Guest article by Televassi.
Televassi is a bit of a newcomer to the fandom, however in his time here he’s been amazed by the friendly and creative nature of the people that make it up. Apart from being a writer, he also enjoys rock climbing and scuba diving, and has a keen interest in Celtic and Germanic cultures. You can find this torc wearing wolf on twitter as @Televassi, and find more of his writing and art on FA and Weasyl. He’s always happy to meet new people, so don’t be afraid to say hi!
For a long time I’ve never bothered to explain what I write about to friends and family. I’ve never bothered to explain why I have art of anthropomorphic wolf people. Nor have I bothered to explain precisely who I’m talking to online, or meeting on weekends. “Friends” is usually the monosyllabic and vague answer I’ll give - often met with little investigation now that making friendships online is a little less uncommon.
While such evasions may deflect questions, it isn’t satisfying to lie. It’s only natural to seek to openly express your interests to others. People often construct their identities based on their interests; they introduce themselves as climbers, divers, artists, and writers. In each of those examples, the activity the individual partakes in is not presented just as what they do, but also who they are. The activity becomes who you are, and when you do it, you are expressing yourself. Furry works in the same way too, yet even though it is something that binds Furries into a community through social, written, and artistic expression, many do not openly express it. This is seen in the recent [adjective][species] data snapshots on how open people are about being involved with the fandom:
It is clear that self-identification as Furry does not correlate with public expression of Furry. One probable reason for such a relationship is the media’s negative perception of Furry, a view commonly expressed by Furries and documented by [adjective][species]:
The resulting belief of media scrutiny however, is a perception that does not correlate to current levels of coverage of Furry, a subject which does not appear frequently enough in both print and online news outlets to justify the belief. Regardless, it is clear that Furry is concerned with how it is scrutinised by the media, and this article seeks to explore that scrutiny when it does occur. Analysing recent articles from The New Yorker and Inquisitr, this article will analyse how they misinterpret and misdefine Furry in differing ways.
In the New Yorker article, if you can get past its overbearing style, lies an example of the misdefinition of Furries. For an article delving into post-humanist themes, it falls disappointingly short of understanding the relationship between post-humanism and Furries. Instead, it opts to group Furries with other eccentrics who have undergone attempts to become more ‘animal’; the article specifically mentions the case of a man who tried to live as a badger. As a result, the conclusion of the article rather predictably ends with the caveat that despite human attempts to become more animal, human beings cannot transcend their essential humanity and achieve animality – at best we are left with a human experience of the animal; the anthropomorphic, which, is the essence of the Fandom. The article interprets achieving ‘only’ the anthropomorphic as a failure by all the groups it has gathered together. As a result, the man who failed to live as a badger (to the extent of eating earthworms and living in an earth den) shares the same failure as the Furries who dress up in Fursuits and act like animals – that regardless of trying to become animals, both have failed to transcend their humanity and become animal. Yet this is erroneous, as for most Furries, becoming an animal in the total, ‘feral’ sense if you will, is not the goal. While it is for some, it is not for others – and thus one sees the problem of grouping individuals together without consideration of their individual differences.
One must be extremely suspicious of theories that attempt to create generalising, overarching statements over groups that have vast differences – or to use technical language, to create a ‘totalising metanarrative’. Thus, examining Furries at the same time as a man trying to live as—and thus become—a badger should be treated with the same scepticism one would get for saying anthropomorphic cave paintings are the same as modern day Furry art. Both examples are different, and do not share the same goals even if they share thematic similarities; it is not enough that they are simply anthropomorphic. The mistake of the article lies in imposing a meaning on two similar but ideologically separate groups in order to make them fit a general hypothesis. The nuances of both positions are lost, or one position ends up defining the other. One should examine the differences in a search to find that group’s own meaning, independent from the other. Put simply, such simplistic grouping inevitably places disparate things in the same box, when they should have a box of their own even if they belong on the same shelf. As a aside, thus article was written with the understanding that it’s analysis may well impose an interpretation on the fandom – an amorphous group of individual interpretations of Furry. However, that is something this article shall try to avoid, and neither shall it pretend that it is an authority to a community of individuals with their own valid opinions. Conversely, the problem with the media is that it does impose its own meanings upon Furry, either because journalists do not have enough time undergo extensive research, or that further investigation goes against the type of article they went to write.
From that introduction one can see how Furry can be misrepresented or misdefined in the media. For journalists, Furry seems something to either portray as exotic, with varying degrees of scandalous behaviour added to flavour the mix. For those who are not writing an article that investigates the curiosity of the ‘Other’, they often attempt to define Furry and understand it which, while admirable, carries the risk of defining Furry with little regard for Furries’ individual terms. Thus, Furry can be placed into a category which it wouldn’t necessarily fit – like The New Yorker did. Given the amorphous discourse upon what makes ‘Furry’ within the fandom, any disappointment one may feel arising from erroneous definitions and categorisations is justified. However it is understandable that mainstream media seeks to define Furry in a simple, bitesize way for its audience to understand as time and space are limited. Yet one must keep in mind that the media’s main objective is to cater to its audience, which inevitably is not Furries. As such, there will always be a disconnect – making readers understand and representing Furries accurately are not mutually exclusive. At its worst, the media can simply seek to reinforce the prejudices of its readership, which is not healthy for the Fandom.
This article is not advocating a conscious blockage of the media, because that is a futile gesture. Furries are always going to provoke curiosity, and such curiosity makes the Fandom news-worthy material. Even when the article is about clean content, Furry finds its niche as in ‘eccentric/curiosity’ article, in which the report navigates a fine line between celebrating difference and finding it as an object for ridicule – or simply, for the ‘norm’ to have an object which they can compare themselves too, and find themselves favourably. The latter method in particular can be a mode of reinforcing a belief of superiority for the audience’s own standards, and we inevitably find this when the topic turns to adult content. Adult content wouldn’t be a shock factor for most if sexual activity was seen as solely the business of the parties undertaking it. Yet sexual activity is a vexed topic, and so Furry sexuality is going to receive undue scrutiny because it deviates from the heteronormative standards society commonly holds. For media outlets this is a gift – as it takes little effort to be portrayed as shocking or depraved, and we’ve seen how Furry has been used to that effect in the past. Again, the intent of such pieces isn’t to understand, but to give its audience an object to ridicule – in this case, for entertainment and to feel superior because they are not ‘depraved’. Conservative outlets are more likely to do so than liberal ones; however a significant portion of articles on Furries question Furry sexuality. The response is usually a defensive ‘it’s a minority’ claim. This is telling in itself. The answer really should be ‘it’s not anyone’s business what consenting adults do’, and yet, the fandom is always put on the defensive by such questions, forced to justify itself as acceptable in terms of the readers’ standards, rather than our own. Why should society care about what people find attractive? If it is of age, and if it is consenting, does someone else’s opinions matter? Yet this is not the case, and such scrutiny in articles about the fandom reveals it is not allowed to speak for itself – it rather has to answer the questions of the outsider in a way that is acceptable to them, not to Furries.
When Furry tries to present itself so that it appears acceptable to an article’s audience, it closes down the most liberal aspect of Furry – that it celebrates and embraces a diversity of sexual preferences and fantasies, and for the most part, doesn’t bat an eyelid about it. Of course there are problematic preferences, but if those are of age and consenting, there’s rarely a problem. However, the media isn’t interested in creating nuanced, investigative reports - if audiences really responded to furry sexuality with no judgement over what consenting adults choose to do, then Furry sexuality would not feature.
One can see such scrutiny of Furry sexuality in a recent story about how the Disney movie Zootopia, was allegedly marketed to Furries. As the story spreads from the original Buzzfeed article (which did not mention sexuality at all), the original headline changes into another story, one that is about the scandal of perceived ‘deviant’ sexuality. The article from Inquisitr (aptly named for the witch-hunt it undergoes) takes the title about marketing, and then tries to prove it in a unique way – by attempting to read any hint of sexuality in the film as appealing to Furries’ sexual tastes. There is a sleight of hand here – the focus changes from having a film marketed to Furries, to talking about how the film appeals to Furry sexuality. As a result, this theme appears throughout the article:
“But this doesn’t seem to be an out of the blue connection between Disney and the Furries, as many of the characters in the movie seem a bit sexier than your average Disney creature. One of the animals, voiced by Shakira, was obviously drawn and selected by Disney to exude sex appeal.”
The original topic is twisted in favour of the story the journalist actually wants to write – a sex scandal about a Disney film and Furries, which at the end of the day underlines how the fandom can be misrepresented by those seeking to generate some scandal for their readership to consume.
“The Guardian is saying that Disney fans will find it hard to avoid learning a whole new vocabulary associated with the furry life. Let’s just say that predators and prey mean very different things than in the traditional sense.”
This particular quote is interesting because it is suggestive. Seemingly innocuous enough, the comment of a deviant, alternative predator and prey relationship, works by suggestion. It leads the reader on with a sentence that withholds any facts, in order to give the opportunity for the reader to answer what the alternative meaning is with their own prejudice.
“Tommy Chong, Idris Elba, and Ginnifer Goodwin are just some of the main voices that will lure in adults, as well as the theme of not being judged by your species, and the Mammal Inclusion Program, that helps the bunny Judy (Goodwin) become the first bunny to become a cop, and a sexy, sassy cop at that, who is actively being checked out by all of those around her.”
It’s surprising that this is a PG rated movie being talked about, considering the efforts of the author to extrapolate some sexual interpretation from it. It serves as a good example of a journalist taking one story and twisting it to write their own, ultimately misinterpreting the facts in favour of a more alluring story, no matter how erroneous. The mere mention of the word Furry starts an inevitable link to sex and sexuality, seeking some sort of scandal, which in this case, is ultimately one of misrepresentation and misinterpretation.
Moving on from adult content, another issue is the perception that those who read interviews from figures in the fandom can take them to be authority figures for Furry, that their explanations are the truth, rather than their opinion. Returning to the fact that Furry is a loosely defined collective – united by an appreciation for the anthropomorphic, or the animal. Even in that sentence, one can see Furry is hard to define, as it is easy to find Furries who represent themselves as anthropomorphic animals, or simply as ‘feral’ animals. A common explanation of Furry is that Furries have fursonas, yet there are people in the fandom who do not have one. The challenge for any article is how to define (and thus allow understanding) a subculture where its meaning depends upon individual beliefs? The media simply cannot, or does not understand that Furry has no iron-clad definition; rather, it is individual expression. Furry is lots of individual voices all saying their own thing, rather than one voice saying what they all are. The meaning of Furry depends on how it is expressed, rather than a set of rules everyone follows – because we do not. To speak personally example, my expression of Furry is anthropomorphic Celtic/Germanic warrior culture animals, with classical motifs thrown in for good measure of diversity (and lots of mead!). Warrior wolves clad in mail drinking in mead halls abound, and it is clear that it is an individual expression of Furry. Furry varies between other people – and that is wonderful. However, the creativity arising from the way Furries express their own ideals of Furry has to be condensed and simplified for an article, for both the sake of brevity and understanding. Such compression comes at a loss though. Hence, we arrive at definitions that Furry is about the anthropomorphic, animals, or fursonas – and while those simple statements certainly unite individual’s expressions, they strip away the creativity of each individual’s expression of Furry; the nuances that make people fascinating are gone. Articles with interviews in particular have trouble with this, as they have to negotiate between two issues when exploring Furry. One, that it doesn’t simplify an interviewee’s individual expression of Furry; however such attention can give that individual the danger of seeming like an authority figure because they are the only one speaking. Two, that it takes many individual’s expressions and finds a uniting, often simplistic theme, which prevents an authority figure from rising, but also removes the creative diversity that makes Furry what it is.
Finally, the last point about Furry in the mainstream media is simply a suggestion that it is not actually ready, ideologically, for what Furry does. Outside of Furry, we live in an epoch of our own making – the newly declared Anthropocene, an age where humans have an impact on shaping what goes on this planet. Human beings are undoubtedly in control and at the top of the order of things. This conflicts with Furry, because Furry is post-human, Furry reduces that superiority of human beings. Furry is not anthropocentric in a time when society is. Furry takes specifically human traits – our perception of the world, our human brand of intelligence, our lifestyle, language, emotions, etc., and places them in post-human bodies. Furry looks beyond the human and unities it with the animal – at a time when animals, though seen as capable of intelligence and perhaps emotion, are seen as lesser beings compared to humans. Furry is subversive because it marries human traits with animal ones, creating hybrids that remove once human traits and place them into animal mixes; it deprivilages essentialist ‘human’ traits. In doing so, this redefines our conception of what is exclusively human, expanding them into universal traits any sentient being can hold – a move which reduces the speciality, and thus the superiority of humanity we see today.
In conclusion, the question is not whether Furries should ignore the media. That’s a futile question because unless Furry was to move offline and live in a cave (like the badger man), it would probably still gain media attention. So should Furries be concerned with the media? No, for the reasons that have been given – misrepresentation, justification of adult content, pressure to appear acceptable, misdefinition, simplification, and being ahead of the times. To pick one reason above all as to why Furries shouldn’t bother about the media, it is that Furry is individual. How you express yourself matters more than what people say about it, and if no harm is done, what justification do other people have to tell you how to express yourself? Furry is creative, and that imaginative expression should not be diluted, simplified, or made to toe a standard line* for the sake of pleasing others. Just as some in Furry may find ‘sparkledogs’ or Germanic warrior wolves in mead-halls their anathema of Furry, the principle remains the same. Express your individuality, celebrate it.
*with thanks to Patch of Dogpatch Press for catching a typo