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.
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.
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.
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