Participation Mystique

Despite my frequent use of the word, I am more of the opinion that furry is a subculture, rather than a fandom. That’s part of the problem of being a writer and having mostly just one topic to write about: thinking up enough ways to refer to the same concept again and again without sounding repetitive can prove difficult. I think that part of the reason that I keep referring to furry as “the [furry] fandom” is that it is a phrase engrained within our subculture, due to its historical use.  Perhaps at some point in time, furry consisted mostly of a collection of fans, but as furry grows, so do the means with which it’s members connect with it.  That’s why I enjoy subculture as a word to describe us: it is much more all-encompassing and, in the end, perhaps a little more accurate in describing our hodge-podge group.

When I was reading William Gibson’s book Pattern Recognition, I was introduced to the term participation mystique, which comes from early Jungian psychology, adapted from Lévy-Bruhl in order to describe the means by which we, as people, can define a portion of ourselves through membership in a community or association with an object.  This, I think, is the core of the furry subculture.

I don’t think that I could entirely get away with not using “fandom” to refer to furry. While anthropomorphism has figured large in most cultures, I think that what we call furry today stems in large part from a combination of other fandoms, such as those surrounding comic books, cartoons, and science fiction, eventually coalescing into a more coherent group, though still (and as yet) without a enteral nexus. It would be unfair of me to discount not only the formative years of the fandom, but also a still significant portion of furry that relies on their association with some extant product that contains that kernel of anthropomorphism.

So much of not only my own childhood, but my early years within furry had to do with the little fandoms that revolved around individual films.  Disney’s Robin Hood, the Redwall books, and even less direct examples, such as animal companions – talking and not – in Saturday morning cartoons or books such as Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series (embarrassing admission: when I first got into furry, I tried to do a comic of Sabriel with the characters being foxes – lets just say it’s good I stuck with music).

These sources are important to us because they give us an extant product to latch onto, a body of work to study, expand upon, and dream up new microcosms in the macrocosm of their world.  For the rare few who are gifted enough to create the world in itself, it can be a little (or very) distressing, but the human mind is always adept at treating a fictional world as a fractal, looking closer and finding – or at least adding – more detail.  It’s doubly important, then that furry itself ‘grew up’ around these sources, at least in part.  It allowed us to start with several very specific ideas, look deeper into them, and come out with something general enough that a group of individuals from different interests could come together and say “this is us”.

Of course, this led to a new way of thinking of furry, especially once its presence on the Internet began to grow.  A new member could find their way inside through some way other than some existing fandom.  Despite being a big fan of all the classic furry books and films, none of them really struck a nerve with me – it was finding that others had built something new from those roots that caught my attention.  I’ve mentioned before my roots in finding the fandom through Yerf! and a few other sites (Side7 and Elfwood, anyone?).  With the disclosure that it’s what I’d call my own point of entry into the fandom, I feel that a good portion of those who call themselves furry today follow much the same route: a general interest in the concept of anthropomorphics not necessarily tied to one single source other than what the fandom has already produced.

I freely admit that this isn’t a very intense association with furry.  For a little bit near when I was first getting into the fandom, I did think about myself as a fox (as I was at the time), and would often spend nights awake in bed imagining myself comfortable with my partner, both of us our cute little fox-sona selves.  I know that for some, this sort of self-zoomorphism can become almost a whole-body species-dysphoria, extending from feeling as though one exhibits characteristics of their animal character to feeling decidedly uncomfortable being a human.  I feel as though I should be careful writing about this, partly because I know relatively little about it beyond my own simple experiences, but mostly due to the fact that it tends to shift at this point into our…lets say “sister subcultures” of therianthropy and the were culture, which are not necessarily the focus of [adjective][species].  That said, this focus on the species as it pertains to the self is still important within furry culture, particularly when it comes to character creation (“I don’t feel like much of seagull, so why would I make my character one?”).

We certainly cannot leave out the spiritual aspects of furry, either.  While this, like most things, seems to go through waves of popularity, it’s never waned so much as to become insignificant as an aspect of the fandom. This is a topic that certainly deserves its own article, so I’m only going to touch on it a little here, but it is interesting to note. As there have been anthropomorphic aspects of many cultures back through time, it’s easy to see these creating “fandoms” of their own. This is its own gradient as well: some may latch onto the legends and play into the roles set down for them, while others, seemingly unattached, will admit that they enjoy the trickster aspect of their coyote-sona or the cleverness inherent in being a fox-based-creature.  There’s so much more that can be said about the spiritual aspects of being a furry, that I really do think it will have to wait until its own article.  I still have to tie this all back together with participation mystique after all!

With something as loose-weaved as furry, it’s difficult to imagine there being anything more than the faintest borders around the subculture.  There are, though, and where there are borders, there’s bound to be someone aiming to push them.  Beyond simply the species available here on earth, many are more content to explore the bounds created in science-fiction and fantasy universes.  At least one of the followers of our twitter account is a Wookiee, and for a while, there were several Kzinti and Skiltaires floating around.

Beyond even the constructed species of these fictional worlds likes the only vaguely-defined realm of post-furry, a sub-sub-culture of sorts with the goal of pushing the limits of anthropomorphics beyond the “pure” combination of animal and human characteristics.  While this may lead to some rather borderline or intentionally humorous character creations, the postmodernist viewpoint that seems to influence the postfurry attitude serves well with its looser sense of reality.  This is another topic probably more deserving of its own post in the future, considering the intriguing variety possible within it, yet the dearth of information available on it.

All of these describe different aspects of our participation mystique as furries.  The way we associate portions of our own selves with this abstract noun that is “furry”.  We identify with the fandom in all our myriad ways, and by virtue of our identities, form the fandom in itself.  The question has come up several times in the last few days about what exactly makes a furry.  That’s one of those questions that’s decidedly difficult to answer in a way that’s satisfactory to all.  I think that the best definition that I could come up with is that a furry is someone who claims to be a furry.  There are probably some who fall outside this definition that others would consider as members of the fandom, but it’s part of our mystical participation that it be consensual – one cannot be forced to identify with something.  I guess in that sense, ‘furry’ winds up being more of an adjective than a noun, though the word as an adjective already carries too strong a meaning to be overloaded like that.

That there is a phrase for identifying with a group such as this is evidence that this is not a unique phenomenon. In the context of the aforementioned Gibson book, it was used in much the same way: describing the fascination and partial identity with a fan base for a specific creation (in the book’s case, bits of film slowly appearing on the internet, and in ours, anthropomorphics), but the same idea lends itself to other memberships that form portions of identities in individuals. A good example that comes to mind is one’s political or religious affiliation, which, for some people shapes a good portion of their identities. To state another example, since we’ve covered the belief and fan ends of the spectrum, many members of the LGBT community also base their identities on their membership, adopting styles, modes of speech, and mannerisms from what they believe is the norm for such an identity, thus perpetuating it’s existence.

Given these examples, I’m tempted to ask what modes and mannerisms within the fandom are perpetuated by identity with the fandom? There is certainly a good amount of lingo that comes along with our membership, such as the word ‘fandom’ itself. Beyond that, though, there are certain things that do go along with our culture, at least in the case of conventions: certain styles, stances, and actions can identify the furry from the non-furry.  Again this is something worthy of its own post, but it’s still worth noting that our participation in this larger culture called furry comes with its…perhaps price is the wrong term, but certainly its expectations.  One is no longer necessarily obligated to be familiar with Watership Down or Rescue Rangers (though one should apparently be familiar with dubstep), for instance.  The criteria for participation remain loose enough for us to be a fairly accepting fandom, and it could probably be argued that they have loosened over time, but there are still some lines, however faint and pushed by the post-fur crowd (to name only one example) they are, which identifies us as furries.

Participation mystique, mystical participation, is perhaps one of the best phrases I’ve found to be used to define the fandom.  It’s not something we can (or should) whip out when trying to explain our subculture to those non-members around us.  The concept of basing a part of our existence off something non-spatiotemporal makes it all sound a bit like a strange religion, especially when put in terms like that.  However, with all the different levels of identifying with our animal characters represented, plus the consensual aspect of self-identifying as a furry, I feel we’ve got just about all the bases covered: a connection with our characters, no matter the source, and our participation forming a portion of our identity as the crazy animal-people we are.

About Makyo

Makyo spends her time as a frumpy snow leopard, usually, but she's all over the map. She's been around furry since about 2000 under a variety of names. She writes, programs, and screws around with music.

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11 thoughts on “Participation Mystique

  1. For me, I ended up finding the “furry” side of my interests as early as Enid Blyton. I still have a Binkle and Flip book somewhere, which was my earliest form of anthropomorphic literature. My first movie would have been Winnie the Pooh, and then various science fiction cartoons of the early 21st century. In retrospect, you could call it a “fantasy” background, derived mostly from early literature and fables.

    I didn’t actually join the “fandom” until my anime years, though… it might be worth noting the time between finding anthropomorphic material, and getting involved with the furry culture, ie. comic conventions, LARP, gaming websites etc.

    1. That time span between exposure and participation does seem to vary from person to person, but I don’t think either of us are alone in that longer time span between, there. I think the root of so many people saying that they feel as though they’ve “always been a furry” is due to the way anthropomorphism of animals permeates our culture: you may have joined the fandom last year, but the oft-quoted Disney’s “Robin Hood” came out in 1973, after all!

  2. I have furry tendencies, I have always been fascinated with people dressed up as animals. I have always liked furry animation (never hurt that my grandmothers brother was Chuck Jones), and I also feel a certain connection to some animals.
    To me.. this is “Furry”

    The “Fandom” (in my observances), is highly centered on the sexual aspects of anything remotely considered “furry”. Look at all the fandom art on FA or any of the other “Fandom” houses. 90% is of sexual nature.
    I have been around a long time, I have been to cons, and been to art sites, Yes I know people in the Fandom do lots of other things like fursuiting and roll play, but still there is a very high degree of outright sexual exploitation of “Furries” in the “Fandom”.

    Being “Furry” is one thing that anyone, at any age can be. You are most likely born with furry tendencies, or you are not.

    Joining the “Fandom” is something totally different and I not all cute and fluffy all the time.

    1. Interesting stuff, CB, you’ll have to excuse me as I ignore most of your post and focus one a single comment: “you are most likely born with furry tendencies, or you are not”.

      Furry is almost definitely something that comes about through exposure as a child. There is strong evidence that there is an age cut-off point for furries: there are very, very few over 50 – see The furries turning up in non-western parts of the world (see are much younger.

      It must be cultural. Makyo pointed out in the previous comment that Robin Hood came out in 1973. And a 5 year old in 1973 would be 45 now.

      Of course, this doesn’t make being furry a choice. And maybe that’s your point.

      1. Personally, I am very close to being 50 years old myself. I really don’t give credit to “furry” animation for my status. Having watched cartoons most of my young life.. and even knowing my great uncle was producing them didn’t really make a point to me…. When I was 10 years old, I went to a play, my other uncle was in. In the play, some of the players were dressed as animals, and had some face paint, I was captivated by them, and could not get them out of my mind, for years. Again, I had similar reaction watching the play “Cats” live several times… and again watching the “Lion King” street show in Disney land a few times.
        No animation, furry art or “Fandom” items has ever had any kind of a lasting impact on me like the live players dressed up as animals. It just happened to me, can’t describe it, grew up with many animals, mostly the tasty kind. Oh well!

      2. The age distribution of those visible as “members” of the “fandom” is not an accurate measure, I think. There are plenty of individuals who would qualify as furries or furry fans who are over 40, over 50, and even over 60 or more. I myself have just turned 62. The fact that the visible part of the iceberg, so to speak, consists largely of teens and twenties being led by a number of charismatic thirty-sometimes does not define the fandom any more than science fiction fandom is defined by the Trekkies.

        I do think it’s true that early exposure is a factor for most of us. I find my earliest connection to the concept in being read to by parents and grandparents. The books included Black Beauty, The Wind in the Willows, Joel Chandler Harris’ stories of the American South, and Thornton Burgess’ Mother West Wind stories. I began reading on my own sometime between age 3 and 5 (precocious, I know) and immediately seized upon Beatrix Potter’s beautiful illustrations and stories, as well as many of the early Little Golden Books, which featured anthropomorphic characters as often as not.

        All this, I hasten to point out, was taking place long before Disney’s Robin Hood animated film, or Saturday morning cartoons (I was never much of a television watcher anyway,) or Redwall, anime, or any of the other sources so often pointed out today as the “beginning” or “wellspring” of furry fandom.

        Nor was I alone. I found once I started in school (we’re speaking only of the mid-1950s here) that I had classmates with similar inclinations. We spent time doing anthropomorphic art, making up stories, and eventually writing stories and poetry to suit our interests. We haunted the section of the public library that was then labeled “Animal Stories.” We even went so far as to roleplay elaborate games in which we took the part of anthropomorphic creatures. The ones I remember most vividly started well before age 10 (and thus before 1960) and included cultural constructs of horses, dogs, and in one case, squirrels, that included literature, myth, and ritual created especially for the settings.

        “Furry” is not so new as many would have us think. Nor is it an “affliction” of the young, nor an essentially sexual interest. I have friends and associates of my own age who remain just as actively interested in the subject as ever, and I also point out that there are authors and artists both well beyond age 40 who clearly share these fascinations.

  3. I find myself fascinated with those that shared the same experience growing up as my own, in that I felt like I was a furry before I knew the term existed, or that anyone else was.

    I felt that I could identify with animals and fictional animal characters more than people, and while I love modern society for its technology and its security among other conveniences, I’ve always felt that there is far too much I dislike about its social aspects for me to ever consider myself “one of” humanity. From the average person’s disinterest in simple pleasures that don’t involve exclusivity, to their self-interest-motivated morality, to their insincerity and general shallowness with other people even slightly different from themselves, there was little to convince me to identify as anything other than a misanthrope of the most literal sense.

    I always found much more to like in my pets and the characters in the entertainment media I consumed when growing up. I would have much rather been friends with Sonic the Hedgehog than basically anyone else I actually met and was inevitably disappointed by. I know other people have gone through similar childhoods and it’s possible that this kind of positive imprinting leads one to strongly identify with the animal characters so many cartoons and video games were based on at the time.

    The effect was pervasive enough that going through puberty I thought I was freakishly asexual, or at least I think that’s what caused me to believe so. This eventually proved not the case when I stumbled on some of the community’s sexual aspects, and was enamored of how totally different it was from the mainstream depictions I had been exposed to. It wasn’t plastic and repetitive and treated as filth which you occasionally consumed just to get an urge out of your system. It was welcoming and varied and affectionate, and people took pride in their art and participation. This particular story is one I hear coming up time and time again from people unsatisfied with traditional gender roles and other taboos.

    These observations are totally introspective and therefore probably not reliable, but maybe they could provide someone some anecdotal insight into how this happens to so many people. As sexual liberation spreads I think we’ll be seeing a lot more people join for the latter reason. As for the former, there will always be outcast children looking for a way to belong.

    Video games are a bit different now though. It makes one wonder if this generation of children might grow up to form a confusing subculture of angry space marinies…

  4. Great piece, thank you. I much prefer my furry existential ponderings to be of the “what is at the crux of furry that brings us together?” nature, as you have explored, rather than “what’s wrong with me?”

    The community aspect for me was predominantly finding out that I wasn’t the only one who felt like this and that there were others who liked to dress up, imagine or just pretend. We may still be a weird and quirky bunch, but knowing that there’s so many other furries makes me feel less inhibited to show my furriness and more inclined to participate in the fandom. I reckon that’s stronger than religion, where you are presented the idea first, THEN join the community if it clicks with you.

  5. Explaining to an outsider precisely what Furry is is much like telling someone what the Matrix is. No one can be *told* what the Matrix is. They must see for themselves. I invite anyone who is curious as to what it is to observe the going-ons of a convention or possibly to even join in. Everyone whom I’ve convinced to go along with me to a furry convention comes out liking it and having a much better understanding of what a furry is. For the most part, they even come out of the experience identifying themselves as “furry”.

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