaJo, thanks for the comment!

  21. Excellent post! And proof that I'm leeching off your brain... my own post this weekend will be to the effect that Disney has been doing Steampunk better and for longer than the Steampunk "scene". If anything, I'm more disjointed by Disney stooping to dressing the Fab Five in Steampunk when their actual, real Scientific Romances are much more interesting.

  22. I'm glad you're adding your voice to the discussion Cory, as I knew from your blog you'd have a lot to add, and a more authoritative voice on the Scientific Romances of Disney. I'm not disjointed at all! Goofy looks great!

  23. The problem is that Disney was Disney, when Walt ran it. Now it is a corporation, Disney is now a faceless and soulless entity, profiting off of it's state granted and completely unfair, "intellectual properties" and dominating a large segment of the media.

    A major part of steampunk, is the return to a less centralized world, it elevates independence, individuality, and invention. Disney, as it now exists, is fundamentally, and actively counter to that aesthetic.

  24. Your definition of steampunk aggrandizes the sub-culture in a way that can't be substantiated in the majority of its iterations Mantan. I've heard this independence, individuality, and invention business before. It's true that there are certain people who express steampunk in this way, but I don't think you can build an argument for steampunk being inherently so. Steampunk is a visual, not a moral or ethical aesthetic. And as I've already stated, Disney helped make that aesthetic. It doesn't matter if they turned out to be neo-Nazis, it wouldn't change the fact of their involvement. You can dislike that all you like, but you can't discard it.

  25. You are being a silly person. "Steampunk" is as subjective a notion as you can get. I mean, we are talking about a genre of fiction here. I can define it however I want to, and so have you. No definition can have any real meaning, the genre is re-defined every-time any individual creates a piece of artwork that they consider steam punk. You've admitted that some people do express steam punk as being about individuality, therefor you can't discount that aspect of the aesthetic. To suggest that steampunk is only about visual aesthetics is silly, considering that some people do view it in a moral sense (as you suggested). The majority does not make the whole, the whole makes the whole. You can't dismiss the (imagined) minority any more than I can dismiss the (supposed) majority.

    If Disney makes cool things, I will recognize it as cool, and adopt it. Unfortunately Disney is generally far too centralized and degrading towards its employees to create really cool, deep, artwork.

    So pitooey on you-ey

  26. Pitooey on you-ey, and I'm the one being silly? Defining a sub-culture's underlying aesthetic and ideology can hardly be said to be an entirely subjective undertaking. I'm an academic, and so maybe you'll view me as part of an intelligentsia, but the fact remains that I can look at the cultural products ascribed to steampunk and construct a cogent definition. It will never be final, or authoritative, since it is looking at a movement. There is fluidity, to be sure. But it's not so rapid a fluidity that one moment it's one thing and the next it's entirely another. My point is that what can be defined about steampunk is its look. The ideological or philosophical expression of steampunk cannot be defined unilaterally, because the culture products themselves do not have a consistent ideological slant. They are expressions of each artist's worldview, engaging the steampunk aesthetic. So some steampunk art expresses individualism, but as one artist astutely noted at the Nova Albion Steampunk Convention, most of the art currently being produced is highly derivative, to the point of being mere copies. Further, while individualism was posited as a possible philosophy for steampunk at one of the panels, there's a certain irony to a room filled with people all dressed more-or-less the same, belonging to a sub-culture, speaking so boldly about individualism. There is a conformism inherent in any movement predicated on a look, especially one as narrow as steampunk. You may object here, saying steampunk has endless possibilities for people to "do their own thing", but it doesn't. There are self-imposed limits on this sub-culture, the boundaries defined by the culture products that get the label 'steampunk' attached to them successfully. In moments like these, you've imposed a limitation on what you permit Steampunk to be, but I don't think it represents the attitudes of the steampunk sub-culture as a whole, so you're only giving your opinion. You don't like Disney, but that doesn't mean it can't be considered steampunk.

    Steampunk is an observable sub-culture. It's not a transcendent, ethereal concept. It can be defined, and it can be observed. So while it is somewhat subjective, it isn't a Rorshach ink blot. If it can be "anything", then ultimately it's nothing.

  27. And one more thing: when people say "we're talking about a genre of fiction", I always want to ask them to nail that genre down, because in my reading, there is no consistency to the supposed genre of steampunk, only a consistency to the look that gets applied to genres. Again, I don't think steampunk is a genre, but a visual aesthetic applied to genres, fashion, technology, and decor. Here I actually concede that the sky is the limit in what can be "steampunked" - and I don't think the limitation has anything to do with ideology.

  28. I love how people will invoke "Steampunk can mean anything to anybody" to defend their point of view when the same line can be used to criticize it. Disney isn't Steampunk? Who says? You? Sorry Mantan, Steampunk can be anything to anybody, including Disney.

    If it's all relative, then nobody has any grounds upon which to criticize Disney. This is, I gather, exactly what Mike was making reference to when he wrote in his post "and yet when the doors get opened wide, it appears that after all, steampunk apparently (and please hear the irony in my writing here), can't be everything." Steampunk can be anything, but apparently not Disney.

    Really, saying Steampunk can be anything to anybody is just a cop-out to get around someone disagreeing with your definition.

    BTW: I know people who do and have worked at Disney (not to mention familiarizing myself via book and documentary with the people now gone who made all those classics), and if you don't think they're making true art, then you really have no idea what you're talking about.

  29. See, this is my problem with your approach. You acknowledge the inherently unquantifiable nature of an intellectual construct like a "genre" but then you go on then state that no, wait, you can actually define what it is. It's logically inconsistent. You are confusing the map for the territory. Literally, drawing lines to attempt to define nations, when nations are only intangible ideas. It's a silly undertaking, it has no bearing on reality, and you seem to be aware that it is an amorphous and intangible thing, yet you still try to dominate it. That's what being a scholar does to you, I think.

    My original post had two motives. A: To give a reason why people would react negatively towards Disney's actions. B: To articulate my own preferential disgust for Disney as an organization. Curse my assertive writing style, I really need to adopt English Prime.

  30. No confusion on my part whatsoever. I'm not being inconsistent. I'm either writing poorly or you're not reading closely enough. I don't think steampunk is a genre. I do think it can be defined as an aesthetic. There's a difference. One is limited to books and films. The other is encompassing enough to include the whole of the sub-culture, as well as being applied to pop-culture icons like Disney.

    And I'm certainly not confusing map for territory. A definition isn't a straight-jacket to constrain creativity or new approaches, but a skeleton to allow people to be able to speak about the defined object in common terms. If steampunk was as amorphous as some of you claim, we wouldn't even be able to recognize the difference between steampunk Disney and regular Disney.

  31. How is an aesthetic any more tangible than a genre? They are both intellectual constructs.

    If you were from another planet, you literally could not tell the difference between steampunk and non-steampunk Disney. You would simply see a spectrum of individual works. The classification system is relative to your experience and preferences.

  32. Mantan,

    I think part of the problem here may be that Mike is working from an evidence-based approach. He is looking at the things that Steampunks make, the clothing Steampunks dress up in, and the stuff that Steampunks like which they commonly agree upon as being Steampunk, and then derives his definitions from that. The primary fact of self-identified Steampunks and their stuff comes first, and his theories come after.

    That is also what leads him to diverge from commonly accepted but factually unwarranted assumptions held by Steampunks about Steampunk. For example, his view that Steampunk is an aesthetic rather than a genre. He looked at a wide cross-section of agreed-upon Steampunk works, noted that there seems to be little if any common genre ground but a lot of the same aesthetic applied to stories that would otherwise be in different genres (e.g.: Westerns, Mystery, Pulp, Gothic Horror, Superhero, etc.). That also leads him to note how, apparently, Steampunk is not all about elevating "independence, individuality, and invention". Based on the evidence, Steampunks as a whole may not actually be as independent, individualist and inventive as they (or you) think they are.

    This differs from your approach, which is theory-based. You assert that "Steampunk means X" and when something that is Steampunk for all intents and purposes but doesn't fit with X, you say it's not really Steampunk. In this case, Disney. The Mechanical Kingdom is Steampunk. There is no sense in which it is not Steampunk. It was deliberately designed to be Steampunk. But it doesn't fit with your abstract definition that real Steampunk is made by real artists, not mere graphic designers who get paid by incorporated businesses.

    Where you really shoot yourself in the foot is that you assert how Disney cannot be Steampunk because of your theoretical definition, and when Mike disagrees with you, you pull out this "Steampunk can mean anything to anybody" poppycock. If Steampunk did mean anything to anybody, then you would have no objection to The Mechanical Kingdom. Disney Steampunk is just as Steampunk as your "independence, individuality, and invention", because it fits with Disney's definition of Steampunk, and Mike's definition of Steampunk, both of which are just as valid as yours.

  33. Cory Gross,

    I think you are right that Mr. Gotthammer is operating based on a body of evidence that he has accumulated.

    I think that you have misinterpreted my stance, which makes sense, because I didn't word my original statement clearly.

    Clearly, it is observable, that some people do view steam punk as including elements of individuality, independence, inventiveness, and a decentralized society. The juxtaposition of this, with the reality of Disney as a centralized institution in society, upsets these people, because it appears to be contradictory.

    I am not saying that steampunk is X, I am trying articulate why it is that some people would react as they have.

    As I have tried to show, steampunk is whatever any one individual decides that it is for themselves. Aesthetics and genre are intellectual constructs, they don't exist, so they cannot be quantified. What we call "steampunk" is really just a model, an accumulation of works which we individually decide to label. The model, is not the territory. The nations we note down on the map, are just notions.

    Personally, I don't have a problem with my internally inconsistent standards for what constitutes steampunk, and I also don't have a problem with anyone-elses subjective definition of steampunk, provided they recognize that it is an area of subjectivity and not try to claim a meaningful objective definition.

  34. Except that you categorically stated "A major part of steampunk, is the return to a less centralized world, it elevates independence, individuality, and invention." You didn't qualify it as being "for you", and if you truly meant what you say now, then your whole criticism of The Mechanical Kingdom is an absurdity. What your whole discourse on subjectivity boils down to is "I don't like The Mechanical Kingdom". That isn't a critique, that's a matter of taste.

    Another fault of your theorizing is that you miss the whole reality of inter-subjectivity. You speak of things being objective or subjective, and that if you can't strap "Steampunk" down and prod it then it's entirely up to individual definition. That isn't necessarily true. In order for a construct to make it beyond the madness of a single person, it has to be picked up by others. That group inter-subjectively defines the construct. Therefore Steampunk doesn't mean anything to anybody. Steampunk means what it means to Steampunks.

    That is Mike's work. Like your hypothetical alien observers, he is noticing that there is a pretty evident cultural complex (just like, I would hope, an alien race intelligent enough to travel across the stars to study us would also be observant enough to notice that the Japanese and the French have different cultural complexes). He then goes to the objective material - books, games, music, fashion, etc. - to find out what the inter-subjective values of that culture are. Amongst those findings are, oops, the Steampunks who think it's all about independence, individuality and invention are somewhat out of synch with the lived values of the rest of the group.

  35. I got into steampunk because of Disney (if indirectly) and am always amazed at how they're steampunk and beautiful in so many subtle ways in their aesthetic. I believe this is a good thing, because if a few kids are exposed to something that they think is awesome and they'll love forever like the rest of us, how can it be bad?

  36. " There is no way that someone else can ruin the thing that you are passionate about by liking it too!" And well, there it is. Fandom of all sorts always gets tweaked when their private party gets adopted by the world, mostly, I think, because they feel that "our thing" gets adopted but "we" are still outside like the little match girl. and then "those people" ruin it by commercializing it. As long as folks are still making all their own stuff (or buying it fro each other and not from K-Tel) the creative element remains alive. And nothing else really matters.

  37. Maggie, I get the impression you're disagreeing with my point, which is effectively that "your thing" was Disney's thing first.


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