The Uniquely Furry Distortions of Gender

Guest post by Thesis White. Thesis is a writer-artist, cognitive science student, and peachy dalmatian who loves creating their own discourse. (Thesis is on Twitter and FX.)

The furry identity is thought by many to be one of sexual and romantic liberation, where furs can engage in relationships with others, bound by a shared sense of playfulness and fetishism. Not all furries have exclusively romantic interests towards others within the fandom; I myself am mated with a non-fur. However, where there is much literature about sexuality and relationships in the furry world, it is outside of what I’m going to discuss. More interesting and dynamic than our sexuality is the uniquely furry distortions of gender.

The internet facilitates our ability to be furry. For most furries, furryness is an interest and a self-identification through a fursona, but to understand it, we must understand its origins. A legacy of human-animal hybrids throughout mythology and 20th-century fiction is behind us, and in our early years exists televised pictures of Bugs Bunny and Balto. Where originally the mythical monstrosities of human and animal were to be feared as gods and demons in the flesh, modern anthropomorphics are adored primarily by children in an intimate relationship between entertainer and audience.

What types of images did we see, though? Many furry cartoon characters weren’t physically sexed, but given gendered social roles. Disney’s fox, Robin Hood, wore no pants and was explicitly physically androgynous, but still played the role of the masculine hero and saved the princess from the horrid King Richard. As we move into adulthood and gain entrance to a mature furry community, we see both sexed and non-sexed furs. As we reach puberty and onward, we discover that our furry personas can serve a sexuality and character that we adopt to explore ourselves and our interests.

Other than a more sexual attitude towards anthropomorphicized characters however, we also come through adolescence to a more gendered understanding of bodies. As we become more sexually active, we also become more aware of the physical characteristics of the men and women around us. We link together the concepts of developing breasts with wearing dresses and painting nails.

But it begs the question: Other than discovering our sexuality, how do we act furry? Outside yiffing and our playful understanding of furs, how do employ gender in a furry context?

Before I go on, I should explain more about what gender is, academically speaking. We understand gender to be male, female, and other non-binary identities like trans*, agendered, genderqueer and so forth. It is a learned trait. We are born into the world with little inherited information about how we should act, and even less (and debateably, any) genetic predisposition to gendered behaviors. Because someone is born with a uterus, we do not necessarily have to wear bras or have manners; these are learned behaviors. We are taught the boundaries of our gender through what not to do; boys aren’t given barbies often or girls dirt bikes (at least, in my time. It’s becoming more acceptable with each year.)

Gender is a learned identity that we embrace, and we are born into a world of people that have cisnormative attitudes, believing there are only two opposite genders. It is difficult for many people to understand that we are not born manly or womanly, but rather are taught it, and so they believe it is a disorder or mental imbalance when people are trans or non-binary.

Emily Martin, an esteemed anthropologist, wrote about how genderisms in our understanding of life even go so far as to become naturalized in our scientific language; we understand menstruation to be a disposal of “bad flesh,” a purge of bad ovaries, whereas sperm production is heralded as an amazing triumph of the human body. (This is in complete disregard for the fact that usually only a few sperm cells, if any, actually become children. The male body loses more reproductive cells than the female body was ever born with.) The eggs are seen as having a passive role in reproduction that receives the sperm who uses its tail to push up to the egg (where actually its tail flails randomly and has very little propelling power). It is never considered that a woman’s body incubates and supplements a fetus until it’s born, whereas the male plays a role for only a few moments. Gender even penetrates academia and what’s considered “objective”.

Gender theorists have come to the conclusion that these naturalized conceptions are contrary to the truth. Male and female are simply two ways of behaving that are on a continuum of gender. We are told what roles we should play, and most people believe it’s true. We are not gendered by nature, but nurture.

Consider sexual dimorphism. This term denotes the physical differences between the 2+ sexes of a species, where the difference in some is very obvious and in others very subtle. Often it takes specialized knowledge to know one from the other; would you be able to easily tell two parakeets apart? Female and male gorillas are in appearance extremely easy to tell apart, whereas sea horses may not be. We are most familiar with our own dimorphism, but when considering the world of the animal kingdom, our differences between male and female bodies are very minute. Even so, an approximate 1% (ref) of the human population is intersexed, further blurring the lines between sexes.

Furries (and just about everyone else) as children learn what it meant to be male or female. But we affect our gender by taking on non-human characteristics in our furry identities. The bodies that furries adopt in fursonas and characters are of blurred gender; animals themselves are hard to tell apart, it’s the human-like characteristics that are the telling features. Even then, they are fantasized in forms people cannot accomplish in themselves with curves too shapely or brawn nigh impossible. From our tails and colors of our furs to the noses and ears, we explore what gendered forms mean through how we draw furries and, by extension, ourselves. Our furryness puts us outside of a system where being female is simply ‘feminine’ where we extend what womanhood is into paws that humans can’t have.

Many furries go so far as avoiding sexing furry forms and create a body outside of even a furry binary system of male and female. Take Truxton (actually Lapfox), the furry techno musician who put out an album featuring an agendered hell-hound on the cover. Or look at some of the past Fur Affinity banners, where the characters don’t feature anything but a friendly non-human face. These are the fantasies we embrace and love, genders that don’t exist anywhere else that we create.

As an effect of our gendered society, we don’t often recognize that we are doing this. I may go so far to say that my theory may come across as misguided, a queer attempt at bringing furry into the domain of gender identity. I’d like to propose that we challenge ourselves to examine these distortions of gender and try to come to terms with what they mean to us. Undeniably, the majority of Blotch’s work features masculine bodies, but are humans usually that shapely, tall, or flexible? Furry art features a grotesque and beautiful caricature of human bodies in their physical, social, and political uses, but it is that abstraction that allows us to explore ourselves and our ever-changing vision of who our bodies are and what we would like them to mean.

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14 thoughts on “The Uniquely Furry Distortions of Gender

  1. A very interesting essay. I do have some questions which I want to ask and possibly some disagreements to discuss, but I hope the tone of my reply does not seem too negative since I think your post was very good.

    I often have problems with the term gender since it is often used in different ways. From your standpoint, are you making a distinction between gender roles and gender itself?

    In your sixth paragraph you state that gender is a learned trait and all your examples seem to relate to gender roles. You also explicitly state that the presence of a uterus does not directly result in behaviors such as wearing bras so again it seems to me as if you are using gender and gender roles as synonyms.

    Later though it seems to me as if you are referring to physical trails as linked to gender–this confuses me. As an example when you discuss blurred gender in furries you seem to me to focus on the antomical/physical aspects of the fursona. This confuses me because your previous definition seemed to state these were not relevant to gender. Could you please clarify?

    Also I am confused about your transition from gender to sexual dimorphism and back again. The degree to which there is sexual dimorphism varies in different organisms, but in any case it refers to anatomical differences not behavioral differences and therefore should not relate to genders.

    For myself, I am surprised that there is still the idea out that people’s biological anatomy should determine their behavior and things they like. I was born in the sixties and raised to believe that gender should not limit who we are and what we want to do. If a boy wants to wear pink, play baseball, have dolls and trucks, then that is who he is–he shouldn’t be pushed into gender roles (and of course the same goes for anyone else regardless of their gender or anatomy–that was over forty years ago, have we gone backwards?

    1. Hello, just to clarify without closing off other interpretations;

      Gender and sex are not synonymous. Gender roles are imposed on certain biological “sexes.” Gender and gender roles are one and the same. This is according to Queer theories, which I embrace as true.

      Also, if you’re interested in the section about naturalized genderisms in scientific understandings of sex, read some of Martin’s work. My explanation was brief, but her work does the real justice.

      1. Thanks. After I posted that, I was thinking that although I do not accept traditional gender roles, I do use a traditional gender in terms of pronouns to describe myself.

      2. I don’t mean to quibble, so much as expand on this because it’s certainly interesting. I feel it’s worth mentioning that “Gender and gender roles are one and the same” is a reduction that some might find unkind. While it’s accepted as true within queer and much of critical theory that gender is a social construct, neither sociology nor psychology must be espoused at the expense of the other. Gender is often divided, therefore, into identity and roles, with identity being the psychological aspect and roles being the sociological aspect; two sides of the same coin, in a sense. The reason this distinction is worth noting is that *social* gender markers, such as bifurcated pants, while traditionally a masculine symbol in western culture, are now no longer considered a strictly male garment, while causing no impingement on one who identifies as female any *psychological* distress – after all, a sense of identity is psychopathological; that is, the feeling of having an identity is a marker for psychological distress with regards to that area of one’s life.

        The reason that I think that this is interesting comes back to some very early articles on [a][s] about Goffman’s concept of front- and back-stage social interaction. If the core of one’s gender *identity* is different from one’s gender expression (a term I prefer over role), then what better place than a totally designed, totally constructed ‘setting’ to coerce the social aspects to be more in line with the psychological? To be able to go beyond, as you put it, a place where being female is simply feminine is a very logical extension to the creation of one’s ideal avatar (much was said on the use of ‘ideal’ in the species selection and character creation articles).

        Thank you so much for the delightful article; always wonderful to see such insight being applied to the furry subculture!

  2. I am separating this second comment because it is focusing on the paragraph about genderism in science. I am a biologist and have taught anatomy for years. I have never read a single book or heard it said that menstruation is a loss of bad flesh. The phrase “purge of bad ovaries” makes even less sense. Nor have I heard most of the other gender related stuff you mention in that section. I suppose it is possible that decades ago these terms/characterization may have been present, but that is hardly how it is taught now. For myself, I always point out that the “goal” of a sperm is to fertilize an egg and that (in humans) each ejaculate normally contains between 100 to 650 million sperm, but that usually only one achieves its goal of fertilizing the egg. At this point I then state, jokingly, that most sperm are losers.
    I am also curious as to the basis of your statement that the flagella of most sperm flails randomly and has very little propelling power. Certainly in humans the sperm does not swim all the way to the egg, rather the semen coagulate is carried up to the oviducts by reverse peristalsis of the uterus, but that does not mean the flagella has little power and is random. I do not know the case in humans, so if you could provide supporting evidence for your statement, I would appreciate it, but I can state that the evidence in sea urchins is quite clear that the sperm’s flagella can actively propel it towards the egg and that it is not random, but rather attracted by chemical released by the egg.

  3. Have you considered any links between any of this and furries who tend to be stereotypical in terms of their species? Or stereotype other species? I don’t know whether someone who was fluid with gender would also be more willing to be fluid with species or if that would be unrelated

    1. Heya Keito. That’s a really interesting question.

      I was fortunate enough to be involved with this article. Not the idea or the actual writing of course, just helping Thesis get it online and in the general [adjective][species] format. It got me thinking about how my own furry identity might be reflected in my gender – I’m largely a garden-variety cis-gendered male (at least by furry standards), and perhaps that influenced my choice of species. You could certainly argue that the horse reflects a pretty ordinary ‘maleness’. And thinking about my furry friends, maybe there is some correlation there.

      But that’s just a guess – perhaps it is reflected in the huge cache of data that Furrypoll gives us? It’s been an ongoing quest of mine to discover some significant differences between furry species, without luck so far (with one exception: women are significantly more likely to choose ‘domestic cat’ as their furry species). Even some intuitively likely correlations turn out to be false: herbivores are not more likely to be vegetarian; younger furs are not more likely to identify as a dragon.

      Makyo and Klisoura are currently processing the data from the 2013 Furrypoll, and I understand that it looks like the best turnout – in terms of responses – since 2009. So there will be a wealth of interesting data, as long as we can ask clever questions. I wonder what species vs gender (vs biological sex) might show.

    2. We have some data! And it’s really interesting.

      We’re looking at species incidence, only considering furries who are biologically male. The first number is those who consider their gender to be completely male (which is about 75% of our dataset); the second number is everyone else (about 25%).

      Wolf: 19.0% / 14.3%
      Canine: 14.3% / 11.1%
      Feline: 14.6% / 19.0%

      These are really big differences. Why? No idea. I’m going to leave the analysis to you guys.

      (Other species show much smaller differences. Full dataset here http://collie.su/species_gender.html. All this courtesy Klisoura, [a][s] co-founder & survey guru.)

  4. “We are not gendered by nature, but nurture”

    Blank slate fallacy, really. Please stop inserting politicised bullshit into what could be interesting discussions. Dogmatizing a subculture is one of the more disrespectful things you could do to it.

    1. Hi there Mystery Fur. Thanks for the comment, and I think it’s a worthwhile point. I have decided to interpret your words as “efficient”, rather than “terse”.

      I’ll add that Thesis qualified that statement by opening the paragraph with “Gender theorists have come to the conclusion that…”. By my reading, this means that plenty of people will disagree, and that Thesis is not presenting it as incontrovertible fact.

      But I’m not really responding to tackle your point. From a more general point of view, a fair bit of what we do here at [adjective][species] might be characterized as dogma. There is very little language available to us to describe furry, because it is such a young, ever-changing, and broad community. We are, at times, trying to define language that allows to build on those ideas. And sometimes that language will come across—perfectly reasonably, to some people—as bullshit.

      As an example: there is an article up on Flayrah at the moment that takes issue with my characterization of furry as a ‘community’. To the writer, furry is (still) a fandom, and to suggest otherwise is to active exclude some furries. And that’s a fair argument.

      Whenever we introduce new ideas and new language to furry, like Thesis’s comments about gender or my comments about furry’s structure, we inevitably end up coming across as disrespectful to some people. We’re aware of that, and that we’re aware that we have a louder voice than many people thanks to the small soapbox afforded by this site. That’s why criticism, even efficient criticism like yours, is valuable, and it’s why we freely publish counterpoint articles written by anyone who wishes to do so.

      The fact is, we can’t write about furry without exploring new ideas and new language. This inevitably is a bit dogmatic at times, but hopefully most people consider most of what we write to be positive. I certainly think that Thesis’s article is a positive exploration of an original idea, but I’m not surprised that some people have a different point of view (not least due to the politically fraught nature of gender politics). We need work like Thesis’s to start the conversation, and help us find ideas and language that fairly reflect the state of furry. Otherwise, we’d be reduced to bland pleasantries that everyone can agree with.

      If you’re inclined to expand your thoughts by 1000 words or so, we’d be pleased to publish it. As it stands, thanks for taking the time to make your comment.

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