Opinion: Why the Furry Fandom Shouldn’t Bother (too Much) with the Media

Guest article by Televassi.

Televassi is a bit of a newcomer to the fandom, however in his time here he’s been amazed by the friendly and creative nature of the people that make it up. Apart from being a writer, he also enjoys rock climbing and scuba diving, and has a keen interest in Celtic and Germanic cultures. You can find this torc wearing wolf on twitter as @Televassi, and find more of his writing and art on FA and Weasyl. He’s always happy to meet new people, so don’t be afraid to say hi!

For a long time I’ve never bothered to explain what I write about to friends and family. I’ve never bothered to explain why I have art of anthropomorphic wolf people. Nor have I bothered to explain precisely who I’m talking to online, or meeting on weekends. “Friends” is usually the monosyllabic and vague answer I’ll give – often met with little investigation now that making friendships online is a little less uncommon.

While such evasions may deflect questions, it isn’t satisfying to lie. It’s only natural to seek to openly express your interests to others. People often construct their identities based on their interests; they introduce themselves as climbers, divers, artists, and writers. In each of those examples, the activity the individual partakes in is not presented just as what they do, but also who they are. The activity becomes who you are, and when you do it, you are expressing yourself. Furry works in the same way too, yet even though it is something that binds Furries into a community through social, written, and artistic expression, many do not openly express it. This is seen in the recent [adjective][species] data snapshots on how open people are about being involved with the fandom:

how-out

It is clear that self-identification as Furry does not correlate with public expression of Furry. One probable reason for such a relationship is the media’s negative perception of Furry, a view commonly expressed by Furries and documented by [adjective][species]:

public-perception

The resulting belief of media scrutiny however, is a perception that does not correlate to current levels of coverage of Furry, a subject which does not appear frequently enough in both print and online news outlets to justify the belief. Regardless, it is clear that Furry is concerned with how it is scrutinised by the media, and this article seeks to explore that scrutiny when it does occur. Analysing recent articles from The New Yorker and Inquisitr, this article will analyse how they misinterpret and misdefine Furry in differing ways.

In the New Yorker article, if you can get past its overbearing style, lies an example of the misdefinition of Furries. For an article delving into post-humanist themes, it falls disappointingly short of understanding the relationship between post-humanism and Furries. Instead, it opts to group Furries with other eccentrics who have undergone attempts to become more ‘animal’; the article specifically mentions the case of a man who tried to live as a badger. As a result, the conclusion of the article rather predictably ends with the caveat that despite human attempts to become more animal, human beings cannot transcend their essential humanity and achieve animality – at best we are left with a human experience of the animal; the anthropomorphic, which, is the essence of the Fandom. The article interprets achieving ‘only’ the anthropomorphic as a failure by all the groups it has gathered together. As a result, the man who failed to live as a badger (to the extent of eating earthworms and living in an earth den) shares the same failure as the Furries who dress up in Fursuits and act like animals – that regardless of trying to become animals, both have failed to transcend their humanity and become animal. Yet this is erroneous, as for most Furries, becoming an animal in the total, ‘feral’ sense if you will, is not the goal. While it is for some, it is not for others – and thus one sees the problem of grouping individuals together without consideration of their individual differences.

One must be extremely suspicious of theories that attempt to create generalising, overarching statements over groups that have vast differences – or to use technical language, to create a ‘totalising metanarrative’. Thus, examining Furries at the same time as a man trying to live as—and thus become—a badger should be treated with the same scepticism one would get for saying anthropomorphic cave paintings are the same as modern day Furry art. Both examples are different, and do not share the same goals even if they share thematic similarities; it is not enough that they are simply anthropomorphic. The mistake of the article lies in imposing a meaning on two similar but ideologically separate groups in order to make them fit a general hypothesis. The nuances of both positions are lost, or one position ends up defining the other. One should examine the differences in a search to find that group’s own meaning, independent from the other. Put simply, such simplistic grouping inevitably places disparate things in the same box, when they should have a box of their own even if they belong on the same shelf. As a aside, thus article was written with the understanding that it’s analysis may well impose an interpretation on the fandom – an amorphous group of individual interpretations of Furry. However, that is something this article shall try to avoid, and neither shall it pretend that it is an authority to a community of individuals with their own valid opinions. Conversely, the problem with the media is that it does impose its own meanings upon Furry, either because journalists do not have enough time undergo extensive research, or that further investigation goes against the type of article they went to write.

From that introduction one can see how Furry can be misrepresented or misdefined in the media. For journalists, Furry seems something to either portray as exotic, with varying degrees of scandalous behaviour added to flavour the mix. For those who are not writing an article that investigates the curiosity of the ‘Other’, they often attempt to define Furry and understand it which, while admirable, carries the risk of defining Furry with little regard for Furries’ individual terms. Thus, Furry can be placed into a category which it wouldn’t necessarily fit – like The New Yorker did. Given the amorphous discourse upon what makes ‘Furry’ within the fandom, any disappointment one may feel arising from erroneous definitions and categorisations is justified. However it is understandable that mainstream media seeks to define Furry in a simple, bitesize way for its audience to understand as time and space are limited. Yet one must keep in mind that the media’s main objective is to cater to its audience, which inevitably is not Furries. As such, there will always be a disconnect – making readers understand and representing Furries accurately are not mutually exclusive. At its worst, the media can simply seek to reinforce the prejudices of its readership, which is not healthy for the Fandom.

This article is not advocating a conscious blockage of the media, because that is a futile gesture. Furries are always going to provoke curiosity, and such curiosity makes the Fandom news-worthy material. Even when the article is about clean content, Furry finds its niche as in ‘eccentric/curiosity’ article, in which the report navigates a fine line between celebrating difference and finding it as an object for ridicule – or simply, for the ‘norm’ to have an object which they can compare themselves too, and find themselves favourably. The latter method in particular can be a mode of reinforcing a belief of superiority for the audience’s own standards, and we inevitably find this when the topic turns to adult content. Adult content wouldn’t be a shock factor for most if sexual activity was seen as solely the business of the parties undertaking it. Yet sexual activity is a vexed topic, and so Furry sexuality is going to receive undue scrutiny because it deviates from the heteronormative standards society commonly holds. For media outlets this is a gift – as it takes little effort to be portrayed as shocking or depraved, and we’ve seen how Furry has been used to that effect in the past. Again, the intent of such pieces isn’t to understand, but to give its audience an object to ridicule – in this case, for entertainment and to feel superior because they are not ‘depraved’. Conservative outlets are more likely to do so than liberal ones; however a significant portion of articles on Furries question Furry sexuality. The response is usually a defensive ‘it’s a minority’ claim. This is telling in itself. The answer really should be ‘it’s not anyone’s business what consenting adults do’, and yet, the fandom is always put on the defensive by such questions, forced to justify itself as acceptable in terms of the readers’ standards, rather than our own. Why should society care about what people find attractive? If it is of age, and if it is consenting, does someone else’s opinions matter? Yet this is not the case, and such scrutiny in articles about the fandom reveals it is not allowed to speak for itself – it rather has to answer the questions of the outsider in a way that is acceptable to them, not to Furries.

When Furry tries to present itself so that it appears acceptable to an article’s audience, it closes down the most liberal aspect of Furry – that it celebrates and embraces a diversity of sexual preferences and fantasies, and for the most part, doesn’t bat an eyelid about it. Of course there are problematic preferences, but if those are of age and consenting, there’s rarely a problem. However, the media isn’t interested in creating nuanced, investigative reports – if audiences really responded to furry sexuality with no judgement over what consenting adults choose to do, then Furry sexuality would not feature.

One can see such scrutiny of Furry sexuality in a recent story about how the Disney movie Zootopia, was allegedly marketed to Furries. As the story spreads from the original Buzzfeed article (which did not mention sexuality at all), the original headline changes into another story, one that is about the scandal of perceived ‘deviant’ sexuality. The article from Inquisitr (aptly named for the witch-hunt it undergoes) takes the title about marketing, and then tries to prove it in a unique way – by attempting to read any hint of sexuality in the film as appealing to Furries’ sexual tastes. There is a sleight of hand here – the focus changes from having a film marketed to Furries, to talking about how the film appeals to Furry sexuality. As a result, this theme appears throughout the article:

“But this doesn’t seem to be an out of the blue connection between Disney and the Furries, as many of the characters in the movie seem a bit sexier than your average Disney creature. One of the animals, voiced by Shakira, was obviously drawn and selected by Disney to exude sex appeal.”

The original topic is twisted in favour of the story the journalist actually wants to write – a sex scandal about a Disney film and Furries, which at the end of the day underlines how the fandom can be misrepresented by those seeking to generate some scandal for their readership to consume.

The Guardian is saying that Disney fans will find it hard to avoid learning a whole new vocabulary associated with the furry life. Let’s just say that predators and prey mean very different things than in the traditional sense.”

This particular quote is interesting because it is suggestive. Seemingly innocuous enough, the comment of a deviant, alternative predator and prey relationship, works by suggestion. It leads the reader on with a sentence that withholds any facts, in order to give the opportunity for the reader to answer what the alternative meaning is with their own prejudice.

“Tommy Chong, Idris Elba, and Ginnifer Goodwin are just some of the main voices that will lure in adults, as well as the theme of not being judged by your species, and the Mammal Inclusion Program, that helps the bunny Judy (Goodwin) become the first bunny to become a cop, and a sexy, sassy cop at that, who is actively being checked out by all of those around her.”

It’s surprising that this is a PG rated movie being talked about, considering the efforts of the author to extrapolate some sexual interpretation from it. It serves as a good example of a journalist taking one story and twisting it to write their own, ultimately misinterpreting the facts in favour of a more alluring story, no matter how erroneous. The mere mention of the word Furry starts an inevitable link to sex and sexuality, seeking some sort of scandal, which in this case, is ultimately one of misrepresentation and misinterpretation.

Moving on from adult content, another issue is the perception that those who read interviews from figures in the fandom can take them to be authority figures for Furry, that their explanations are the truth, rather than their opinion. Returning to the fact that Furry is a loosely defined collective – united by an appreciation for the anthropomorphic, or the animal. Even in that sentence, one can see Furry is hard to define, as it is easy to find Furries who represent themselves as anthropomorphic animals, or simply as ‘feral’ animals. A common explanation of Furry is that Furries have fursonas, yet there are people in the fandom who do not have one. The challenge for any article is how to define (and thus allow understanding) a subculture where its meaning depends upon individual beliefs? The media simply cannot, or does not understand that Furry has no iron-clad definition; rather, it is individual expression. Furry is lots of individual voices all saying their own thing, rather than one voice saying what they all are. The meaning of Furry depends on how it is expressed, rather than a set of rules everyone follows – because we do not. To speak personally example, my expression of Furry is anthropomorphic Celtic/Germanic warrior culture animals, with classical motifs thrown in for good measure of diversity (and lots of mead!). Warrior wolves clad in mail drinking in mead halls abound, and it is clear that it is an individual expression of Furry. Furry varies between other people – and that is wonderful. However, the creativity arising from the way Furries express their own ideals of Furry has to be condensed and simplified for an article, for both the sake of brevity and understanding. Such compression comes at a loss though. Hence, we arrive at definitions that Furry is about the anthropomorphic, animals, or fursonas – and while those simple statements certainly unite individual’s expressions, they strip away the creativity of each individual’s expression of Furry; the nuances that make people fascinating are gone. Articles with interviews in particular have trouble with this, as they have to negotiate between two issues when exploring Furry. One, that it doesn’t simplify an interviewee’s individual expression of Furry; however such attention can give that individual the danger of seeming like an authority figure because they are the only one speaking. Two, that it takes many individual’s expressions and finds a uniting, often simplistic theme, which prevents an authority figure from rising, but also removes the creative diversity that makes Furry what it is.

Finally, the last point about Furry in the mainstream media is simply a suggestion that it is not actually ready, ideologically, for what Furry does. Outside of Furry, we live in an epoch of our own making – the newly declared Anthropocene, an age where humans have an impact on shaping what goes on this planet. Human beings are undoubtedly in control and at the top of the order of things. This conflicts with Furry, because Furry is post-human, Furry reduces that superiority of human beings. Furry is not anthropocentric in a time when society is. Furry takes specifically human traits – our perception of the world, our human brand of intelligence, our lifestyle, language, emotions, etc., and places them in post-human bodies. Furry looks beyond the human and unities it with the animal – at a time when animals, though seen as capable of intelligence and perhaps emotion, are seen as lesser beings compared to humans. Furry is subversive because it marries human traits with animal ones, creating hybrids that remove once human traits and place them into animal mixes; it deprivilages essentialist ‘human’ traits. In doing so, this redefines our conception of what is exclusively human, expanding them into universal traits any sentient being can hold – a move which reduces the speciality, and thus the superiority of humanity we see today.

In conclusion, the question is not whether Furries should ignore the media. That’s a futile question because unless Furry was to move offline and live in a cave (like the badger man), it would probably still gain media attention. So should Furries be concerned with the media? No, for the reasons that have been given – misrepresentation, justification of adult content, pressure to appear acceptable, misdefinition, simplification, and being ahead of the times. To pick one reason above all as to why Furries shouldn’t bother about the media, it is that Furry is individual. How you express yourself matters more than what people say about it, and if no harm is done, what justification do other people have to tell you how to express yourself? Furry is creative, and that imaginative expression should not be diluted, simplified, or made to toe a standard line* for the sake of pleasing others. Just as some in Furry may find ‘sparkledogs’ or Germanic warrior wolves in mead-halls their anathema of Furry, the principle remains the same. Express your individuality, celebrate it.


 

*with thanks to Patch of Dogpatch Press for catching a typo

 

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10 thoughts on “Opinion: Why the Furry Fandom Shouldn’t Bother (too Much) with the Media

  1. The article is a good article, but it has a main flaw in my opinion. Anyone willing and able to read & ponder about what is said here, is probably already intelligent enough to understand that their self-expression of furry is more important than what media says at any point about the furry fandom. The message “Ignore the media, be yourself” is submerged in a 3000 word indistinctly formatted text. Ironically, this happens because it’s the furry author’s way of being himself, someone who adores writing. This is not something bad however, it simply means that, as it is, the message won’t pierce into those who need it the most.

  2. I think part of the reason the media has had so much trouble figuring out what Furry fandom is about (aside from the obvious sensationalist press we got early on that still affects us today) is the prevalence within the fandom of this kinda wishy-washy “nobody can agree on a definition” non-definition which is only true because it’s repeated a lot.

    The thing of it is, there is a definition of Furry fandom and what we’re all about: Anthropomorphic animals. I’ve no idea why people have such a hard time figuring this out, whether it’s just that the fandom’s grown so much over the years that people just don’t know any better, or they do and just don’t care.

    The fact that fans complain when we get negative media attention is nothing new; the disappointing part is that it seems very few want to more than complain.

    This fandom deserves better.

  3. I agree that focusing too much on justifying the community as a whole instead of individuality is a common problem. It comes across as hive mind thinking so to speak. Pretty much all kinds of communities, from political parties to cultural movements, come to be respected because of the achievements of individuals referring back to their philosophy, not because they have an accurate self-definition to hand over to the press or because they have perfect PR. Yet we seem obsessed with the latter and we don’t do that much to promote the former compared to what other subcultures do. They are all about touting the best art and the coolest individual experiences while we are mostly about excusing ourselves.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love meta discussions about the fandom and its dynamics, and I agree with a lot of your points about the role of furry in the bigger picture of current culture. But we also desperately need more individuals to distinguish themselves (and for the rest of the community to actively bring such individuals to the spotlight and be confident of their worth) if we ever hope the media to stop asking stupid questions. The media insist on rumors and collective value judgements only when furry individuals don’t offer them enough to talk about. In fact the good articles, such as the recent one by “The Guardian”, focus on notable individual experiences.

    I would even argue that sending forward the most prominent furry artists and professionals would be a much better PR strategy than closing the doors to all media. That would show furries actually *do* something rather than just hang around for unclear reasons they refuse to talk about. What modern furry is about should be self-evident from the works of furry artists and notable deeds of furry individuals, with only a tiny bit of (simple) extra explaination needed to wrap it up. As long as that’s not the case any media will be able to impose their own narrative about furry to serve their own agenda.

  4. “So should Furries be concerned with the media? No, for the reasons that have been given – misrepresentation, justification of adult content, pressure to appear acceptable, misdefinition, simplification, and being ahead of the times. ”

    This is very easy to say, until you’ve sat in a living room next to your aging stepfather whom you love very much, then had the infamous CSI episode come on unexpectedly (it was the first airing) and watched his face as he associates the fiction you write and proudly publish with a group being portrayed by the media he implicitly trusts and believes in as something sick and perverted, and then never had your relationship with him recover right up until the day he died.

    It’s _much_ harder to ignore after that. Trust me to know.

  5. I’m afraid the fact of the matter is that furries in general do not ignore the media at all. In truth, the growth and development of the “furry phenomena” (by which I mean that which has existed only since it was publicly recognized) has been shaped to a significant extent by media representation and public perception.

    Over the last decade and more, my own career as a librarian was partly shaped by my willingness to appear in fursuit at children’s presentations. I’ll note here that I live in a pretty conservative community (an overwhelming majority of GOP voters, for instance, and a high percentage of evangelical church activity.)

    Given the state of media representation of furry when I first began this phase of my career, I was (justifiably, I believe) concerned about parents’ perceptions and potential objections. Nothing came of this concern, however. No complaints, no pointed questions, nothing. When I talked with parents and other adult audience members after appearances, I did not disguise the fact that my interest in anthropomorphic literature and fursuit costumes was connected with the furry community, or that I have been a participant there. No one had questions about sexuality at all. Mostly I encountered respect for my literary background, and a lot of compliments on the costume designs. (I make my own suits, rather than buy them from specialized sources.)

    I think this also shows that there has been a distinct shift in the public media presentation of furries. Much of the coverage I see has moved away from those early insinuations of sexual perversion and/or fetishism, and has instead focused on costuming and improvisational theatre. The latter is of course a single facet of furry, and not anything like the whole, but it is also much more palatable to the public. That and the increased dissemination of data on charity fund raising has certainly improved the public image of furry.

    At the same time, this shifting public image has changed the focus and interests of new entrants to the furry fandom. Ten years ago, I observed that too many seemed to be arriving *because* of the sexual angle. Now many are appearing with a specific interest in fursuiting and the associated theatrics, and some even have the [inaccurate] preconception that costume ownership is a required element of furry activity.

    We can’t just disregard the media, because media perceptions are in fact shaping what the fandom is and will become. We can, however, try to steer the media focus onto elements such as creativity, artistry, and social charity, all of which will both improve our status in the public eye and in our own self-concept. In effect, furry is what the participants think it is. If we ourselves believe it is one big sex orgy, that is what it becomes. If we come to believe that the “fandom” is largely concerned with consumption of commercial output, such as videogames or Disney films, that is what it will become. Self-education of the furry community itself to understand the breadth of furry and the wide variety of its expression is what we need to allow furry and its members to develop freely, unshaped by media or public perception and true to our own values and interests.

  6. Personally, I feel this article makes the opposite point that it attempts to justify. We should absolutely focus on the image we have when portrayed those outside the fandom. Furries are indeed misinterpreted, misrepresented, and scrutinized, that is very true. The main point of the argument against acknowledging the media is that it does not define us as furries, nor should we let it control out personal interpretations of what furry is to us. And it shouldn’t, however, the media is a huge source of information for a lot of people. Instead of ignoring it, we should pay attention to it and properly formulate responses to reduce confusion should the attention then fall on us. They don’t need to be the same echoing chant from every furry, but they should be short enough to provide decent information in casual conversation, and deflect the negatives without going on the defensive. If we want to improve our collective subcultures image to society, walling ourselves off and leaving up to any old response without information present is not the way to go. Even if we just want to be left alone, answering back something that can be just as misinterpreted as the whole instead of the individual will likely only lead to negative treatment (and likely more of it). A lack of knowledge and experience should be responded to with understanding and knowledge in the form of a personal informed answer as opposed to a personal attempt at redeeming the whole fandom, or pushing people away for being wrong. I do not believe it was the intention of the author to state that we should, but I feel some clarity helps, and I do feel we should at least be aware of different or skewed perceptions no matter where they come from

  7. Have to say this writing needs a lot of work. On the whole, it’s rambling and aimless without making any impression at all. It seems like half a piece that’s twice as wordy as a full one.

    It fails to show concrete examples, just mushing together rhetoric that’s meaningless without context. (Who was bothered by the linked articles, and how?) It helps to use quotes if they’re informative, but it doesn’t help to repeat other people’s rhetoric that’s already not well sourced.

    It fails to define premises. What is “the media”? The New Yorker has a different purpose from a random blog. Why aren’t the two articles credited to their authors? Why pick a piece that isn’t about furries and only gives them a perfunctory place on a list, and a me-too piece from a minor blog that doesn’t pretend to be a main source? They lean on opinion because they’re reacting to other writing and are more filler than journalism. You have to force any connection between them beyond the word “furry”, so how are they are supposed to be representative as two points on a line?

    The New Yorker piece actually doesn’t misdefine – it’s definition for furries is quoted from Upcomingcons.com. It simply puts them on a list with some other things (including Aesop’s fables). From this I learned more about this author’s poor use of examples than about the journalism.

    Before making conclusions, try to refine points with a bullet point list that connects and leads to them. Flesh the points out with attention to editing out superfluous words and equivocation. Avoid padding and redundancy: “Analysing recent articles from The New Yorker and Inquisitr, this article will analyse”… And misusing cliches: “tow the line” isn’t a real phrase, Toe the line is.

    Have fun writing, but keep in mind how well it reads for others.

    1. Patch – thanks for the thoughtful and positive criticism, and for catching the typo. I’ve spoken with the editor of the piece and we’ll make the correction.

  8. I been running a furry blog for the last 6 years, and being told no one wants to submit or rarely comment on my blog, is that I am considered a member of the dreaded media. Which to me have always left me wondering as sometimes I average 1,000 hits a day. But there is one thing I have taken from this. The media is the media, it’s like Godzilla in the room. There really isn’t much anyone can do about it. Take when local TV station WGN did a piece on Midwest Furfest. Considering the newsman was also a standup comic, it was played for laughs and done in my opinion is good taste. On the other hand on Youtube there is this piece an NBC reporter did on Anthrocon, that always makes me laugh. Why, because the expression on the reporters face, it’s like what do to be here. Honestly we furries are unique, there is no other fandom like us. It’s either someone gets to what we are about or just plain don’t.

  9. [x-posted from Tumblr]

    I’ve been seeing the “why does Furry fandom need good press?” question getting asked a bit lately on social media, and I’ve been ruminating on this the past few days as to why this question’s been coming up. Here are some random thoughts that maybe could use a bit more exploring:

    * The Vanity Fair article came out in 2001. For those who aren’t aware, it was a sensationalist piece of tabloid tripe that portrayed the fandom negatively, and resulted in a lot of Furry conventions banning the media entirely. (This was a mistake, because doing so removed any chances of getting legitimate good press and just makes it look like we have something to hide.)

    * It’s been an uphill struggle over the past 15 years for Furry fandom to get good press and correct the misinformation from the VF article, but we get a lot more good press these days than we used to, especially from the mainstream press. The tabloid press is still shit, but one can argue the tabloid press will always be shit.

    * As a result of the good press, Furry conventions are a lot more popular now than they were then. Total Furry convention attendance has increased almost 900% since 2001.

    * Demographic-wise, Furry fans tend to be between the ages of 19-23 years old. That means they would have been 4-8 years old when the VF article came out. Most of them probably even aren’t aware of it, so one can assume they’re also not aware of the steps that we took to mitigate the damage done to the fandom’s reputation because of it. When VF hit back in 2001, everyone and their dog Flippy knew about it. Nowadays most fans don’t remember (but lazy tabloid journalists never forget and still bring it up to this very day, even though the article is 15 years old—how is this news?)

    * The above opinion piece by Televassi is just one recent example of this. It comes to the short-sighted and counterproductive conclusion that how Furry fandom is portrayed in the media doesn’t matter (despite overwhelming evidence that Furry fans, even 15 years post-VF, are reluctant to be open about their association with the fandom due to fear of negative media portrayal and misinformation). Televassi is a newcomer to the fandom, and was around 7 years old when the VF article was published.

    I think a lot of the complaints that we worry to much about how Furry fandom is portrayed in the media can be attributed to ignorance of this fandom’s history.

    And you know what they say about folks who don’t learn from history.

    The reasons Furry fandom is—and should be—wary of exploitative and sensationalist media are still very valid. There’s clearly a lot more work to be done in terms of public perception of the fandom.

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