Last week, Youtuber and PC gaming personality TotalBiscuit sparked controversy when he took to Twitter to call for the removal of an attendant of CoxCon, a privately-run convention for fans of Jesse Cox. The man’s offense? During a panel fielding questions from the floor, he asked “are traps gay?”.
Opinions are split on how ‘insensitive’ it was to throw this internet meme into a public space where many identifying as trans would be in attendance. Two extremes were erected; either the question was harmless, and trans people just need to learn about the context of ‘traps’ online, or it was incredibly offensive, and those who disagree just need to learn about the contexts of trans history that render it that way. I can find sympathy with both positions. While the idea of a ‘trap’ in anime fandoms is indeed not supposed to refer to trans people, those who defend the meme have a habit of refusing any discussion of trans issues that explain why ‘offense’ was taken: how the same mindset leveled towards traps has been used to decriminalize violence against trans citizens through ‘trans panic’ logic. Many critics from the trans community can forget the distinct mindset that people bring to a space of dissociative play, but the primacy of that space can reinforce the notion that the marginalized are just a matter of ‘play’ themselves; ‘traps’ are far more commonly represented than actual trans narratives, and the latter are often consumed in ‘genre’ into the former. For many insensitive fans, potentially ‘-phobic’ jokes are no issue because they display no desire to take the marginalized seriously in the first place. Hate crimes against transgender victims should be a wake-up call these people. But to many, hate crimes aren’t enough evidence that the opposite – compassion – needs to be encouraged towards the community.
Controversy aside, there has been little critical discussion of ‘traps’ in modern media, especially around the anime fandom. For anyone getting into anime, it doesn’t take long to stumble upon just how creative Japanese storytellers can be with gender. In the world of hentai, futanari are bodies of female pleasure which are given male sex organs, blending a pornographic object ‘to see’ with a phallic symbol ‘to be’ in the same figure. In the wider world of anime, a similar mixture of gender codes is presented by in the ‘trap’ character, and two questions are always revolving around their iconography; what is the sexuality of a ‘trap’ character, and what does ‘liking’ them do to your own?
The answers to these ‘eternal debates’ – ‘are traps gay’, and ‘does liking traps make me gay’ – lie in the questions themselves.
The identity of ‘traps’ is signified by differences in both dress and behaviour that we would commonly associate with having certain sexual organs. When we consider ‘behaviour’, it is worth tracing the discussion of alternative of expressions ‘male’ identity into the case of ‘Camp’. “The way of Camp,” Susan Sontag notes, “is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization” (Sontag, 1964: 54). She repeats that “all Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy” (Sontag, 1964: 55). Sontag’s emphasis on artifice is productive when we consider the virtual-ness of traps themselves, and the exclusivity of many discussions of ‘traps’ to fictional, ultra-artificial characters from Japanese media.
As far as we can tell, ‘trap’ first gained popularity as a term through Bailey Jay’s history with 4chan (1). While the stigmatization of trans citizens for ‘trapping’ people for gay sex goes back further than these online interactions, it is worth contrasting that oppression with how self-identifying ‘trap’ Bailey Jay, and the 4chan community, chose to apply the term in order to express a different logic. Discussion around them was centered on confusion as to what their gender was, and they kept everyone guessing. Soon ‘it’s a trap’ memes, spoofing Star Wars, spilled out into further association of ‘trap’ with someone who would bamboozle you when you discovered their actual gender. But this was not used to push Bailey away from the community, as a danger to heteronormative men. Sure, they had the privilege of choosing a career of self-objectification in pornography; but that gave them a space to shape the idea of ‘trap’ not into an accusation of malintent. No – the real ‘trap’ Bailey posed to the 4chan community was how they would trap themselves. The ‘trap’ a viewer may find themselves in after coming to desire a character who they thought was a different gender is not the idea of a physical ‘trap’ of unwanted sex; it’s an admission of the awkward position their own sexuality is placed into. In definition, a ‘trap’ is a question rather than an answer.
Manga centered on ‘trap’ entertainment and fetishization carries this same message. In Reversible!, Shuu Kaido is forced to attend an all-boys school where half of the students must dress as girls (alternating with the other half) in order to understand what it’s like to be a girl – the kind of feminizing ‘becoming’ of the shoujo we see in the moe affect. The first few chapters are characterized by the exact same reaction to cross-dressing 4channers were struck with while Bailey Jay gave hints of one gender or another. Shuu is quickly overwhelmed with desire towards one of the ‘traps’, and his whole relationship is established on the foundation of that confusion. Both Bailey Jay and ‘traps’ in manga and anime occupy a fetishistic and explicitly virtual space. Bailey built their identity through message boards and their attendance at conventions that construct a similarly ‘virtual’ area for self-expression. Likewise, identifying a ‘trap’ is never a narrative device; like ‘waifu’, it’s a memetic reading of a character’s position in a wider database fantasyscape, that responds more to the reader’s confusion than it does to any strict visual or narratorial signifier.
It’s vital to keep in mind that gazing on virtual objects, as ‘play’, involves a very different mindset to considering a present transphobic ‘danger’ for someone in reality you perceive as a ‘trap’. What is the ‘danger’ of a ‘trap’ to the viewer of pornography, where the character is acknowledged as scripted and artificial? It is the idea of having your stable identity challenged; it is heterosexual men finding out they were lusting after another man, and having to reconfigure their ideas of what a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is to accommodate. The questions of ‘are traps gay’ and ‘does liking traps make me gay’ revolve around the same confrontation of perspective, and they survive as ‘memes’ because the answer to them lies in the very fact they’re asked.
With hetero men, the hostility towards being perceived as ‘gay’ could be considered homophobic, at least in an underlying sense. As Judith Butler observes, “Sometimes gender ambiguity can operate precisely to contain or deflect non-normative sexual practice and thereby work to keep normative sexuality intact”. Attempts to ‘deflect’ non-normative sexual practice (‘it’s not gay’) when it comes to traps work as evidence that readers want to consume something non-normative by redefining it as normative. But that instability of these attempts, through the absolute lack of consensus on the sexuality of liking traps, reveals how fans acknowledging that they are leaving the ‘normal’ to some extent. What they are mostly afraid of – and not as a phobia, because it’s quite rational – is the tearing down of what they believed they were. They are placed in a state of confusion as to how to code relationships with ‘traps’ in correlation to their self-image, and that confusion becomes the relationship itself.
This is what I think Alexis Sergio misreads, in an article condemning the ‘trap’ genre, when it comes to this media, as she feels that trap characters are the ‘butt’ of their respective jokes. While ‘traps’ are always used for a kind of comedy, this is the carnivalesque, the Bakhtinian matsuri that Susan Napier posits as one of the key ‘modes’ of anime (Napier, 2005: 13), where power dynamics are confused and undone. What’s being undone is not the ‘trap’ themselves; they are, in line with Judith Bulter’s perspective on the art of drag, contributing to the undoing of something else through their crossdressing: the ‘trap’ image “mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity” (Bulter, 1990: 174). ‘Traps’ are a kind of camp theatrical ‘fools’ that make jokes out of the normal folk around them, the bizarre surety that makes the common man unsure. You thought your sexuality was stable? Hah!
In the case of Saika Totsuka in OreGairu, their ‘trap’-ness is often highlighted by the kind of sparkly plane we typically get behind any expressions of over-the-top femininity, and fanservice. But the real ‘butt’ of the ‘jokes’ involving Saika is Hachiman, our ‘normal’ hero who offers us windows into his confused mind. Hachiman is confronted by one idea of gender-coded action but then reminded of another; the scenes wouldn’t be comedic without his reactions. Saika’s ‘trap’ identity is the subject upon which the ‘joke’ of Hachiman’s confusion is played. Saika, in comparison, is as moe as you can get. Towards Saika we may feel the affect of wanting to both safeguard their kind of expression and ‘become’ it at the same time. Towards Hachiman we laugh – he can’t deal with someone who has subverted his expectations of gender codes. But we may also identify with the confusion he is going through. He has been ‘trapped’, like the 4channers responding to Bailey Jay, and that’s his problem, not Saika’s.
What’s fascinating about the popularity of ‘trap’ media, therefore, is how it propagates narratives that create fantasy play around destabilized gender performativity, whether that involves becoming a ‘trap’ yourself, or drawing a ‘trap’ character that people acknowledge as existing in a virtual realm. These are not ‘progressive’ narratives trying to make a change in society, but they are evidence of cultural response to a less stable contemporary perspective on normative gender identity and performance.
The problem rests in when people forget the ‘fantasy’ aspect of their ‘play’. The idea of having strict practices for distinguishing such an environment is something otaku of all identities are very familiar with. As this blog has discussed when looking at Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, both male and female otaku in maid cafes participate in a practice many call ‘junsui na fantaji’ (pure fantasy). Failing to keep to the rules of this code is met with quick and severe ostracization; in an ethnographic study, Galbraith tells the story of Neko, who was shunned from his maid café community after approaching one of the maids for her number.
If an otaku can’t keep reality and virtual maid worlds separate, it’s not a stretch to consider them as someone who’d cause discomfort and harm in society. A large part of Japan’s maintenance of ‘taboo’-fetishizing otaku communities rests on such notions of ‘pure fantasy’ enduring: the way fans of moe only respond to ‘character’ and distinguish that from anything ‘real’, or the fact that the lolicon obsession has shown no correlation to actual pedophilia. If a fan of reading ‘trap’ media uses ‘trap’ to refer to trans people who don’t identify with the term, that’s them failing as a reader, and we should strongly criticize them for that. Everything can become porn in the hyperflat realm, and everything can be fetishized, especially if it’s popular, but consumers of such material have to know their boundaries. As with the case of Neko, we shouldn’t be lenient on those who forget them.
The West may currently be an example of this sort of system failing; many fans of trap media don’t know or care about real trans people and ‘trans panic’ issues at all. This adds to the impression that discipline with boundaries won’t help at all; how can we expect ‘trap’ fans to set up their boundaries if they don’t display any understanding of the reality of trans issues? But if other dissociative fandoms can do it, ‘trap’ fans can too. We might wonder at how there are no killings of trans women being ‘trapped’ by cishetero men in Japan; the nodal point of ‘trap’ characters is able to foster a community’s fetishization of cross-dressing without letting harm spill into social reality.
Right now, grievances towards the ‘trap‘ community are justified not because their media is ‘problematic’, but rather because fans don’t display enough of an interest in the real issues that rest behind their jokey, memetic fetishization of cross-dressing. ‘Trap’ media is valuable insofar as it reveals a lot about the potential insecurities of its consumers, but with many of those fans even more insecure when it comes to considering that their fetish needs to know its limits, it’s no surprise that they’re causing a lot of discomfort for the trans community. Trans critics should still criticize their media, to reemphasize how it doesn’t actually represent them, but I really think their focus could be better directed at calling out idiots who can’t keep dissociative fetishes where they belong.
Fans of ‘trap’ media are trapped by the questioning of their own sexuality; they let characters have power over them and their heteronormative principles. There’s a lot of room here for trans voices to come in and exploit the chaos. But we need to know where the line is drawn: where ‘traps’ end, and real trans narratives begin.
- Butler, Judith. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge, 1990.
- Napier, Susan J, Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle (New York: Palgrave, 2005)
- Sontag, Susan. “Notes on camp.” Camp: Queer aesthetics and the performing subject: A reader (1964): 53-65.
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