Shark Tales

How a Stuffed IKEA Shark Became a Trans Icon

· Updated on September 11, 2022

It’s blue and big, and according to its official description, it can hear your heartbeat from far away. It’s Blahaj, the stuffed shark IKEA sells and once nearly discontinued, and in recent years it’s become an unlikely LGBTQ icon. 

Really, it has. Its popularity online extends throughout social media, on Tumblr, Twitter and elsewhere. It even has its own subreddit, where over 26,000 people have subscribed for updates on the plush shark. And throughout these, it’s hard not to miss pride flags, trans-related memes and just the general sense of irreverent joy that Blahaj radiates.

If it seems like a stretch to call a stuffed shark a trans icon, well, maybe it is. But there’s a long history of ascribing a trans-specific fandom to popular characters. Birdo, the egg-shooting dinosaur from Mario Brothers, is commonly coded as a trans character. The Matrix series of movies was long assumed as a trans narrative before the Wachowski sisters went on the record. Heck, some corners of the internet have claimed Kurt Cobain was trans. So why not a stuffed shark?

It’s not as if Blahaj doesn’t stand for LGBTQ+ rights. Last September, when the Swiss government put same-sex marriage to the vote, IKEA ran a series of ads in support of the measure. One of them showed Blahaj sleeping in bed with a stuffed polar bear. (IKEA did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

So, what is Blahaj? As the name translates to, it’s a blue shark. It’s about 39 inches long and it’s got a big grin on its face. As writer and Blahaj owner Carrie McNamera puts it, “Blahaj is the biggest, most huggable, most posable and ultimately most memorable” of all the stuffed animals you can find at IKEA. 

On social media, Blahaj has an almost inexplicable popularity with the trans crowd. There are dozens of pictures of posed Blahaj in front of trans flags, for example. A meme started by Twitter user @evilagram suggests celebrating pride with Blahaj, as well as re-enacting Stonewall.

So, how did Blahaj become so popular in the trans community? As is the answer for a lot of inexplicable memes, it’s because of Tumblr, where memes and pictures of people posing with the stuffed shark took off a few years back. First, it was a meme in Russian spaces, with people posting shots of the shark cooking, or people lined up with them on an escalator. Soon, someone posted a picture of one with a trans flag in the background, a shot that remains one of the first results for Blahaj on Google. From there, it took off. 

Before long, the memes migrated to spaces like Reddit, particularly to the r/blahaj subreddit. There, users post pictures, memes and fan art. A common trope among them is that Blahaj is an ally, or even queer itself. I asked the subreddit why they thought the stuffed shark was adopted by the trans community and got a variety of answers, but they were mostly along the same lines. 

Essentially, Blahaj is popular because it’s large and comfy, and because it’s relatively cheap when compared to other stuffed animals of similar quality. Other people mentioned how it’s the trans flag colours: blue, white and pink. 

Some people were more philosophical: “Blahaj,” wrote one commenter, “judges no one. They are there to uplift no matter how you feel about yourself at the moment.” Said another: “It’s not marketed with a gendered backstory… Blahaj’s fins are open for everyone.” 

But the most interesting insight in the thread suggests it’s a way for transfemme people to be themselves, as a way to express femininity. As one person suggested to me in a DM: “I tend to imbue my stuffed animals with personality, so spending time with them is a way for me to bond with them…. Having one gives me a way to express both care and creativity.”

When put this way, it makes a lot of sense. Most transfemme people spent a portion of their lives trying to express a forced sense of masculinity. For me, that meant leaning into being tough and watching sports, while for others that meant adopting a more butch or hard-edged persona. But when I came out, I looked in myself for ways to adopt a more gentle, feminine way of expressing myself, and one of the ways I do is through a collection of stuffed animals. And my Blahaj is the biggest of the bunch. And indeed, if someone’s having a tough time, it’s easy to imbue a stuffed shark with not just a personality, but also a headcanon that it’s supportive.

I have a friend who’s going through a tough time right now. She’s isolating because of COVID, couldn’t see family over the holidays, and generally seems like she could use a hug. I couldn’t get down and see her, but I thought she could use a friend. I bought her a Blahaj.♦

Roz (She/her) is a freelance writer and media critic. Her work has previously appeared at The Temz Review, Aquarium Drunkard, Live in Limbo, Exclaim Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in the Greater Toronto Area. You can find her on Twitter at @milnerwords.

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