We, Monsters

05 Apr 2014 | Guest Poster

Guest post by Thesis White. Thesis is a writer-artist, cognitive science student, and peachy dalmatian who loves creating their own discourse. (Thesis is on Twitter and FX.) This is their second article for [adjective][species].

“That is their [animals’] happiness: they see all life without observing it. They’re buried in it like crabs in mud. Except men, of course.” ― John Gardner, Grendel

We each cite different reasons for identifying as furs, which range from childhood exposure to cartoons to simple sex appeal. However, in a psychological, cultural sense, that doesn't tell us much about the underlying function our fursonas serve in our lives. Why do we like putting ourselves in furry bodies and characters?

In order to answer this question, I propose we examine the phenomenon culturally, similarly to the way we would think about monsters. These creatures, having existed in culture for thousands of years, have riddled our literature and oral tales; the oldest surviving text in the English language is Beowulf which tells of the monster Grendel, depicted right. Egyptian gods and Greek monsters go even further back.

At the most basic level, furs and monsters are visually similar. Both contain distortions of human and animal bodies, and both are imaginary. Both were culturally crafted and designed, and may have features that appear frightening. However the most important similarities are what they say about the culture that created them.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, the Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at George Washington University (who can actually be found on Twitter), wrote a book of essays in 1996 called Monster Theory: Reading Culture, and in it he argues that monsters (and by extensions, furries) are reflective of the norms of different cultures. They represent the boundaries we draw around what is acceptable behavior and identity by existing outside of it, and ultimately drawing us to explore those borders of possibility. Allow me to break this down;

In his first essay within the book, which is titled Monster Culture (Seven Theses), he breaks down his theory quite eloquently. Not all of his theses are relevant, so I don’t discuss them in this article. (A short, concise explanation of the text is available here.)

His first thesis is “The Monstrous Body is Pure Culture”. By this, he means that monsters like griffons or zombies do not randomly appear, but they are reflective of the times and places they represent. Aliens are a relatively new concept that came into popularity with the rise of space exploration, and they reflect our fear of the possibility of non-human intelligent life. We humans are an advanced species, and simply being able to escape our home planet naturally leads us to question if other species on other planets also had this ability. This is a frightening concept, and thus was born aliens, green, bug-eyed entities to physically embody people’s anxieties.

His third thesis is that “The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis.” In each society exists norms and standards for identity and behaviors that each classification should enact. Monsters simply represent the distortions of those categories of personhood, “suspended between forms” (Cohen 6), having a place both in two concepts and at the same time, being neither. An easy example would be Frankenstein, who was neither fully dead or alive. He smashed the boundaries between the two by becoming reanimated, having some qualities of a human being (compassion, rage) but also close to being dead (stitched together body parts). When this happens, “[monsters] demand a radical rethinking of boundaries” (6) that forces us to come to face our conceptions of any boundaries, and not just death.

PersiphaëHe later stipulates that the concepts that monsters border are usually “political, racial, economic, [and] sexual” (7). A political example would be in the United States' history; colonists justified their westward expansion and settlement on Native American lands by making the Natives into monsters. They were described as irredeemable savages due to their non-European culture and their place on the land that the colonists wanted, thusly justifying their nothing short of horrible treatment. The Greeks often told the story of Queen Pasiphaë and the Cretan Bull, where the Queen slept with a bull and afterwards birthed the Minotaur, a man-monster born through the violation of borders around human sexuality.

Consider how taboo bestiality is today, which may be similarly embodied in Greek culture by satyrs. Most people wouldn’t ever imagine that sex with non-humans would become morally acceptable. I am not here to argue the merit of that taboo, but to note that there has been a real, significant impact of stories like this one. You may decide for yourselves what borders sexuality should or should not have, but know that monsters, as Cohen would say, “[Police] the Borders of the Possible.” We are limited in our conceptions of life, death, sex, race, and more by what creatures we chose to embody in our moral grey areas.

However, a peculiar thing has happened in recent history; that which bumps in the night has suddenly become friendly. For decades now, we’ve made those same monsters laughably funny, icons of brands, friendly, and even sexy. Between Young Frankenstein and Teen Wolf, we’ve gained a sudden interest in exposing what monsters mean for us. Could a werewolf be attractive, or a vampire romantic? Cohen’s sixth and seventh theses focus on the fact that, in truth, we desire to break down barriers of what we can be or not be, we enjoy questioning our assumptions about life and everything because we find more meaning by doing so.

Furries are caricatures of humanity. Our characters sprung from a long history of anthropomorphics, yes, but we learn about ourselves by fetishizing and personalizing furs. We enjoy their large, cute eyes and kind-hearted, warm personalities. Yes, they can have nicer bodies than anyone that's ever lived, but what are we really exploring when we create fursonas - monster representations of ourselves? I have two theorized, possible borders that I feel they break down and force us to consider. Please note that these does not represent furrydom, a large spectrum of concepts and ideas, in its entirety.

The first grey area is hypersexuality. Today, with the rise of easy access pornography and the destigmatization of certain sexual practices (homosexuality, some fetishes), we are freer than ever before to explore sexual possibilities. However, there are cultural forces in place that prevent us from exploring entire areas of sexuality, like whorephobia, the taboo Days of Sin and Nights of Nymphomaniaof beastiality and more oscure fetishes, the fear of non-monogamy, even the idea that our sexuality is non-dynamic (eg. we feel that someone is and always has been gay, straight or otherwise without acknowledging that it could change). We punish socially those who try to move outside of these confining views; the straight majority of the world stigmatized homosexuals by claiming they had started the spread of HIV, some even citing is as a plague brought down by an angry God for the violation of his strictly heterosexual ways. Furries break down this barrier by serving as non-STD bearing, attractive, and happy, blatant promiscuity, even blurring distinctions between natural conceptions of human-on-human sex.

The second and more obscure possible border is evolution. We as people who trust in scientists’ judgement are currently faced with conflicting ideas. Humans assume themselves to be above and more important than animals, but evolutionists claim that we are born from them and that the only distinction between humans and animals may be language and the complexity of our societies. What if we are acting on animal instincts, and that our modes of behavior are inherited? What does it mean if we do in fact agree that we are just evolved monkeys? (You can see this fear directly in Planet of the Apes.) Who we are and how we act varies by culture and context, but (loosely defined) scientific fact dictates that we are products of a genetic game, and that suggests that we may be no more significant than, say, our dogs. I’m not making a claim to an answer, but it’s possible that our obsession with furry creatures represents our interest in the fundamental differences between humans and the organisms around us. We quite literally embody ourselves in hybrids of humans and mammals, reptiles, and more. Our scales and tails ask us to question what it means to be distinctly human.

While these may be two of the possible borders where furries (and monsters) exist, we need to realize that there are more. Hiding underneath the veneer of pleasure we experience from our furred experience is the terror of category destruction as felt by outsiders aware of us. If we try diving into what our furry selves mean, we could discover more about ourselves and the subculture that the paleofurs began to create for us.