Participation Mystique 2 – On Words

This is a post I did not intend to write.  I certainly did not intend to continue the Participation Mystique post into another.

Actually, truth be told, I had planned on taking a week off from writing; coming up with some fluff post pulled together from a combination of responses with some neat witticisms thrown in for good measure, or even just tossing up a guest post.  Work’s been decidedly hellish, and when I haven’t been working, I’ve been feeling some emotional strain resulting from a large case of over-commitment on other projects.  Come Monday, however, I’d caught up on sleep, and started rifling through comments and tweets in response to a few statements I’d made over the past few weeks.  I eventually decided that I shouldn’t be a lazy fox-man and pull together a formal response here in the form of an article.

So.  What is furry?

It feels like every website, blog, and even every individual has to take a crack at defining furry.  I personally wanted to stay away from it as much as possible because I didn’t want my own attempt at a definition to color the views of the readers of the site.  There have been a few comments on my last two posts and a few of my tweets, however, that have shown that that’s already the case, and that my circumlocution around the issue may have caused more problems than it avoided.  That is, for certain definitions of “problem”: I love this sort of discussion, truth be told.  Almost as much as I love circumlocution.  Or the word “circumlocution”.  Sorry I’m so wordy.

“Furry” is an overloaded term.  One of the most descriptive definitions of “overloading,” as I understand it, comes from the realm of computer science.  When one overloads an operator, that means that one is changing the way that operator works within a certain class of items.  That is, the ‘+’ operator, given two numbers, will add them together, but when given two strings, will turn them into one string by concatenating them.  Additionally, when one is dealing with structrured data, one can overload a reference to a piece of that data.  ‘ID’ can refer to a student ID, a class ID, or Idaho.

I like this metaphor when it comes to overloading words in language.  In particular, I feel that the concept of an overloaded term intended to mean multiple discrete things is  particularly applicable, given the response I’ve gotten to certain posts and tweets.  Namely, Altivo’s comments to the article on sexism in the fandom and Sparf’s responses to my twitter query about one’s favorite “unintentionally furry work of fiction”.  In both cases, the difference between one person’s definition of furry and the other’s is notable.  The big discrepancy seems to be whether or not the holder of the definition considers things that are not intentionally furry as furry or not.  Put another way, is anything that represents an anthropomorphic animal furry?

The whole concept of anthropomorphism, as I’m sure my (likely 100% furry) audience already knows, is the attribution of human characteristics to non-human objects, usually to non-human animals, real or fictional.  Since I seem to be on a tear of explaining myself, this is what I would call the parent category of what is furry.  The fact that Coyote could talk, that Mickey Mouse could stand on two legs, that Garfield hated Mondays, these all fall into the camp of anthropomorphism, without a doubt.  However, in each case, the author or authors designed the animal in question without a thought (at least, at first) that they might be subsumed by a fandom that was not specifically related to that exact thing (insofar as there is a Coyote, Mickey, or Garfield fandom).

Both of the commenters I mentioned before appear to disagree with me on this, however, and I know that they are not alone in their definitions of furry.  In fact, the number one response to the question “Describe furry in your own words” on the [a][s] Census and Survey far and away seems to be “an affinity for anthropomorphic animals”.  However, I’m not convinced that I’m alone in feeling that this isn’t exactly the case for many who call themselves “furs”.

My biggest complaint with simply claiming “any anthropomorphized animal” as our own is that the definition is simply too big for a fandom to be able to be structured around it.  Specifically, I feel that there is more to the fandom than simply anthropomorphic animals: avatars.  It’s not so much that we share thoughts or even fantasies about anthro-animals with each other, but that we all create our own avatars consisting of a mix of ourselves and an animal of our choice.  I’m not sure that a furry convention would be able to gain multiple thousands of attendees if it simply consisted of many people agreeing loudly with each other that they like talking foxes.

On the other hand, I know that there are many levels of auto-anthropomorphism within the community.  Some people find it a fun thing to draw, some think it’s pretty awesome to dress up as an animal, and many find it perfectly pleasing to interact with each other on the Internet as if they were anthropomorphized canines and felines.  The main thing that ties all of these diverse individuals together is the fact that they enjoy the connection between man and animal embodied in the concept of anthropomorphism.  It is the root of our community, and the base of our interaction with each other.  There are two questions that deal with this on the [a][s] survey: “what is your level of anthropomorphism?” and “what is your means of interaction with the fandom?”.  That such questions are even part of what could be considered a general census of the furry fandom is a clue that there is something more than the specific concept of having a partially-animal avatar.

This is why I prefer the definition for furry as “a collection of people who identify as furries”. I think that it encompasses the right amount of people without overstepping bounds.  It allows me to say things like “unintentionally furry” in order to differentiate between those who do something related to anthropomorphic animals and those who consider themselves members of a group who is willing to focus on anthropomorphics to the extent that many will even create for themselves an avatar for interpersonal interaction that is an anthropomorphic animal.  In short, it allows me to step on the fewest toes.  Or tails.

I feel that this differentiation is important, not only for us being able to define ourselves to ourselves, but also to the world around us.  I’ve mentioned before the reaction of the writer Steven Boyett’s reaction to discovering that his novel The Architect of Sleep had been latched onto by members of the furry fandom (for those who missed it, it was decidedly negative).  When we define ourselves to others, we have to take into consideration our own definitions of the fandom, as well as others’.  This is something that was elaborated on by Samuel Conway (that is, Uncle Kage) in his Anthrocon panel on interacting with the media (something which I very much recommend watching).  Conway neatly breaks this down into a few key points:

  • Don’t define ourselves in terms of what we’re not – If you say “it’s not about sex!”, then the first thought that will leap into the minds of your listeners is “wait…why did they mention sex?”
  • Don’t define ourselves in terms that aren’t easily understood – This ties into some of my qualms about defining furry as “people who are interested in anthropomorphic animals”: doing so provides such a broad definition that it becomes easier for the listener to oversimplify than to understand, and that only if they already know what we mean when we say “anthropomorphic animals”.
  • Do be aware of first impressions – Conway suggests that you lead with your answer to the question “what is all this?” by saying that we are fans of “cartoon animals”.  While this grates on my nerves, I have a hard time disagreeing.  If someone’s first opinion of you is as a fan of Tom and Jerry and Rocky and Bullwinkle, then there is little harm done before you go on to explain the fact that many of us come up with our own personal characters with which we associate.
  • Do be aware of the listener’s preconceptions – While this isn’t explicitly described in detail in the talk, it is implied with Conway’s interactions with the ex-military audience member: if the listener already thinks that we are a bunch of sex-crazed maniacs who fetishize getting it on in animal costumes, take that into account in your own interactions with them.

These are just a few of the items mentioned in a lengthy talk on interacting with the media, but I feel that they’re important to consider when coming to terms with defining furry.  There are many who hold their own vague concept of what we are already in their heads due to either their own personal interaction (or membership) with the fandom or with a media outlet’s portrayal of us.

Besides even that, though, our interaction with others within the fandom depends in part on what we consider to be a furry.  Some have a more liberal definition of furry, in that it includes constructs that are not intended to be included in a fandom of those who create their own constructs for themselves.  Others, however, hesitate to even call themselves furry, so much as furry artists, or eschewing even that, anthro or even animal artists.  Put that way, my own definition seems to be something of a cop out: I say that those, whether or not they have constructed their own characters, are furries so long as they identify as such.

In more concrete terms, I think that this is the definition that my readers should take into account when reading my articles and the twitter feed.  When I say that there is a focus on sexuality and a certain sort of sexism in furry, I mean within those who identify as furry; similarly, when I ask what is a favorite “unintentially furry” work, what I really should’ve asked is what would be a favorite work focusing on anthropomorphic animals that didn’t originate from our own subculture. This is partly in my defense as a response to those who have called me on my use of the term, but also me tossing my own two cents in when it comes to defining furry: it is what you make of it!

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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7 thoughts on “Participation Mystique 2 – On Words

  1. Well, you might expect that this doesn’t work for me. Even putting aside the fact that I do identify myself as “furry” or “a furry” and my interest in the fandom has nothing to do with sexuality, there is a more significant flaw.

    Your definition is so self-referential that it is no definition at all. It’s like saying that the color blue is anything that is labeled as the color blue. Or worse, that it’s anything that labels itself as blue. That doesn’t really work, does it?

    I think when we look at politicians who change their party affiliation, we are inclined to say “He says he’s a Republican now but he’s still a Democrat.” Years ago, there was a related phenomenon, the “Southern Democrat” who voted like a Republican but called himself a Democrat. Labels like these are not very helpful for the purposes of discussion or definition, in my opinion.

    To use a more blatant and obnoxious analogy, take the example of a person who insists he is not gay (or not homosexual) yet in practice the majority of his sexual activities take place with persons of the same sex… This is not a rare situation, unfortunately, and beside the fact that he is certainly a hypocrite or a liar or seriously in denial and delusion, is he not in fact a homosexual? The inverse is the person who identifies as gay, but appears to be or in fact is entirely celibate. Are they homosexual? There have been a lot of arguments over this particular question because some want to define homosexuality strictly in terms of sexual activity, while others view it as a mental or emotional orientation regardless of whether it is physically consummated.

    So was Kenneth Grahame a furry? Or were his characters furry? Is there a distinction? Does it matter? These are valid questions we may not be able to answer.

    But, using your definition, no one could be a furry until the concept of “furry” existed as a label. This probably puts a sharp line in time somewhere in the 1980s or thereabouts. I have to disagree. The fact that I learned to use the word “furry” to describe an aspect of my personality somewhere around 1991 does not indicate any change in my essence at that time. I am still the same person I was before then. Just as my eyes were hazel before I saw them in the mirror and certainly before I ever knew what that color was, so I say I have been a furry as far back in my life as I can remember anything relevant to the term. And that goes back much, much farther than the terminology itself.

    Or, to borrow from Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which you call a rose, by any other name is still as sweet.” The name doesn’t define that which is named. It works the other way around.

    1. There was a time when I came to a similar definition: “a furry is anyone who consents to the label”. I’ve since come to take a rather dim view of this definition. Its only virtue is that it doesn’t upset anyone.

      My current definition is based on aesthetic reaction rather than self-identification. You’re furry if you believe that animal people are pretty. It’s a narrower definition than most people in the fandom might be comfortable with, since it’s not enough to be interested in animal people; it requires a particular attitude towards them. “Prettiness” is somewhat superficial, and strongly slanted towards visual representations.

      The intention is to distinguish between other attitudes to animal people. For example, Fritz the Cat isn’t pretty; when animal people are subversive, that’s underground comix, not necessarily furry. Omaha was subversive AND pretty, so it’s furry comix; the categories aren’t mutually exclusive. Aesop’s fables would be something like “animal people are symbols”, totemism would be “animal people are spiritual”, therianism is “animal people are who I am”, and so forth.

      The narrowness makes this a useful definition for all the cases where people say things AREN’T furry. An artist might draw a pretty animal character as part of a commission, without personally believing that animal people are especially beautiful. So the art would be furry, but the artist would not be. Someone who rejects being called a “furry” and despises the fandom is still furry if they like pretty animal people.

      1. If furry was just about graphic art, I could see your point. Since we know that furry isn’t just about pretty pictures of animal people, the definition isn’t complex enough to be useful. I know artists of many different mediums (text, music and cloth) who are certainly furry – some of which only interact with the subculture in their specific way.

        I think using a self-identification statement is important to being part of a subculture – but it isn’t the only part. If someone says they are gay, but are not homosexual, that causes a lot of confusion. So here is my proposed definition:

        “A furry is a person who creates or enjoys content that deals with anthropomorpic animals, and declares themself to be such.”

  2. I know it’s only February but can we get this man the award for most labored computer science analogy of the year? He has set a high bar is all I’m sayin’.

    Re: the topic at hand though, I feel like the answer to this question is that something is “furry” to the extent that aligns with or embodies the values of the furry community. Obviously the A-No. 1 value of the furry community is interest and appreciation of anthropomorphic art. Like you’re not gonna end up with a severed My Little Pony head next to you in bed with a note pinned to it saying to keep the fuck out of Pittsburg in June for saying that, clearly. But that’s not the only one.

    I am certainly not going to claim to have a lock on what the other important values are and I’d be super interested to know what the crew here thinks; but if I had to take a shot here are the two that I’d throw out.
    The first is uncritical acceptance. This is reflected in the proliferation of, uh, “alternative lifestyles” for lack of a better term; how nearly everyone is a creator of some sort and how everyone is encouraged to exhibit their works, and the dearth of negativity and, less pejoratively, critical discourse about this huge pulsating mass of art.
    The second would be emotional directness I guess? By which I mean valuing a directness of communication. Which I think is reflected in the importance of characters/avatars as that additional level of anonymity facilitates emotionally direct communication, and pulling that into the real world only furthers that. Also the, some would say over-, use of emoticons and that thing where you put a verb in between asterisks or colons and we are to understand that you are performing that action? Both of these things seem like they are intended to directly represent an emotional state and circumvent the inherent ambiguity of language. And finally, from what I understand, the hugging, of which there is much. Hard to infer more than one thing from a hug, unless you are character in The Godfather which you are not.

    So yeah, some anthropomorphic things are furry and some are not, because some align with the other values of the community and some do not, and the degree to which they do is the degree to which they are furry. This is why say Achewood or the comics of Jason are not furry, for example, they don’t embody these other values.

  3. As a Computer Science student, I feel as though your definition of “furry” as “a collection of people who identify as furries” may be a form of infinite recursion, without a “base case” to resolve it to. It doesn’t clarify anything, or go into any detail as to what furry entails.

    When it comes to Conway, ever since listening to him at RainFurrest 2009, I’ve found nothing he says applies to my being aligned with the furry fandom.(Actually, I have a much more critical opinion of him, but that goes off-topic.) The notion of “Don’t define ourselves in terms of what we’re not”…ironically, I find that’s what I do because, well, it seems there are many “interests” (I’m using the term somewhat liberally here) that I don’t share with other furries.
    “Cartoon animals?” I’m sorry, I just think that’s a gross oversimplification. My alfurnate/fursona is based off a cartoon, but it seems that more fursonas have characteristics from real(istic) species; I’m having difficulty finding an artist to do a fursuit reference sheet, as most of the ones I have come across have more “lifelike” subjects and stylings. And, as far as “preconceptions” go, most passersby that ask me about furry while I’m at function do not appear to have any previous knowledge of our kind. Yet, they tend to be rather open-minded and understanding. There has been only one instance where an acquaintance of mine asked me about my attending a furry convention. Her conclusion? “That’s some pretty freaky [CENSORED]!” But, I explained the other activities during the convention, and again, she was receptive to them.

    Looking at some of the reader comments, I’m not sure that all furries express an “uncritical acceptance” of all its members; with some groups, while they may not be explicitly barred from attending furry events, they may not have a favorable light cast upon them by others. I also feel that the terms “directness of communication” and “level on anonymity” contradict each other. I want my furry friends to know that I am the same person, whether in-person or on-line, in and out of fursuit. It’s hard for me to describe to my non-furry associates about some of the interesting things furries do if I’m forced to refer to them by a pseudonym that is, at best, a little silly. In the end, it’s a rather ironic twist on Makyo’s idea of “Participation Mystique.”

    I went back and read the previous article before I read this one, and I think you did a good job explaining the furry social dynamic there, Makyo. Here in Part 2, however, I think you diverged off on how to explain our kind to others, whereas I was content with just an “in-house” definition. Nevertheless, I do appreciate your efforts & research.

  4. I’m generally surprised by the variety of responses to this article, which goes to show that even the furries themselves have a hard time coming down to a agreeable consensus on what constitutes someone or something as ‘furry’. This also applies to myself, as I had struggled to achieve the exact definition of the term, and my definition has certainly changed from when I first heard of it, then when I finally realized and admitted that I am a furry, until even now.

    I guess one similar analogy to the vagueness of the defining characteristics of furry is the anime industry’s usage of the term ‘moe’. You see it being used everywhere in mangas, animes and all related mass and electronic media in Japan, yet when you ask any die-hard fan of this subculture about the definition of the term ‘moe’, you will most likely receive different answers depending on the perception of the person being asked. To roughly quote from an anime I’ve watched before: “When it comes down to it, it’s hard to really say what it means… if you can somehow do this, then you must be hardcore.”

    Nowadays, I just use the American way of seeing things (correct me if I’m wrong): if it smells like a rose, and it looks like a rose, then it is a rose. Similarly, if you feel comfortable with the notion that you are a furry, and you appreciate things that seem furry to you, then you are a furry. If an artwork, a novel, a movie etc looks furry, and feels furry, then the said work is a furry work, regardless of the opinion of the creators themselves. A somewhat shallow and silly way of seeing the furry fandom, but it’s the one I’m sticking with for now. Makes things less complicated and lets me enjoy being part of an awesome community without taking too much into the details.

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