The Fandom and its Fursonas

Doug Fontaine is a writer, ployglot, and generally talkative otter. Read more at his SoFurry account.

This article will touch upon the reason having a fursona is so essential for many members of our community. Whether we have a spiritual or a more down-to-earth relationship between our normal and furry selves, the fandom accentuates what is otherwise a purely personal fantasy.

Art, literature, music, blogs, videos, and more; they all serve to express common interests within their respective communities. Through drawings, stories, and even this article, we portray our fascination of anthropomorphic animals, similar to other subcultures and their main interests. We have sites dedicated to furry artwork, podcasts with furry hosts, even famous musicians and authors who consider themselves furries (such as Fox Amoore or Kyell Gold). We hold numerous gatherings throughout the globe. In 2013, Anthrocon (currently the largest fur con) was estimated to have generated $6.2 million in direct spending (ref) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania USA.

However, an interesting phenomenon has occurred in the furry fandom that separates the subculture from “the norm”.

The foundation of our community has been overtaken by original fan-made content. Okay, maybe my last statement needs some explanation and examples. By “foundation”, I mean the source, the spark from which the furry subculture emerged. Fred Patten—a historian and writer—identified the first usage of the term “furry” as occurring in 1980, (the question originated during a debate regarding anthropomorphic beings at the NorEasCon II World Science Fiction Convention in Boston) (ref). The fandom has grown exponentially, inspired and nourished by animated and illustrated media featuring creatures with humanoid characteristics, such as SWAT Cats, Robin Hood, The Lion King, Looney Toons, etc. along with novels that draw our attentions to talking feral animals.

We have come a long and perhaps, sometimes tedious, way from Albedo Anthropomorphics by Gallacci to social websites dedicated to our own furry creations such as Fur Affinity, SoFurry, etc. Through three decades, the fandom seemingly lost (not completely) its interest in Watership Down, Redwall, Kimba: the White Lion, and Disney’s Adventure of the Gummi Bears. Instead our focus has been directed, now more than ever, at our own creations; stories, artwork of fursonas, fursuiters…

Beloved characters and popular fursonas such as Sea Salt, November, Buddy, Lupin Assassin, difFURently, and Fender (just to name a few) are maybe more likely to ring a bell than Kimba, Mattimeo or Matthias the Mouse, and Bigwig. We are valuing our fans and their works more than what made us admirers in the first place. That is not a criticism, quite the opposite, but rather an acknowledgement of an impressive feat. Our fandom has become an internet Ouroboros, if you catch my drift. It doesn’t rely on external factors/contributors anymore to survive, to create new content – Fursonas!

Commissioners fuel the artistic side of the furry subculture with drawings of their characters. Numerous of artwork depict the individual furs, you! Writers blog and compose tales in which their own or fictional anthropomorphic characters thrive. Kyell Gold, a fellow fur is a prime example of how our fandom can create stable careers in furry literature. Roleplayers actively participate within the community to engage others with their own fursonas. At the majority of conventions, “Fursuit Parades” are held as fursuiters animate their fursonas with hugs and muzzle boops and murr sui-…you get the idea.

A fursona isn’t a mere description of who you are, or just a drawing of your furry self within the furry community. It initiates for many their participation to the subculture, entrance fee if you want. Our fursonas are as much part of the fandom as the fandom is a part of our fuzzy or scaly alter egos.

To misquote Karl Marx via George Orwell: “Animals of the world, Unite!” Whether you see your character to be your totem animal, a personification of your inner self, or a better version of who you see yourself to be, be proud to show the fandom what you’ve got! Without individual characters and fursonas all over the world, our community would be solely devoted to artists/artisans/authors/etc. rather than being the welcoming family, cherishing every single contribution you want to offer.

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9 thoughts on “The Fandom and its Fursonas

  1. The notion that there’s been a Great Shift in furrydom between its 1980s roots and present day seems to be a running theme on [a][s], and as someone who was actually there — and had a “fursona” before that portmanteau had been, er, ported — I’d like to gently push back a little against that.

    There’s a fundamental difference between the oft-cited Albedo Anthropomorphics and Disney movies and cartoons: Albedo came from us. Sure, most furries of that generation cite non-fan-created media as “what made them furry,” but that’s not actually much of a distinction from today: you have to actually see furry stuff *labeled as furry* before you go “Uh, I think that’s actually me.” Then after that you think back on how much you loved Robin Hood or TMNT or [fill in the blank] and go ‘hmmm.” But once you’re in furry, your favorite stuff is furry-created. That was as true twenty-odd years ago as it is now. Somewhere around here I have a survey done by the late Gerald Perkins at ConFurence 4 asking about the most popular fictional characters in furry. Albedo’s Erma Felna came in #2 — behind Revar, the heroine of a four-part novella published in YARF! called “A Gift of Fire, A Gift of Blood.”

    And while we said “personal furry” rather than “fursona,” a lot of us had those personal furries — and for a lot of folks they were just as serious business then as they are now. I recall an article by Tanith Tyrr in 1988 or 1989 talking about furry spirituality. (The most famous fursona of the time was arguably Sylys Sable.)

    I do really enjoy these articles — I just think that [a][s] tends to draw a dichotomy between “furry as fandom” and “furry as subculture” in a far more discrete fashion than ever actually existed. Doug hits on what (I think) makes furry unique, the oft-cited bon mot that we are fans of one another. But this is not a new thing to the current generation of furs — it’s *always* been what’s made furries unique.

    1. Thank you for the feedback! For obvious reason a 20 year old is always limited when researching or discussing (part of) a topic that encompasses experiences/events that I couldn’t possibly have taken part in.

      I’m glad to have read about your past participations in the fandom (which can go by unnoticed by the youner generations). The emergence of the furry community did and still does baffle me at times. Alas, research and teachings can’t ever beat experience.

      Thank you again for taking time to read this short article. I would be more than happy if you are open to share more of your personal knowledge about the early stages of fandom.

      Happy Very Belated Chinese New Year!
      Doug~

    2. Hi Watts, thanks for the comment and the direct experience, it’s interesting stuff. I am probably the one who is responsible for characterizing furry as having two distinct stages, and it is certainly fair to say that it’s a simplification of the much more complex truth.

      Writing about furry presents one big challenge: trying to define what furry is in the first place. I had problems early in my stint here at [a][s], because I couldn’t make any sweeping statements without there being clear counterexamples: like, say, all furries have a fursona, or that furry culture is based around the furry identity.

      We have been developing language to discuss furry as we go, and I have found it convenient to talk about there being “two waves” of furry. The first wave is roughly fan-centric and the second identity-centric, with the change occurring in the late 1990s, a time marked by furry culture wars: a.l.f vs a.f.f; burned furs, the backlash against perceived sexualization of the fandom, etc. It’s not a perfect model, but it’s semantically efficient and broadly true as far as I can tell.

      There are of course plenty of “fans” in today’s furry, just as there were “lifestylers” in the 1980s as you point out. Still, the examples you choose still look pretty “fannish” to me: even though they are by-furry for-furry. For example, your examples are all female! To me that reads like another example of a cultural shift in furry, away from the heterosexual-male dominance of fandom groups, towards today’s variety and fluidity of sexual orientation and gender.

      But your points stands – that furry has always been a community defined by it’s consumption of by-furry for-furry art. It’s nice and entirely unsurprising to see your novella at the top of the list as well.

      The reason I like Doug’s modest article, and why [a][s] published it, is because he has gone back to look at some of these furry “first principles”. I’ve written a lot on the topic, and so I guess I’m naturally heading down a few rabbitholes in the pursuit of something new to say. Doug’s approach is a much broader one, which is something that [a][s] and furry cultural criticism in general needs. I’m happy to say that we have some more writing from him coming up.

      By the way, I would love to see you write more about furry culture, and how it’s changed over the last 30-40 years, and of course [a][s] would love to host it. I think there would be a lot of value in challenging some of the things written by myself or others, and providing a new perspective. That is, after all, how we develop our language and ideas. (If it helps, I’ll trade you for a piece in Claw & Quill.)

      1. I don’t think I entirely follow how “heterosexual” is “fannish”; it seems to me that you might be conflating things that aren’t as related as they first appear. It’s true furrydom had an awful lot of female pinups in its early days. But in terms of the actual base (i.e., participants), I suspect furry was way more diverse than comics and mainstream sf from very early on. A majority of the fans I knew in the late ’80s and early ’90s were gay or bisexual, and furry had a very early reputation for being “very” or “too” open depending on the inclinations of whoever was asking. :) (And as for the creative works, the Erma Felna stories were pretty much non-sexual, but Omaha the Cat-Dancer — a comic I think I’d make the case for being the single most influential work on How Furry Started — had gay and lesbian characters early on. And of course Associated Student Bodies came along in the late 90s.)

        I liked Doug’s article, I want to underline. :) I kind of wonder if the two waves of furry, though, are driven in large part to Internet access: I think the decline of fanzines and the rise of Fur Affinity don’t merely correlate to a big shift in What Furry Is, but FA and other net-centric communities largely drove it. I’d have to think about how to lay that out as a coherent article, though…

    3. Thanks for saying this. It’s a theme I seem to harp on constantly and feel it is too often ignored. The development of a label (“furry”) does not in any way prove the beginning of a community or an identity.

      The gay rights movement had many labels over the years, and certainly existed long before “gay” was generally understood and used as a label. Nor did it begin with Stonewall, though many younger folks seem to see that as a genesis rather than an emergence into greater visibility.

      The same is true of furry. We may have had no label for it, and some of us may have thought we were alone in the world (I certainly did) until we discovered like minds on the net. But the furry identity predates the label by many decades and probably centuries or millennia. Studying literature and art makes this pretty obvious I think.

      Today’s furry has become a youth cult that is ignorant of its roots and all too often tends to ignore as well its elders, both living and dead.

      1. Oh definitely the concept of furries predates the introduction of the term. But I do feel it’s always easier to discuss about a movement starting with a concrete point in time rather than going back “many decades and probably centuries or millennia”.

        Though I do have to slightly disagree when labelling the younger furs in the fandom as ignorant of its roots and that they’re ignoring its elders. As I stated before, it is hard to understand the beginning of a movement without having experienced it directly. It’s more the question of lack of information rather than lack of interest. It is hard for an individual to know of, for instance Tanith Tyrr’s article when he or she was introduced to the fandom when the term “furry” had already existed. Just like your example of your gay community; a young gay man would not have any idea of the struggles closeted men had during the 20s but it does not undermine his own personal experiences of the 21st century.

        I’m more than positive that anthropomorphism was present in Ancient Mesopotamia, Egyptian, Greek, and maybe even Roman civilisations. Just as I am sure that the notion of “furry” existed years before anyone had put a label to the concept. I totally agree that giving a social community a name isn’t necessarily equivalent to the beginning of a movement. But it should be at least seen as a turning point if not a milestone in the furry fandom’s history.

        Even though I am also a bit saddened by the fact that not many among us (and even myself for apparent reasons) know about its root and rich history so to speak, I am certain that the furs that are part of the community now will create new experiences for future generation to admire. I’m not undermining anyone’s past, but rather to celebrate where the fandom is currently and to anticipate for future contributions.

  2. I think furries share common traits with fans of other subjects. I think it’s just a matter of degree—we don’t have big money movie studios, recording companies, or sports team franchises to provide the pantheon of professional stars. We just have our websites, small publishing companies, and cons to move us along. Doug is correct in the observation that the big difference between furry and other fan groups is our self-generated content.
    Maybe the most striking difference between furries and other fan groups is that we have a set of individuals who sincerely believe that their animal fursona is their true self, that it is the definition of their existence. We might call them lifestylers (we once did), but I don’t know if that is still a widely understood, or relevant, term today
    I once wrote a small series of stories about the lifestylers, in my old LiveJournal. It began here: http://shiningriver.livejournal.com/2008/07/27/

    1. Hi SR. Thank you for linking to your LJ – it’s a terrific document and historical record, and makes for a fascinating read.

  3. I just went a looked at that again. I might have to work on it a little. I saw a duplicate post and possibly one that got left out.

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