Friday, April 29, 2011

A Man in Sheep’s Clothing: Fan Subculture and the Furry Phenomenon

Anyone who has ever loved a pet has, in one way or another, identified with that animal. Whether the loyal, excitable dog, or the lazy, but pristine cat, we imbue the pet with a definable personality, and subsequently find something in that personality we have in common with them. This association allows us to use animals as a way of expressing our character: whether or not we’re a “dog person” or “cat person”, given the stereotypes applied to these animals, can say a lot about us. Similarly, the Chinese zodiac presents us with twelve different animal profiles, one for each year in a cycle, and associates one’s personality with the sign under which they were born. Thus, the attribution of human traits to animals goes both ways: we attribute human qualities to them, and by identifying with those traits, define our own personalities through the animal representative of them.

Some individuals, however, place more importance upon identification with animals than the average person. These “animal fans” may find themselves to have more in common with a particular animal than with most other people, or find animal rules of social order more attractive than those of the dominant human variety. The subculture that has grown out of this affinity for animals is known to its participants, who call themselves “furries”, as “furrydom” or “furdom”. As Dick Hebdige describes the process, fan subcultures resist heteronormative hegemony and create a niche for themselves as outsiders by applying differing meaning to a mundane object, and furries have been able to do this through the symbolic meaning attributed to animals (2-3). However, furdom as resistance is a complicated issue worthy of further discussion.

To say that a furry is a fan of animals is somewhat misleading. What separates a furry from a mere animal lover (or zoophile, as I’ll discuss later) is the fact that furries see the relationship of the animal to the human in corporeal terms, and are thus attracted to animals with physical human qualities, called anthropomorphs. Typically, the object of a furry’s fandom (also called a furry) exhibits human intelligence, human speech, and walks on two legs, while the degree of animal attributes can range from full-bodied animal (such as Bugs Bunny) to possessing only one or two identifiable traits, such as the ears and tail indicative of the Japanese Nekomimi, or catgirl. Despite the name, furries need not possess fur, either: dragons, lizards, insects, and other such animals may also be defined as furries. Therianthropy, or shape-shifting, is also considered under the umbrella of furdom. Thus, a werewolf like Jacob Black of Twilight would qualify as a furry.

It has only been in the past few decades that furdom has generated a significant following, though this remained largely unknown until the March 2001 issue of Vanity Fair was published, including an article entitled “Pleasures of the Fur” by George Gurley[1]. The article details a Midwest FurFest convention in Chicago, and though seemingly unbiased, focuses on the more “interesting” (and thus extreme) examples of furdom, much as Trekkies reinforces many of the stereotypes of Star Trek fans by its choice of subjects. As of 2010, little if any scholarly work has been done to discuss the significance of furry culture – most information available about this subculture consists of community-published websites and fanzines. What little information does make it into the mainstream media is often skewed, emphasizing the sexuality of furdom more than the intellectual or spiritual. An October 2003 episode of CSI titled “Fur and Loathing” portrays “furry conventions as being not much more than lectures and sex orgies” according to WikiFur.com, a wiki developed by furries[2]. In the introduction to their book Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington suggest that the common invocation of Trekkies as the negative fan stereotype emphasizes “how far we need to stroll into the past… to salvage rudiments of such stereotypical portrayals of fans,” arguing that fandom has become such a common phenomenon that it is no longer completely abnormal, yet furdom shows that the negative fan stereotype is alive and well (5). However, in 2009, Anthrocon, the largest furry convention in the world, drew 3,776 attendees and contributed over $2.5 million to Pittsburgh’s economy[3]. Such a large and well-organized fan base, especially considering its recent establishment, is certainly worthy of analysis.

In addition to its youth as a subculture, what further complicates a study of furry fandom is the fact that there is no central text from which furries find inspiration. From Bugs Bunny to Jacob Black, examples of furries can be found in virtually all fantasy or science fiction worlds. But even a character as old as Mickey Mouse can’t claim the origin of the furry phenomenon. According to author and Anthrocon organizer Dr. Sam Conway, "Anthropomorpics really predates any other form of science fiction or fantasy… It started the first time one of our ancestors looked at an animal and imbued it with the qualities he could understand[4]." Examples of anthropomorphism abound in mythology, from the jackal-man Anubis of Egypt to the goat-man satyrs of Greece, and even the multi-tailed fox spirit of Chinese myth, which is able to assume human form. The question that arises, then, is why furry fandom is such a new phenomenon if furry itself is as old as mythology.

Because of the decentralized nature of furry texts, and because of the apparent rarity with which people identify with animals in the way that furries do, furries would have been spread out and lacking of a singular text with which a large group could identify (the way Star Trek and Star Wars fans were able before the advent of the internet). This lack of a unifying text made the importance of fan participation all the more important in furdom, where the pressure was to create a furry universe that could be embraced and enjoyed by fans. Furdom thus picked up in the late 70s, a time during which fanzines had been popularized by the science fiction and fantasy community. WikiFur lists the earliest fan publication as Vootie, a comic-oriented fan work first published in 1976[5]. From there, furdom would eventually find its way to usenet groups, websites, and chat communities such as Second Life. Despite a number of fan communities and countless fan-generated texts, however, furdom remains a fandom of a concept more than any individual text, with hundreds of interpretations of what it means to be a furry. Understanding the core concept of furdom, therefore, can get us much closer to understanding the subculture it defines.

Furries, as neither completely human nor completely animal, are in a natural state of “inbetweenness” that can be understood in many different contexts. The most obvious of these contexts is race. In mainstream media, very few furry main characters exist in universes where their species is dominant; most exist in universes that are ruled by the same white male hegemony as the real world, which immediately sets them as minorities. Thus, the “otherness” of a subordinate furry race allows a critique of the major race in much the same way that the presence of black characters in white films “allows one to see whiteness as whiteness,” according to Richard Dyer (145). One such example is the short-lived American cartoon Bucky O’Hare, in which a diverse crew led by a green hare must fight against a colonizing army of toads. While Bucky is strong, dependable and loyal to his friends, the toads are portrayed as the worst stereotype of white consumerist culture, going so far as to take orders from a self-aware AI originally built to help sell products. In this example, the audience can clearly see the toads as exemplifying Western colonialism and consumerism, and Bucky’s resistance to the dominant force of the toads is idealized. In this way, furry texts can utilize race to contextualize resistance to dominant culture.

One of the major problems with this use of race is that it often takes stereotyping to extremes. In the recent James Cameron blockbuster Avatar, the feline race of the Na’vi are depicted in a way which mirrors much of African and Native American stereotyping, reviving the “noble savage” myth exemplified by films like Dances with Wolves wherein the “savage” culture is not so different from the male white hegemony, but a more down-to-earth, innocent manifestation of that which seeks to destroy it. However, it is unlikely that the furry community would take a negative reaction to something like the noble savage, as most furries are part of the white male hegemony and thus, in a sense, noble savages themselves. According to a survey by David J. Rust, who collected data from a series of furry conventions, as many as 94% of furry fans identify themselves as Caucasian[6].

Another context of inbetweenness lies in gender and sexual preference. From a human perspective, sexual differences in animals are difficult to perceive for most species; often, sexing an animal requires visual confirmation of sexual organs, in which case one hopes those organs are external. Similarly, furries are often depicted as indeterminate gender. Particularly in the case of animation, furries are shown without visible sex organs, leaving a handful of gendered surface symbols such as clothing style, hair style, eyelashes, tone of voice, and possibly breasts as our only means by which to tell one gender from the other, and often these distinguishing features may blend. A classic example of the animated androgyne is Bugs Bunny, who easily fools the likes of Yosemite Sam and Elmer Fudd as “girl bunny” by simply donning some makeup and a dress and speaking in falsetto. We may attribute this problem to the limitations of animation, which make it difficult to distinguish male from female anyway, but to do so would assume that Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd can only see each other as animated characters: that theirs is not a “real” world which is merely represented to us as animated (thus giving their world a “toon” context not unlike Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). However, even in the real world, evidence within furry texts suggests that Bugs would still appear androgynous. For example, in the film New Moon, the character of Jacob Black is described by Bella as “beautiful”, a term which could apply to either gender (connotatively associated more with the female than male). When we are introduced to Jacob, he has long hair and a girlish complexion, but after his transformation he cuts his hair short, tones his body, and rarely wears a shirt, as if there were a need to constantly remind the viewer he is male. Thus, the furry is a creature which is androgynous in nature, never quite male, but never quite female, which lends both to issues of gender and sexual preference.

Of course, traditional ideas of gendering often apply to furries. For instance, between canines and felines, females almost always associate with felines, particularly more docile felines such as the domestic house cat. More exotic forms of the feline, like the lion, panther, or jaguar may find a male audience, but males are predominantly associated with canine species: particularly wolves and foxes[7]. Thus, in selecting representative animals, the furry fan will consider gender and his place upon the gender scale. However, this practice does not assume that the furry must then follow the gender role ascribed to their animal of choice. In Alexander Doty’s work Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture, he argues “most people find it next to impossible to articulate their sexual identities (queer or non-queer) without some reference to gender” (5). Thus, a gay or bisexual male fan may identify most with the canine identity, as a gendered male, and yet express same-sex desire by means of same-species desire. On the other hand, he may choose to identify with a female-gendered animal if his sexual preference places him in a more submissive role to another man.

One thing is fairly certain: furries are often comfortable with alternative sexual identities. According to Alex Osaki’s most recent online furry survey, only about 21.6% of furry fans identify themselves as strictly heterosexual[8]. 19% answered “Mostly heterosexual”, leaving the majority of sexual identities as non-straight. To further set the sexual identity of furries against heteronormative society, roughly 14.4% of respondents are self-identified zoophiles (expressing a sexual attraction to animals), though the survey does not ask to what degree, if any, they practice zoophilia, or whether or not they included anthropomorphs as “animals” when answering. Popular “yiff” fan fiction sites feature various relationships between anthropomorphic species, often with an emphasis on the homoerotic. Not unlike the slash fiction that grew out of Star Trek, fans use the characters they love in mainstream media or that they themselves create to explore their own sexual curiosities; what separates them from slash fiction, aside from the presence of animal characteristics, is that the authors are more likely to involve themselves in the narrative, either as central characters or observers. Yiff writers cannot often rely on readers’ preconceived notions of characters in the way that slash writers can, placing more pressure on the author to develop their characters, and thus many will work on the preexisting character of themselves or their “fursona” to ease the storytelling process as well as personalize the sexual experience. Also like slash fiction, yiff writing and artwork represents a fairly small percentage of the creative force of the furry fan base. According to the WikiFur site, many within the community challenge the acceptance of zoophiles, due to the fact that bestiality is “not only illegal in many places, but is considered by many to be a form of animal abuse,” as well as the problem of zooplilia being perceived as a characteristic of all furries[9].

This leads into the final and perhaps most interesting aspect of inbetweenness: that of age. Because most anthropomorphic characters in the mainstream media are aimed at children, it is easy to marginalize furries as childish or immature. Furries often have an affinity for stuffed animals, cartoons, and children’s stories like those of Beatrice Potter that lasts into their adulthood. Further, according to Osaki’s survey, 60% of respondents were between the ages of 15 and 24, with a gradual decrease following each group from 19-24 on, suggesting that furdom is something the fan will grow out of[10]. However, the issue proves much more complex. As stated earlier, much of the organization of furry fandom relies upon electronic means of communication, typically through online media. Statistically, younger people are more likely to utilize the internet than their elders, especially for the purpose of social networking. It is also complicated in that the survey itself is an online format, requiring respondents to find the web site with the questions in the first place. The fan sample is thus not random, but limited to those who frequent furry sites and discover the survey on their own, and then take the time to fill it out. This presents much of the problem of studying furry fandom; there is very little scholarly data on the subject.

So what does lead one to continue to embrace childhood imaginations well into their adulthood? Analyzing the demographic we have to work with, furry fans are predominantly male, both in terms of sex and gender (78.5%; 74.4%), non-straight (78.35%), and Caucasian (88.72%-94%)[11]. With the exception of sexual orientation, it would seem the majority fall into the dominant culture and are not far from science fiction fans. Is it possible that furry culture offers something unique to the non-straight audience? We have seen that furries, as races often separate from the white male hegemony, offer resistance to the dominant culture; however, as products of the consumer culture geared toward younger children, furry characters are seen as non-threatening fun outside (as well as inside) the furry culture. We have also observed that, as inherently androgynous creatures, furries lack the threat of forced gender roles, allowing the non-straight fan to adopt the personality of a particular animal while at the same time redefining it to suit his needs. While one fan may portray himself as a sly, devilish fox that preys upon the simple-minded, another may personify the fox as loyal, loving and cuddly without a trace of malice. The importance of roleplaying, communication and the sharing of fan-created work reinforces a welcoming community of fans not unlike those described by Henry Jenkins in Textual Poachers, who through their love of furries “find a space that allows them to discover “what utopia feels like”” (283).


For fans who see anthropomorphs as part of their sexual identity, Doty would suggest that these furries are reworking the texts they grew up with in order to give them new relevance, as “constructing the sexualities of texts results in some “real thing”” (xi). At first exposure, the audience often sees furries as androgynous characters incapable of sexual acts, denied sexual expression by their animators. However evidence within these texts frequently offers contradictory information hinting at sexual needs that cannot be expressed, such as PepĂ© la Pew’s obvious interest in the black cat, or Roger Rabbit’s with his wife Jessica (for whom sex is portrayed as a game of “patty cake”). Fans of these texts make the impossible possible, using their imagination to restore furries with the physical means to procreate that mainstream texts have denied them, and enabling their own sexual identities in the process.

Unfortunately, without more academic research into the furry phenomenon, little can be said with absolute certainty aside from the fact that it has thus far followed a common model of subculture generation: audience fixation upon a mundane symbol, the reattribution of meaning to that symbol as a form of resistance, and the creation of a fan community which is brought together by this new meaning. However, mainstream culture has yet to embrace furry behavior as “normal,” leaving furdom as one of the few remaining fan bases that has not yet surpassed the “romance [of] ghettoization” as Jenkins puts it (362).



[1] Reprinted by Pressed Fur at http://www.pressedfur.com/press/vanityfair/

[4] Quoted from FurryFandom.info at http://www.xydexx.com/anthrofurry/furries.htm

[11] Ibid.

Addendum: This essay was composed in Spring of 2010. Unfortunately the bibliography is missing due to the fact that it was all class material, but the source essays shouldn't be too difficult to find if they aren't titled in the text. Some of the information may be dated, and a lot of new examples of negative furry portrayal cropped up in the past year.