/ 21 December 2012

OMG!!! *sobs* Your furry is giving me feels

Furry is a new form of participatory pop culture.
Furry is a new form of participatory pop culture.

The scene is a gay sex club of some kind. A bull and a rhino are sitting at the bar. 

The bull is drawing the rhino's attention to a nearby horse and his generous genital endowment (literally "horse-hung"), but the horse is lost in his own personal bliss.

Elsewhere, in some strange beach scenario, two muscled male creatures pose for a photo, almost bursting from their tight little swimming trunks. They look a bit equine, as far as their heads go (their bodies are largely human), but also rather crocodilian. Onlookers, chiefly feline, seem frozen in amazement.

A second image of the same beach scenario shows that the bursting-forth has now happened. Semen fountains in various directions. The blue-cat onlooker is still frozen in the same amazement in the background.

These are home-made pornographic cartoon images, and they are widely spread across the internet – a bizarre, rambunctious new form of participatory pop culture. FurAffinity.net is a website wholly dedicated to such images, but they also festoon any site such as Tumblr, Pixiv or DeviantArt that collects images, "tumbles" them around and lets you curate them on your own page. Blog upon blog is devoted to "furry", the bulk of it pornographic, but not all: many are simply portraits in cartoon form of various furred creatures.

These images are obviously created with dedication and love; many also display the application of significant skill. The same goes for the myriad fan images drawing on games such as World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy (elves, trolls), or for that matter any pop media (movies, TV), but "furry" is a special category. Furries are part-human and part-animal, making them anthropomorphs ("anthros") or, perhaps more properly, therianthropes. Usually furry means they have fur (and canines do seem dominant, overall), but the appearance of the equines in the gay bar shows that the boundaries of furry aren't exactly firmly fixed.

Indeed, "scalies" form a sub-genre as far as the art goes, but it seems relatively small, at least when it comes to shark-men and the like. Dragons, which may count as scalies, are very popular. There is even a home-industry store called Bad Dragon, which advertises on furry sites; it makes dragon dildos. They may not all be suitable for their presumed purpose, but a great deal of imagination and attention to detail have gone into the making of these extraordinary objects.

What is going on here? "Furry," says Skidoo, a pop-culture info site, "means plenty of different things – but, above all else, it indicates an affinity for cartoon creatures and other anthropomorphic animals. That includes lots of things, from being a fan of specific shows like My Little Pony … to drawing your own characters in a webcomic."

Special interest panels
It also means, or can mean, going to furry conventions – often dressed in a fursuit. A furry community has developed, like those that exist around ComicCon, the enormous gathering of comics fans in San Diego. Devoted site WikiFur notes more than 50 such conventions around the world, among them FurCon in California (3 000 registered attendees in 2012 and $100 000 raised for charity), Eurofurence, which has been held in various European countries over the last decade, and Camp Feral! – held in the wilderness of Ontario, Canada. AnthroCon in Pennsylvania is the oldest and biggest; it includes all forms of anthro and is said to have grown out of a Halloween costume party.

Such conventions, WikiFur informs us, are ways for furries to meet: they have artists' "dens" where original art can be bought, as well as arts and crafts workshops. There are "special events, such as a fursuit parade, dances/disco[s], masquerades, special interest panels, live animal demonstrations or a charity auction".

Fursuits can cost a fortune and require considerable ingenuity; some sell for more fortunes at furcons. Nowadays, there are commercial alternatives: you can buy something from a costume shop and adapt it (Yogi Bear seems a good starting point), and there are bespoke fursuit-makers who charge in the region of $1 000 for a specially designed suit. But the practice still has something charmingly home-made about it. As WikiFur says solemnly, it "dates to the pre-convention era (1984-1989), when the first furry parties were being organized at both sci-fi conventions and home furmeets".

The furry iconography echoes and draws on the role-playing games that now saturate the youth market in every country where they can afford it. The games themselves are an extension of anime, manga comics, movies and perhaps, further back, Japanese folklore. (Not that the West hasn't had its fauns and centaurs, or Zeus changing into a bull so he can ravish Europa.) Many of these use "anthros"; there are books more than a decade old on how to draw them.

It's not surprising that if you've grown up playing computer and video games in which you are required to identify with the central character (as in the movies, but it a more hands-on way) you will develop an interest in taking your character to new places. A popular extension of such computer games is live role-playing, where the player gets to dress up as the character and enact various scenarios with others.

The new digital media produces an endless stream of new images – "new" in that they are a fresh bricolage of elements already in the culture, visual and other bits that can be endlessly recombined. They can also be reused in a huge variety of combinations. They can be spread around the world electronically in seconds.

Furry porn is a specialised example of such iconographic reproduction. The new media has also facilitated the wide, er, dissemination of porn, making it something like a visual lingua franca. It seems inevitable that the character or visual icon assumed by a player, if artistically manipulated in different ways, will be likely to end up in a sexual scenario.

Common appropriations
Furries, though, are self-invented creatures. They go further than simply borrowing Iron Man and Captain America from The Avengers and giving them a detailed sex life, or subjecting Chris Redfield, hero of the Resident Evil game, to tentacle rape – both pretty common appropriations and refigurings in their respective fandoms. Being a furry, or part of any fandom for that matter, is what Goethe called an "elective affinity".

A survey on personal site Klisoura.com gives some insight into this affinity. One Alex Osaki signs the results, and 2012's is the sixth such online survey. Obviously the respondents are self-selecting, as the sociologists say, but the results are still an interesting look into how the community describes itself.

Out of nearly 4 000 respondents, about 2 500 consider themselves fully human and 5.2% choose not to consider themselves human at all; 85% are between 15 and 30 years old.

At least three quarters are male. A third identify as hetero, nearly 11% as gay. Half describe themselves as artists and 38% as writers. Just under 55% are fans of role-playing games; most are fans of science fiction (movies and TV, presumably) and anime. For more than 90% this furry fandom is an online thing, but a quarter attend furry conventions more than once a year.

To the question "How furry do you consider yourself?" only about 20% say yes, very furry.

This probably doesn't tell us anything surprising: mostly male, creative, they like sci-fi stuff and gaming. Still, it's odd that only just over half, though it's a majority, consider themselves fully human. (Then again, that's how many it takes to elect a new ANC president; the numbers correspond pretty exactly.) If only a fifth of Osaki's respondents consider themselves very furry, does that mean only they identify with furriness in some deeply authentic, possibly sexual, way? And the rest? Are they just role-playing?

The "furry fandom" celebrates oddity and diversity, though that also means some definitional slippage. "Furry" can be an adjective or a noun; you can be part of the furry fandom or you can be a furry yourself or both. "Yiff" broadly means sex, as a verb ("to yiff") or noun ("I'm dying for a yiff"), or can refer to furry porn. Some may define furry as widely as Skidoo does; others will insist that to be a real furry you must have a "fursona". Tumblr blogger Gayfurrypride avers: "It is very rare to find a furry without a fursona. For example, I'm a silverback wolf with light-blue markings. He is called Cosmic."

A fursona, as the punning name implies, is you – the furry person – or some representation of yourself in theriomorphic form. Johannesburg sexologist JacoPhillip Crous opines that "fursonas can be understood as totem representations … an animal that's believed by the person to have spiritual or some other, possibly sexual, subjective significance, so the person adopts it as a personal emblem to which [he or she] feels drawn psychologically."

Interpreting this in a way akin to Jungian archetypes, Crous says the fursona is a form of "empowerment" and "self-transcendence" for the individual – and, for the sexually invested, the fursona is the "idealised totemic form that drives the erotic charge for the yiff enthusiast".

Great compliment
People draw their own fursonas or commission others to do it (a full-body full-colour image, with background, will cost you $25 to $35), and the images circulate. Many artists simply make up creatures that appeal to them and put them through a Kama Sutra of sexual poses. To judge by the responses, plenty of people on the internet get off on these images – or they just find them emotionally compelling. To say an image is giving you "feels" (as in feelings) is a great compliment.

For some, the fursuit is a sexual supplement: it offers a sense of "enwombment", says Crous, a "tactile humidity" that provides the "near-perfect juxtaposition of vulnerability and safety" needed to play out a sexual fantasy. Yet some who identify strongly as furries object to the notion that it's all about sex: Gayfurrypride, for one, says yes, he likes a good yiff as much as the next furry, but basically he's just "a cute creature who like[s] to make people smile".

Either way, individuals evince a strong commitment to the community. Another Tumblrite, 2spookygllts, declares: "i'm a furry because i enjoy it, i like being considered 'a furry', i've 'been one' 'officially' for almost nine years. it's not part of my main identity but i consider it part of my secondary identity, it's a label i put on myself. i happen to like that label."

There is a powerful sense from within the fandom that they are "misunderstood" and "misrepresented" by outsiders. Sometimes "the media" is excoriated for perpetuating myths about furries. But no comprehensive account of the fandom is to be found in the mainstream media, and when individuals do "come out" as furries in forums other than the internet or conventions, it is on TV shows such as My Strange Addiction. There, of course, it is voyeuristically pathologised in a Jerry Springer sort of way, alongside other compulsions such as ritual hand-washing or obsessively eating toilet paper.

Apart from the fact that teenagers, who surely constitute most fandoms like the furry one, have always claimed to be "misunderstood", it seems to me that this sense of external persecution is a classic form of group ideology that helps hold the group together – like the early Christians or a revolutionary communist cell. Not that there may not be genuine harassment or disdain expressed towards those who identify with the group, but ideologically speaking even a small amount of persecution goes a long way.

This reaction is related, too, to the discourse around sexuality that has, since the 1960s, sought to turn a source of shame into one of pride. Your sexuality is now very much part of your identity, and you can legitimately object to being oppressed or denigrated on that basis. Furries and similar online fandoms caution users not to "kinkshame". We must embrace our kinks, build on them – or, as Slavoj Žižek would say, "Enjoy your symptom."

Alarmist predictions
But what is being a furry or a furry-lover a symptom of?

It is emphatically not a symptom of being sexually attracted to animals. One internet user denounces furry porn as no more than "bestiality", but he or she is deluged with replies saying it's nothing of the sort – it's fantasy, it's art, it's imagination, it's a game, it's harmless fun. The question remains, though: How is this fantasy art being used by furries? What does it do for them? Does it go beyond the quick thrill of seeing yet another picture of a tiger being enthusiastically rogered by a wolf?

In her book ID: The Quest for Meaning in the 21st Century, the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, alongside some alarmist predictions, talks about how internet use and the new media are changing our sense(s) of identity, offering at the same time both anonymity and a kind of personal stardom in the self-fashioning of, say, Facebook. We are pulled between being Anybody and being Somebody, and Greenfield worries that constant immersion in these new media forms will erode our self/other and self/world boundaries and we may all end up being Nobody.

Yet it's clear to see, as one cruises the internet, how different people are able to use the various media to project different selves, to switch between being Anybody and Somebody. It's also possible to make a new Somebody of yourself, as in the role-playing games mentioned, without letting go of the old self; this is what gender theorist Judith Butler calls "performativity", and she relates it to all our social roles, including gender.

So, even if we're "performing" our various identities at the interface with others (whether virtual or physical), they are representations of deeply held ideas about ourselves and our innermost desires. We project those performances of self into the world, and they are further fashioned as social identities by the groups we choose to be part of.

Furries are using the creation of alternative selves in a dialectic of belonging and individuality. The furry fandom is an instance of group-formation – and then the process of individuation within that group. We want community, but we also want to be unique in some way and to be acknowledged by our elective community for that specialness.

Humanity has probably always been that way, but nowadays one can do all this via the internet, by means of artistic production, and/or by dressing up. As a furry might say: Woof.

Shaun de Waal is an associate editor of the Mail & Guardian.