Apathy Is Not The Answer: The Anime Fan Community Needs To Defend Its Most Vulnerable Members

I don’t normally write things like this. I so don’t normally write things like this that I’m at something of a loss as to how to start this post. The specific catalyst for this post is a notice from Anilist moderators Mex and Electrochemist that they’re stepping down as staff members, but the issues here are reflective of a wider cultural problem in the English-speaking anime fan community, and one that it cannot afford to ignore in a world that is increasingly being forced to reckon with status quos that some of us (including myself) have long been privileged enough to take for granted.

This has been a recurring theme in English otakudom over the past several years. Recently, prominent fan space /r/Animemes finally banned use of the term “trap” to describe feminine AMAB characters. This specific issue has long been a point of contention in anime fan spaces, and it’s useful to discuss here as it both relates to my own specific experiences (I am a transwoman) and is a microcosm of the aforementioned broader problems. /r/Animemes did not take the “sudden” rules change kindly, and one can find a majority of its community mocking the staff even several days later.

Astolfo from Fate/Grand Order. A character who the term in question is often applied to. (It is worth noting that Astolfo’s gender identity is never explicitly disclosed by the text and is listed as “a secret” on their character card).

The arguments for the use of the term “trap” (and I do apologize to my fellow LGBTQ+ persons but I will be using the term in this post for demonstrative purposes) tend to come in one of several flavors. Given my preference for assuming good faith, I tend to believe that most people who defend the term genuinely believe these arguments. (There is certainly a contingent of those who do not but continue to use them in bad faith, but active malice is beyond the scope of this post.)

The first prominent argument is that “trap” is a “term of endearment”. Setting aside the curious logic that one’s intent in saying something absolves them of all blame regardless of what that something is, this is not true, and is a recent post-hoc justification for the term. The origins of “trap” to mean “a character treated as male by the text but who looks feminine or androgynous” are in fact rather murky.

The issue is that regardless of where it may come from, it has, in fact, been applied to actual AMAB people who present femininely (mostly transwomen, though hardly just us), evidence of which is unfortunately scattered to Twitch chats and the like. There is also a larger history of “trap” being used specifically against transwomen as a slur that dates back to at least the ’70s.

I don’t blame straight or cis persons for not knowing this (many queer people do not!), and I am not a linguist and am thus unqualified to say whether the two terms are etymologically related, but the conflation is certainly present. Thus, when transwomen see the term “trap” being applied to characters who share some of their characteristics, it can be hurtful. That is, ultimately, all anyone wants out of the issue, the acknowledgement that it can be hurtful and, ideally, willful abandonment of the term.

(As a side note and to deflect the obvious. I am aware of the minority of queer persons who call themselves “traps” and are attempting to reclaim the term. A distinction must be drawn here: that is the right of a queer person, not anyone else. Wiktionary in fact defines all of these senses of the term right in a row.)

The second is the frankly rather ridiculous claim that asking people to refrain from hurtful language constitutes a loss of “freedom of speech”. Freedom of speech arguments are tricky in general, because despite what one might assume, there is not actually a consensus on what the term means. (There is a lengthy section on Wikipedia’s page on the subject about how it is interpreted from place to place. It is a genuinely fascinating and difficult area of law, and I encourage the interested to look into it.)

Regardless, it is not commonly held to apply in opt-in/opt-out internet communities. Were Anilist, /r/Animemes, and so on, public forums of import, one might have an argument, but they are not. No one is advocating for a ban of discussing characters who this term may be taken to apply to, they are just being asked to use a less offensive label, something quite reasonable and simple to do.

But this, of course, is all quite specific. The broader issue is a lack of consideration. I do not wish to levy accusations here beyond the bare minimum, but I have spoken to many people, some close friends, who have been driven away from anime as an artform and from anime communities as a space because of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and so on. This is not to say that “everyone needs to like anime”, because that is certainly not true. But if you don’t think that the simple fact of people being shitty to others causes this kind of harm is at the very least, regrettable, then you’re not an anime fan, you’re a bigot. Anime fan behavior can put people off of an artform they might have otherwise loved, and if you are a reasonable person you must recognize that that sucks. For the many differences we may have, what unites anime fans is our passion for the art that we love. Depriving someone else of that passion is despicable.

It’s hardly definitive but I feel this flash poll, in which over half of my followers (who are mostly queer, anime fans, or both) responded in the positive, is indicative of general sentiment.

And this brings us back to that opening paragraph. I liked Anilist (and still like Anilist!) in part because it seemed like a place where the staff actually kind of, you know, cared. To see two of the staff members most active in fighting harmful rhetoric step down is heartbreaking, and feels telling. I have no insider information about Anilist’s inner workings, but Mex’s comments do not inspire great faith in me that the site will be a haven for marginalized otaku going forward. The worst part, of course, is that is exactly what the tiny minority of those who are actively hateful instead of simply apathetic–the ones who this post is not aimed at, because there is no convincing them–want.

I would here call on the members of Anilist’s administration to really consider if they want Anilist to simply be “another anime listing site” or if they want to expend the (admittedly not trivial!) effort to make it a genuinely better community.

But of course, this is not specifically about Anilist. This problem permeates the entire English-speaking anime fan community, an unwelcome and ugly relic of the era where the biggest places to discuss anime online in English were 4chan and related communities. A problem whose biggest offenders actively want to continue this status quo.

I have seen some sign that things are changing, with the rise of several prominent queer video essayists who work in anime spaces (including Digi-nee, who came out only after achieving prominence and managed to keep most of her viewers) being a good sign that there is still an audience for this stuff that hasn’t been driven off by the worst of the worst, but these spaces must be actively protected. Apathy is not enough, and standing idly by accomplishes nothing. I am not excluding myself from this call to action, it is easy to pretend that all marginalized groups are fundamentally the same (something, upon editing this article, I myself am trying my damnedest not to do) but the fact of the matter is that everyone needs different accommodations and the ugly undercurrent present in anime fan spaces affects us all differently even as the root cause remains more or less the same.

If I can end this with a plea, it’s this. Consider your words, consider who they may affect. If someone asks you to change your ways, listen instead of arguing. We need to do better, because pretending there is nothing wrong will not solve anything.

Generally I end my articles with a pre-cut footer template. Here, instead, I will simply ask that if you found this article any sort of helpful, consider following me on Twitter.

4 thoughts on “Apathy Is Not The Answer: The Anime Fan Community Needs To Defend Its Most Vulnerable Members

  1. As a quick clarification, I don’t believe in censorship imposed from the top, but instead that people must make a conscious decision to abstain from using an undesireable word. In some cases this may neccesitate splintering a community to form a space that more closely follows the environment one wishes to be in. Although this process has issues, namely with forming echochambers, I also believe it can create more healthy and robust pockets of communities rather than one centralized structure.

    I say this as someone who arrived at this blog from Tildes, which is exactly a splinter from Reddit with the explicit intention of cultivating a more desireable environment. And while yes, it is moderated to maintain such an atmosphere, it was specifically created with these goals in mind and not grown into by a community with preconfigured expectations for what sort of language or content is appropriate.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As an anime consumer, but not a member of any specific discussion group or site, I am removed from these sorts of affairs, and in fact make it a personal policy to remain detatched from such events. Thus the headline of this article was especially poignant to me. I would like to formulate a response here, and I will define my bias as that I am either a member of the LGBTQ community or an ally, but highly asocial and isolated from my peers and as such I am generally uninformed of the thoughts of the community at large and leave it at that. I also am not elequent enough to be as succinct as I would prefer, so please forgive my lack of coherence.

    I would have described my position as such: not specifically aware firsthand of any examples of deliberate malice, and relegate claims of such to the “cancerous” environments of 4chan and possibly twitch chats. These sorts of cultures will always exist, fueled by the continual introduction of unexposed, uninformed, and otherwise ignorant. In time I hope that most will outgrow this as human beings tend to develop throughout their lifespans, but one often makes mistakes before learning, and these coupled with any actual malice can easily fuel such environments. Maybe this demonstrates my obliviousness to the situation. Still, I think you may have missed something in your article.

    Through my hazy understanding that a more serious discussion regarding the usage of the word ‘trap’ in the community, I was under the impression that some of the arguements boiled down to the definition of the word in use. You did an awesome job and call upon wiktionary to make your case, but you are too specific with your “first prominent arguement”. A claim like this should be backed up with a sampling of arguements from the discussion boards you want to cover, in this case Anilist, because this didn’t match my definition at all- even if my personal usage of the word is incorrect, a significant portion of backlash against the removal of the term might stem from others in a similar situation.

    If I take the word ‘trap’ to refer to a character who identifies as their biological gender, but which has been intentionally obfuscated by the producers of the anime for the express purpose of baiting fans into some sort of silly “gotcha”, then regardless of whether or not this is the correct usage, it is how I percieve and intend to use it. Real quick, I’d like to enumerate some potential issues with this:

    Was my usage harmful to members of the LGTBQ community?
    A: It wasn’t intended to be, and I simply don’t know if in practice it was because this was never addressed by anyone in a conversation with me. In the first place, I don’t view this as an inherently negative thing, but instead more as a trope, of which each implementation I can have different thoughts on. More specifically, I understood that usage of the word in some cases was applied by members of the anime community to members of the trans community, be it positively, apathetically, or negatively, but this was never my intended usage, because I did not feel that traps in general were a portrayal of trans characters in anime. That is not an objective statement, but my subjective opinion, and it brings us neatly to issue 2.
    Are traps in anime representative of trans characters, and are they a positive representation?
    A: I don’t believe that they are representative of trans characters, and if they were I am not sure I would consider them to be a positive representation, because of the nature of my definition of the word as a ploy by the production staff. I consider traps to be shallow caricatures and questionable attempts at humor and not desireable elements of representation and inclusion in anime. Others might disagree with me on this, and it is a rather significant cornerstone of my thoughts on the matter, but it is probably a different discussion. Thus we find issue 3.
    If people identify or are identified as traps either internally or externally, is my definition and usage of the word harmful?
    A: I would consider it harmful, because I never intended to conflate the two, and in doing so takes my usage of the word out of context. If some members of the trans community identify as traps or feel that my usage is intended to apply to them and has slighted them, I would feel worse for that, but I wouldn’t place the blame on myself. At the end of the day, anyone can be offended by anything, and I can’t just alter my thought process for the convienience of others.

    Your article makes a convincing arguement otherwise, however. This truly is apathy on my part, and a reluctance to change my vocabulary that may be causing distress to the community is a net loss to the community’s wellbeing, as distasteful as I find self-censorship to be. But please keep in mind, if the word “trap” is intentionally or otherwise causing distress, will removing the word do much of anything? Ultimately I don’t believe that anime itself is an overall healthy and inclusive medium.

    The other point your article makes is one that I whole-heartedly agree with, that regardless of any disputes the Anilist staff members resigning is a sad loss for the community, and should never have happened. I hope that the site’s community manages to bring them back, if they would still like to be on the staff after this.

    [Please note, someone like Astolfo does not clearly fall under my own definiton, despite being a common representation of traps in the anime industry, because their biological gender is unclear, as is the exact nature of how they identify, and are more likely a candidate for a character who does not identify with a binary gender, imo. Whether this is due to shortcomings and innacuracies in my definiton of the word, or a representation of a way in which traps themselves have shifted and grown beyond how my definition originally was applicable in anime is up for debate, but not imo relevant to the topic at hand.]

    Thanks for posting the article, and thanks for reading this far. I’ll try to check back in at some point to see if anyone responds to this, but this took too long and I probably won’t post any more comments.


  3. I think that there is a lot that I just don’t understand going on. I don’t really talk to anyone on there besides pile people I know and just use it to list anime I watch and nothing more.

    I guess it’s time to keep an eye out and take a chance.

    Liked by 1 person

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