the digital annex
Deryn and Alek both dress in feminine clothing for a New Year’s masquerade ball: “Deryn was in the sort of evening dress that fashionable young women-about-town wore . . . Alek looked down at his own dress, so formal and old-fashioned with its fussy bows and bustle. He suddenly felt frumpy, whereas Deryn was positively stylish. Her short hair and slim figure, the core of her disguise as a midshipman, no longer looked masculine at all.”
Westerfeld, Scott. “Bonus Goliath Chapter and Art!” Scott Westerfeld, December 16, 2011. http://scottwesterfeld.com/blog/2011/12/bonus-goliath-chapter-and-art/
Deryn’s belongingness to the Leviathan’s human and animal ecosystem becomes literally true when she injures her knee while gliding on a mission and is given a “half plant and half animal” compress to heal her torn ligaments. Much like the uniform she wears, this “wee fabricated beastie” serves to link her to the ship’s interdependent community of animals and humans. (Goliath 379)
Westerfeld, Scott. Goliath. Leviathan Series. New York: Simon Pulse, 2011.
This uniform enables Deryn to take on a masculine identity once she changes her clothes—proving the cliché that clothes do make the “man” (or rather airman).
Westerfeld, Scott. Leviathan. Leviathan Series. New York: Simon Pulse, 2009.
by Lisa Hager
As a discipline, Victorian studies has a certain fondness for pointing out the myriad connections between the nineteenth century and our own time. We do so not only to make the vital case for the relevance of our work to current cultural concerns, but also to bring into relief how twenty- and twenty-first century cultures have understood themselves in relation to the Victorian. As literary genres overtly concerned with understanding and reimagining nineteenth-century literary culture, neo-Victorian fiction and, in particular, steampunk fiction are central nodes for this sort of cultural and critical work. First named by K. W. Jeter in 1987, steampunk, a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy in which alternate histories of the nineteenth century dramatically reshape the past, present, and future, has become increasingly popular in mainstream culture as both a literary genre and a fan subculture, to the point that one can now purchase mass-produced steampunk costumes from most American party shops. As an alternate history genre, steampunk literature builds its worlds by answering the “what if?” question of science fiction and fantasy; it does so by tweaking nineteenth-century history and literature and engaging with cultural discourses of the day.
Steampunk often revises and questions Victorian gender norms, even as it acknowledges the power of those norms. In steampunk fiction, this reconfiguration of nineteenth-century gender roles is deeply enmeshed in the genre’s focus on retrofuturistic technology from which it earns the “steam” part of its name. Moreover, steampunk fiction’s play with and “punking” of the connections between gender and technology can also reveal the work required to maintain the Victorian gender binary, as well as our own.
Bringing this subversive steampunk approach to gender to young-adult fiction, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy follows the exploits of Deryn Sharpe as she plays a key role in the war between Darwinist Western Europe, whose technology relies on genetic modification of living creatures, and Clanker Germany and Austria-Hungary, whose technology relies on gears and steam engines. Deryn becomes a boy named Dylan Sharpe in order to become a midshipman aboard the Leviathan, a genetically engineered whale zeppelin that is part of England’s Air Service. In the process, she aids and develops feelings for young Prince Aleksandar of Hohenberg, who is trying to stop the world war sparked by the death of his parents.
Throughout Leviathan (2009), Behemoth (2010), and Goliath (2011), Westerfeld uses the gender transgressions of both Deryn and Alek – and the technology that makes those transgressions possible – to rewrite prevailing narratives of gender and romance in young-adult fiction and to interpret Victorian ideologies of gender in terms of their instability. Westerfeld grounds Deryn’s gender performance in steampunk’s visual performance of the Victorian. One of the primary (and perhaps the most obvious) methods by which steampunk enacts and revises the Victorian is through its deployment of period aesthetics and its thematization of the relationship between aesthetics and technology. In highlighting the intensely gendered nature of nineteenth-century clothing (much like our hotel’s gym locker room entrance), Westerfeld demonstrates how that seemingly conservative code enables Deryn to take on a masculine identity once she changes her clothes—proving the cliché that clothes do make the “man” (or rather airman). Once aboard the Leviathan in her uniform, Deryn revels in her new clothes:
Her airman’s uniform was miles better than any girls’ clothes. The boots clomped gloriously as she stormed to signals practice or firefighting drills, and the jacket had a dozen pockets, including special compartments for her command whistle and rigging knife. And Deryn didn’t mind the constant practice in useful skills like knife throwing, swearing, and not showing pain when punched.
As this passage demonstrates, the airman’s uniform (figure 1) enables Deryn to be more fully herself. It allows her to perform the duties of her position and to inhabit the active role of a young man.
The shift between the dysphoria Deryn experiences while in women’s clothes and the gender-affirming pleasure she experiences while in men’s clothes marks her as a transgender character. Like many transgender and nonbinary people, Deryn uses clothing to communicate her gender to others via coded aesthetic signs—and to own her identity more securely. Like the specialized gender-affirming prosthetics used by some transgender people to confirm their internal sense of self, Deryn’s uniform is not a disguise worn to hide her real identity but rather steampunk fashion technology, with its tools specifically geared towards her work aboard the Leviathan, enables her to become who she truly is.
Reflecting steampunk’s push to occupy the boundaries between binaries, Deryn’s gender cannot be easily classified as feminine or masculine; instead, she occupies what we might call a genderqueer or gender-fluid space in which neither binary label can suffice. This transgressive gender identity makes visible the workings of gender itself in much the same way as a steampunk’s visible cogs, as J. Jack Halberstam argues in Female Masculinity: “female masculinity actually affords us a glimpse of how masculinity is constructed as masculinity.” In highlighting the breakdown of the man/woman binary, Deryn’s genderqueer identity insists that we re-evaluate our understanding of Victorian gender. We must question whether ideologies of gender can encompass the complexity of any sort of humanity, be it virtual or real, and must therefore question our continued adherence to this dysfunctional binary.
Furthermore, Deryn’s airman uniform makes her part of the ship and ties her to the steampunk technological marvel that is the Leviathan. A creation of England’s Darwinist boffins (that is, scientists), the Leviathan is a genetically-modified hydrogen-breathing whale in the British Air Service that flies and does battle using both engines and the various other modified species that make up its fully functioning ecosystem, what Deryn calls “a whole tangle of beasties,” including fléchette bats that drop metal spikes and bees whose nectar feeds the bacteria that produce hydrogen. Deryn’s self-assured comfort on this airship comes from the alignment of her interior sense of identity and the way in which her fellow crewmen see her. This alleviates the gender dysphoria she experienced when dressed as a girl. Indeed, Deryn’s belongingness to the Leviathan’s human and animal ecosystem becomes literally true when she injures her knee while gliding on a mission and is given a “half plant and half animal” compress to heal her torn ligaments (figure 2). Much like the uniform she wears, this “wee fabricated beastie” serves to link her to the ship’s interdependent community of animals and humans. This steampunk technology tinkers with the nature of life itself, reflecting the way in which Deryn’s transgressive identity questions the oppositional gender binary that structures so much of steampunk Victorian society.
Ending on a note of gender destabilization, Westerfeld has both Deryn and Alek dress as women as the result of a wager. The wager itself foreshadows this unsettling of gender binaries. As Alek notes, “One moment, he and Deryn had been having a perfectly reasonable discussion on the merits of the two sexes—strength, endurance, tolerance of pain—and then suddenly he had said something unforgivable and Deryn was challenging him to an arm-wrestling contest.” He clings to some of his old notions about the division of the sexes, only for Deryn’s physical strength to prove him unequivocally incorrect. As the loser, Alek must dress in women’s clothing for the ball and ends up with a rather old-fashioned dress, complete with bustle. When asked about who he is, Alek quickly decides that he is Ada Lovelace, “one of the great Clanker [British] boffins of the last century.” In claiming the identity of Lovelace, Alek highlights his own contradictory position as a former Clanker prince now working for the British organization that fabricates so many Darwinist creatures. He also ties in his own subversive political position to Victorian computing technology; Lovelace was the first person to fully understand the implications of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine and a mathematician whose work, in real life, was clearly limited by the slim opportunities for intellectual women of her day.
While playing the part of Ada Lovelace, Alek more fully understands the work of gender performance of which Deryn must be constantly aware. In this costume with its bustle, heels, and parasol, Alek considers how fully Deryn enacts masculinity: “For a moment, he wondered at all the adjustments, small and large, that Deryn must have made in order to carry off her deception. The way she walked, talked, and stood, along with every social nuance, all of it had to be considered every second of every day. It was incredible to have succeeded at something so difficult.” Alek not only appreciates the lengths to which Deryn has gone in order to honor her true identity, but also admires and even loves her for it: “Not that he minded seeing her in a jacket and trousers every day. It was part of the frisson of their romance.” Recalling Deryn’s electric response to Alek earlier in the book, Alek’s comments demonstrate that Deryn’s gender fluidity is no longer any sort of impediment to their relationship, but instead has become part of the attraction between them, the “frisson of their romance.” Having experienced just a small bit of what Deryn’s gendered life is like, Alek is made fully aware of how he now finds erotic pleasure in her nonbinary subversion, and he values her so highly so that he thinks her “entirely worth throwing away an empire for.” Deryn’s genderqueer identity is no longer coded as strange or aberrant behavior but simply part of who she is.
Further marking the mutual respect that characterizes their relationship, Alek, in contrasting his costume to Deryn’s, is able to see the seemingly contradictory parts of her identity as a coherent whole. Deryn uses the opportunity of the masquerade to dress as a modern woman (figure 3): “Deryn was in the sort of evening dress that fashionable young women-about-town wore . . . Alek looked down at his own dress, so formal and old-fashioned with its fussy bows and bustle. He suddenly felt frumpy, whereas Deryn was positively stylish. Her short hair and slim figure, the core of her disguise as a midshipman, no longer looked masculine at all.” In this play between pretense and reality (as Deryn’s attire both is and is not a costume), Deryn’s genderqueer identity is again tied to fashion—this time in the form of a ladies’ gown, complete with fabricated peacock feather indicating her Darwinist allegiances. In the illustration of this scene, though Deryn appears feminine, Alek himself looks almost as womanly. In addition, it is clear from the postures of the two characters that Deryn has pulled Alek in for a kiss, much to his surprise. Since both characters are in feminine dress, the drawing allows us to see two women kissing, but also to see two men kissing while dressed in women’s clothes. In this final scene, then, Westerfeld mobilizes the Victorian fancy dress ball to blur and play with gender and to suggest the fluidity within the supposedly firm boundaries between nineteenth-century masculinity and femininity.
For Deryn, the feminine skirts that she so disliked at the beginning of the novel no longer connote only women’s constrained domestic role; instead, like Deryn’s masculine dress, they are disguises to be deployed strategically. She even admits that “It’s not as bad as I remember, being stuffed into a dress.” This resolution of Deryn’s adventure plot figuratively brings together the corset and the cog, as Deryn can now use both at will. She can enjoy dressing as a young woman, knowing that she’ll be able to wear pants the next day to perform her duties for the Zoological Society. In this way, Westerfeld revises Deryn’s own initial reading of femininity to accommodate the ways in which women, like the biological engineer Dr. Barlow, command respect and demonstrate keen intellects. This prompts modern-day readers to incorporate unconventional gender expressions into their conceptualization of Victorian women.
Deryn Sharpe’s genderqueer identity and the steampunk fashion and technology she uses to inhabit that identity highlight the subversive elements of Victorian dogma. Highly gendered roles and clothing are the very tools with which Deryn subverts strict gender binaries. Thus the Leviathan series suggests a vision of Victorian gender politics that identifies transgressive elements enmeshed within the most conservative ideologies, challenging modern readers’ ideas of nineteenth-century repression and encouraging readers to question any clear-cut opposition between masculinity and femininity. In making such challenges, the series also argues for centrality of steampunk to Victorian studies in its ability to make visible the work of scholars and steampunks alike in constructing the period.
 K.W. Jeter, “Letter,” Locus 20, no. 4 (1987): 57.
 Ibid., 103.
 J. Jack Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 1.
 Westerfeld, Leviathan, 327.
 Scott Westerfeld, Goliath, Leviathan Series (New York: Simon Pulse, 2011), 379.
 Ibid, 379.