What We Talk About When We Talk About Furry

08 Apr 2014 | Guest Poster

Guest post by Rick Griffin.  Rick is the creator of Housepets and can be found on FA, DA, and Weasyl, as well as on Patreon. Rick will be Guest of Honor at Confuzzled this May.

I often find, when I'm trying to discuss furry with someone, that we tend to get hung up on personal definitions. Now, while this is considered a boon for the fandom ­– furry can be ANYTHING you want, man! Just like, open your mind, and let the furry flow through you! – this is often a problem when we're determining whether or not we really do have something in common beyond just the label.

The thing is, most of the time when I talk about furry, I mean it is the most original sense of the word: I like cartoon animals (for varying degrees of the word "cartoon" and "animals"). This sometimes means it's very hard to discuss cartoon animals in a general fandom sense without someone stepping in and saying "Furry isn't just about cartoon animals!"

Yes, I know that. I got that. I'm not attempting to marginalize anyone, but you have to admit that the proportion of cartoon animal fans tend to vastly outweigh the others. And when I speak, sometimes I'm just attempting to speak from a very specific platform, for which we all have a word: "Furry"

But what do we actually mean when we say "furry"? I've been a member of the fandom since about 2004, and if there's one thing that's certain is that everyone has their own personal definitions. But that doesn't mean furry means anything…we all clearly have some scope in mind when we talk about it, it's just that our personal scope and visions do not always align with others.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the first thing to keep in mind is that this is a descriptive overview of the word furry – that is, how people actually use the word, as opposed to prescriptivist, what people want the word to mean. Another thing to keep in mind is that definitions are by nature exclusionary – by saying this with a certain meaning, we are naturally excluding that. As much as we would like furry to be all-encompassing, we don't actually mean the broadest, most all-encompassing definition every single time we say "furry". This isn't always a problem – but I'll explain what this can result in in the third part of this essay.

Also, this list is mostly paraphrased and isn't exactly academically rigorous. I just do this stuff as a hobby.

What We're Trying To Say

Furry can mean:

  1. The furry fandom in general, and/or a member of said fandom.
    • Furry is primarily defined by whether you consider yourself a member of the fandom. That said, it's apparently entirely possible to be a furry but be in denial about it.
    • "I'm not a furry, I only draw anthro art!"
    • It might help their case if there weren't these people that suddenly make an about-face and embrace furry communities despite having been in denial about it. Some people liken this to coming out, but I think this may only be because of the stigma associated with furry. So apparently, it's very, very hard for some people to stop being interested in anthropomorphic animals just because the stigma is present.
    • There are some people who add on a specific this-or-that to the fandom such as sexuality/fetish and spirituality, but neither of these actually seem to be requirements to fit the definition in mainstream circles, even if they may be ubiquitous.
  2. Those people who have freaky costume sex at conventions.
    • Usually used by people who have no idea what furry is. Currently, this is the way some people believe that furry is categorized, and likewise it may seem that the content is of no real consequence so long as said people can get their freak on while dressed as anything else.
    • There are, naturally, people who do have freaky costume sex at conventions. Some of said people may embrace the word "furry" and insist to other people that this is, in fact, the definition of furry (or thereabouts) and everyone else is a liar.
    • These people do not have a monopoly on the word furry any more than anyone else does. Most people in the fandom tend to only accept this as a fringe expression; if said people evaporated overnight, the core of "furry" would remain intact.
    • Likewise, zoophilia is presumed to be to some outsiders a core association with furry, but within the fandom, it is not treated with any exclusivity to the definition.
  3. An anthropomorphic character made in the scope of the fandom, exclusively.
    • For some definitions, since furry is a fandom, furry characters are only really encompassed by the fandom, and characters outside the fandom are not furry.
  4. Any anthropomorphic character in any media, inclusively.
    • The fox version of Robin Hood was never intended for the fandom but still appeals to the fandom, as does the mythological god Anubis, etc; although some might argue the point, a completely identical fancharacter would be considered furry, so . . .
  5. An anthropomorphic character which is sexualized and not any other funny animal character.
    • "Why do you furries have to ruin everything!? He's not a furry because he's an action character, he's not sexualized at all, and you have to go and add sex to it" Speaking of main character from Dust. JUST the character being categorized as furry, no porn of him was in context.
    • People outside the fandom who perceive it as full of undesirables will usually insist on this definition, although it usually reduces to "Stay away from my childhood you perverts!"
    • Some people inside the fandom do use this as a differentiation for purposes of describing whether or not something is pandering or not pandering – but what exactly this value is, nobody seems to have a strong grasp on (see 6)
  6. An anthropomorphic character that sticks to the "mode" of the fandom.
    • Mode is a mathematical term meaning the most frequent value. This is different from mean (averaged value) and median(middle value).
    • The mode of the fandom, the "house style" as I've called it, is where you have an animal face put on a human body first, then usually comes body covering, a tail, animal feet, claws instead of finger nails, etc. to varying degrees depending on the taste of the artist. Basically this sticks to one kind of animal, but there's also nothing stopping hybrids or fictional species from getting the anthro treatment.
    • This usually has nothing to do with what some people draw as a dividing line between "furry" as in fandom-appealing, and their personal "not furry" category, such as werewolves. Within the fandom, if the werewolf fits the house style (wolf head AND NOT classic movie style, although see 12), it's usually furry whether you want the association or not. Any specific division of definitions here are on a per-person basis and are not usually accepted by the fandom at large.
    • The degree to which any given character is described or detailed in hard sci-fi explanations, "realism", NON-realism, "tooniness", any kind of created-world explanations or lack thereof, ties to mythology, folklore, literary precedent, huge tracts of land, etc. may collude with peoples' personal definitions/guesses as to whether or not a furry character/setting is pandering to the fandom or accessible to those outside the fandom, but it has little to do with defining "furry" itself.
  7. The "mode" of the fandom including those derived from non-animal sources, but treated as though they were superficially animal.
    • Again, this usually starts with altering the face in order to fit the "house style" rather than pasting a ladyface onto the front of an aircraft carrier. (see 13)
    • "Does an anthro fighter jet count as furry?" Can have vastly different responses based solely on whether or not it sticks closer to the "house style" of face-first. Some anthropomorphic aircraft are "translated" into being dragon-like first, for instance, andthen anthropomorphized. Others think that this isn't going to be "furry" anyway as there are no animals involved at all. (Usually,"I don't know what it is, but it's not furry")
    • Might be a reason why fans accept The Brave Little Toaster as fandom before they accept Cars. (Personally, though, I just think Brave Little Toaster is a vastly superior movie.)
  8. The "mode" of the fandom including strange non-human-derived biology.
    • Such as centaur bodies, etc.
    • This is just an extension of "hybrids"; I'm only mentioning it to make sure it's covered even though it starts to get distant from "human". I have seen some people argue whether or not these should count as furry because furry is anthropomorphization and a lot of the purpose to strange biology is to get even further away from human.
    • This is probably why aliens with sufficiently animal quality are accepted or rejected at this level (see 9, 12 and 13)
  9. Invented species that more-or-less are within range of the "mode" of the fandom.
    • These are not intended to be "human" or any particular animal or mythological creature, but nonetheless bear traits similar to that of the fandom mode, especially if they were invented inside the fandom (sergals, etc)
  10. The "mode" of the fandom, but only if they have fur/are mammals.
    • "Ugh, cat Bowser? Now the furries will want him" To which the response was, "Uh, furries are already hot for Bowser"
    • Sorry to inject myself here, but I find this needlessly pedantic. I have no problem with the terms "scaley" (settle on a spelling please) or "avian" but we all technically agree they fall under a similar umbra.
  11. The "mode" of the fandom, plus "feral" characters.
    • "Drawing dirty pictures of Simba (or Rainbow Dash) can't count as furry because they don't have a weird human body"
    • Anthropomorphism can literally be reduced to something having any human traits applied to it, so you only need to meet that minimum requirement.
    • Or not. Some furries are very interested in non-human things, so they don't want their real-animal characters excluded. (Because "furry" brings to mind animals, not anthropomorphism). May include characters like, say, Godzilla, who are ambiguously anthropomorphic.
    • Some people make a distinction between furry and feral, sometimes on whether or not they display human intelligence (hard to pin down) or sometimes simply whether or not they can talk (easier to differentiate).
    • Some people just use "feral" to differentiate the most-animal-like from anthro characters, but this usually requires further defining when the line between human and animal is inevitably blurred.
  12. Any character with any animal traits whatsoever.
    • Including aliens with animal traits, regular centaurs, mermaids, all sorts of mythological beasts that fall outside the fandom "mode", Naruto, etc.
    • Often the most confusing definition, often because a great many furries who appreciate the fandom mode know that this wasn't what they were searching for when they were looking for furries and got cat girls instead.
    • Especially when some people are cool with cat girls and then wonder why so many fandom artists are obsessed with obscuring human faces.
    • "I don't understand why centaurs don't count as furry." The Nostalgia Critic said this in one of his commentaries – technically it falls under this definition so there's nothing stopping centaur fans from being considered furry, but furry is more well-understoodby definition 6…so this confusion doesn't help matters at all
  13. Any character with any nonhuman traits whatsoever.
    • This includes non-animal-like aliens, fey, humans with skin made of rock, Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast, etc.
    • This technically all fits the definition of anthropomorphism, it's so far away from what we usually mean when we say "furry" that I have no idea why people need to muddle the definition on this point except to confuse outsiders.
    • In this most broad sense, furry IS just an extension of sci-fi and fantasy, it's just a reaction to the human-centric mainstream.
    • It's still confusing as heck.

What We Probably Mean

These definitions seem to be arbitrary, and given that they are ultimately arbitrary, everyone gets to decide for themselves what they like. But I don't know if them simply acknowledging the fact that everyone has their own personal definition is the end point of this discussion.

Usually, we have a premise of expectations when it comes to our definitions. This part is going to be more conjecture, so feel free to disagree with some of the hypotheses I'm presenting here.

So what do we believe furry IS when we say something is furry or not furry? I think within the definitions posted, I ended up outlining three broad meanings (again, not exhaustive) with smaller distinctions inside each, because each of these will usually vary widely between people.

A. Furry-As-Fandom-Membership

Furry is almost always treated like a fan definition rather than a professional one. Someone can then claim membership or non-membership, but to a certain degree, one can also deny membership despite having all the other hallmarks. Hallmarks usually include, as its premise of the fandom membership, being a fan of anthropomorphism (usually of animals, depending on your other definitions). I think some people drag this a bit too far – if you ever liked Bugs Bunny at all you must be a furry (in which case my dad would be a furry and you'd have to stretch that definition really, really hard).

I think most people in the fandom would reasonably assume that if you're a fan of a property due to the presence of anthropomorphism, and that said presence could reliably predict your enjoyment of other properties, then you are probably a furry, as in, if you were to seek out a fandom that covers your interests, this one would be it. Creating a new fandom just to avoid the word "furry" is in this case redundant, despite what one might believe to be its inherent flaws (even with the name). After all, one can be a gamer and not associate at all with the abuses that go on in tournament play fanbases even if they're the largest fanbases that gaming currently has – it doesn't make one less of a gamer to do things differently.

B. Furry-As-Fandom-Clusivity

Clusivity is the distinction between being either inclusive or exclusive. This means whether or not we call works made outside the fandom "furry". Since furry is a fan-definition, unless somehow furries creep into the professional world, occasionally when people say "Furry" they mean fan-created work only, and not professional work that happens to have fans in the furry fandom.

Fandom-centric work, that is, media specifically made for furry consumption and not general public, is often seen as pandering. But most furries first established their interest in the furry fandom from work that was not fan-media (Sonic, Lion King, Star Fox, Dungeons and Dragons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rescue Rangers, werewolves, Looney Tunes, My Little Pony, a random character from any media that doesn't even focus on anthro, etc). While each of these usually have their own fandoms that are not furry – that is, there are fans of these properties for reasons other than an anthropomorphic fixation – it seems odd that membership in the furry fandom would instantly exclude the non-fandom properties that attracted fans in the first place.

But as I have said it is a fan definition only – the furry fandom is sizable but not so much that it's a demographic with considerable buying power, or else the market would be more sustainable than it currently is. So, most properties, unless they are made by people who identify with the fandom, would not be considered to be geared for the furry market in particular, but would nonetheless find fans in the furry fandom who will think of it as furry, regardless of whether or not it's "furry" in this sense of the word.

(Also, this occurs whether or not they appreciate the considerable amount of porn they're invariably going to generate.)

C. Furry-As-Fandom-Composition

This is the one that is more up-in-the-air because we're usually running on definitions of furry that are simultaneously paired and also exclusive from one another. This is not to say these definitions do not have crossover demographics – they do, and to a considerable degree. But it has caused consternation and confusion in the past when, say, both How To Train Your Dragon and Toy Story 3 were both nominated for an Ursa Major Award in 2011.

When we say "furry" there's almost no question whether a fox person who stands on two legs and talks is counted as a furry or not. It's almost the literal definition, as any definition of furry would be hard-pressed to exclude a bipedal fox character from its scope. So, this one is usually easy – it's when we move out from this into the broader definitions that it gets harder for some people to agree whether or not it is "furry".

For instance, is the movie Cars "furry" (if we were to speak inclusively)? As in, would you really expect it to appeal to the exact same demographic that sees the bipedal fox as the most basic ideal? When put up like this, it's easier to see where one might and might not agree to these being in the same fandom, because to an extent they are not.

Besides the narrower technical definitions (machines with human bodies, taurs, whether lizards should be furry or "scaley") there's often a divison in the fandom, and it starts from basic premises. None of these premises are "more right" than any other because, just like the narrower technical definitions, they rely entirely on the taste of the individual.

We could mean

  1. "furry" is JUST the house style of anthropomorphic animals and animal-like things,
  2. "furry" is all animals-in-media regardless of degree of anthropomorphism, or 
  3. "furry" is the same as anthropomorphism of any kind so long as it's not 'just human' (or sometimes even 'just animal') and therefore shouldn't favor premise 1 over any other.

These are all radically different premises. Nominating How To Train Your Dragon confuses both 1 and, to a degree, 3, because the movie goes out of its way to make sure its dragon characters are seen as animals, even if they're a BIT idealized for humans. (Namely, they have impeccable communication skills, but they don't talk and the narrative expects you to treat them like just animals)  It confuses 1 if they consider the distinction between furry and feral to be whether or not the character speaks (and there are plenty who do) and find it outside the scope of the fandom to go any farther. People who start from definition 2, because they see the fandom as a base for appreciation of any animals in media whatsoever, don't see any problem with the nomination.

Nominating Toy Story 3 confuses both 1 and 2, even though by all technical accounts it fits into premise 3 which we presume to be the full scope of the fandom. Even if Lotso might technically make the definition, he doesn't make it a furry story by premises 1 and 2 any more than Alan Rickman makes Die Hard a British film.

Now, this is mostly conjecture on my part of where I think a lot of confusion and dissension crops up in the fandom based on my analysis of how the word furry is used – that is, what we think we're saying when we say "furry" and the sorts of expectations we have of the fandom as a result. You might not even think of furry as being premise 1 2 OR 3 exclusively – you may be interested in all three but still consider your interest in "furry" itself to be limited to 1 or 2 – so if you find something "off" when something like Cars is brought up in discussion of furry, it might help to understand on which scope you're basing your assumptions.

Personally, I think that there's a large part of the fandom that runs off of premises 1 and 2 and are bothered that 3 always needs to be dragged in even when they're not interested, but they can't go off and play with their own definitions because they have to acknowledge 3 all the time (Due to the scope allowed by convention organizers, website owners, etc), like they're nodding and saying "yes, I suppose I'm part of the fandom that finds Lightning McQueen sexy thinks anthropomorphic cars are inherently neat" and actually thinking maybe they belong somewhere else, because they thought this fandom was for cartoon animals.

Not that the fandom is in any danger of being taken over by non-cartoon-animal-fans, it just seems odd that we're loathe to admit that most of us are here primarily for cartoon animals.