If you’re not in the anime fandom, a ‘trap’ is something you might comically remember from Tom and Jerry episodes. A metal contraption that promises mice the idea of a reward like cheese, but only behind biting, murderous teeth. Suddenly it’s not so funny, because I’m now thinking of real rat traps, decapitating the poor little critters under false pretence. Some traps are humane, sure, but the fact remains: you promised them something and fooled them before ultimately punishing them. And it’s not just mice that can be trapped.
Words have connotations, and that’s why words like ‘trap’ are problematic when used as terms for anime character archetypes – specifically whereby a character looks female but surprise! They’re actually male.
…to some degree. There’s not a lot of anime that use explicit language to convincingly declare characters as male/female or whether they would rather be female/male or if they are crossdressing. It’s too often a shallow punchline that rarely goes developed. I could point to examples like Astolfo: Astolfo has the ‘joke’ of characters not knowing their gender identity and having a silly reveal, but is also one of the more prominent characters of their anime, Fate/Apocrypha, and the archetype isn’t hung around their neck for anything other than scant comic relief scenes that lead nowhere. We don’t know if Astolfo identifies as transgender, non-binary or as male but crossdresses full-time. There’s endless discourse on the subject, but the fact is that there isn’t a concrete answer, locked behind a lack of fulfilling evidence – and Astolfo is only one character in a large pile of similar ‘I’m not a girl’ characters, with other extremely popular anime such as Re:Zero, Steins;Gate and Oregairu also fielding these sorts.
I’ve researched it briefly, and I’ve been lead to believe that the term ‘trap’ originates from anime fansubbers trying to translate the pun of ‘otokonoko‘ and chose to use the then-popular meme from Star Wars where Admiral Ackbar claims ‘it’s a trap!’ Fast-forward a few years and the anime community is split, with some members considering literally or virtually every non-traditionally-gender-conforming/dressing character a ‘trap’. Many others realise the word is a bit jokey and only use it for characters with these ‘funny gags’ following them around at every revelation, but choose not to use this term for more serious characterisations of non-traditional-gender-conformity such as Hourou Musuko’s protagonists. I have no idea what the numbers are, but in many anime communities, it is the norm to use the term ‘trap’.
Now let’s rewind to my earlier statement. Taking the connotations of the word, one might assume that these characters are dressing and acting the way they are purely to fool men into having sex with them. The anime community has only just grown out of the endless ‘are traps gay?’ discussions, which were misguided attempts often based around whether ‘traps’ were just trying to sleep with men and also if it is gay to sleep with them.
This is a problem because it rings awfully similarly to ‘trans-panic‘. For those that didn’t follow the link, this is basically where revelations of sexuality or gender are legally allowed to be followed by violent self-defence. There are places where transgender people are actually being killed because they are seen in the eyes of perpetrators as ‘traps’ – trying to fool them, undermine them, humiliate them, ensnare them. This makes them angry, and people are killed. Defence-cases can be built-up around the perpetrators, allowing them get-out-of-jail-free-cards with laws allowing this to happen, but I look at the depressingly long list of transgender people killed each week and know that so many instances are simply unreported because of cultural bias against these people – solely for being who they are – and realise that in many cases, ‘trans-panic’ doesn’t even get to the courtroom discussion because it’s normalised in the streets.
Because of normalised language surrounding non-traditional-gender-conformity in the anime community including connotations to ‘traps’, we’re asking that we change our language to try and change the social pressures surrounding the perception of non-traditional-gender-conforming people so that they aren’t murdered or abused for their identities. Normalising terms like ‘trap’ feeds a cultural bias – unintentionally or not.
Of course, it’s not just for protection from murder. Many crossdressing people that identify as their birth sex aren’t into it for romancing the same-sex, and, obviously, transgender and non-binary people are just trying to live their lives as their identified gender. It’s pretty insulting to suggest that people like that are merely trying to ‘trap’ people of the same-sex, no?
I consider ‘trap’ a slur in the same way I consider ‘autistic’ a slur. Calling somebody you’re pissed off with ‘autistic’ to insult them has consequences; you’re ascribing people with autism the same negative connotations of the reason that you wanted to insult with. It’s the same with the term ‘trap’ – you’re tarring unrelated people with connotations, maybe without realising… or maybe you are realising and doing it anyway because you’re a douchebag that discriminates against groups of people for the way they are. Anyway, if you think the word is being used innocently, purely relegated to fictional characters, there are people in similar boats that do not want to be called ‘traps’ for those connotations and real-life, violent consequences.
Hell, the whole ‘joke’ concept around these people is kinda mean, too – maybe the trope could be called ‘a trap’ and not be too harmful, but outright knowing the characters as ‘a trap’ for their identity or style? That’s way too broad a brush-stroke, don’t you think?
It’s inconvenient to be asked this, I’m sure. Rejigging around this change… the community needs to readjust its language and its perception of character archetypes, seeing the people behind the stereotype, and I’m sure that can’t be easy.
Even if you can’t know these characters by their names and do away with trope-naming and archetype-pointing, there are other terms that you can use. I’ve seen some people suggesting ‘femboy’ as an alternative, with some Japanese-language speakers considering ‘femboy’ a closer translation of the ‘otokonoko‘ pun, too. Will ‘femboy’ or whatever term comes next be considered a slur? Probably. But it’s not too much of a grievance to be considerate, is it? I don’t see why there’s such a huge defence of the term ‘trap’. Early attempts at reclamation… apathy… fear of losing a joke… I don’t really know, but they’re weak excuses and I don’t see why I should tolerate them when they all sound like personal convenience is being selected over other people’s – not individuals, no, but a whole group of people with similarities – over other people’s livelihoods and well-being.