“The fandom represents a safe space for this sort of identity exploration and play. When everyone is a fantasy-themed character, it reduces the level of self-consciousness a person may feel – after all, if the person you’re talking to represents themselves as a walking, talking blue cat, it’s pretty hard for them to mock or ridicule you for your self-expression.” — Courtney Plante.
Furry fans are fond of anthropomorphic animals—animal characters with human characteristics such as speech, clothing, and upright stance: think Bugs Bunny or Tony the Tiger. In addition to celebrating art and literature featuring anthropomorphic animals, many furry fans take on a furry persona, or fursona, for roleplay purposes. Some furry fans enhance their animal identity play with costumes called fursuits. The world’s largest furry convention, Anthrocon, brings well over six thousand furry fans to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to celebrate and act out their animal alter egos.
In the past, high-profile articles and TV shows grossly misrepresented the furry fandom as a cabal of sexually “deviant” and socially maladjusted people. Fortunately, journalists who care about fact-checking have since corrected the record on furry fans, and published research by psychologists and other academics has greatly improved our understanding of the fandom.
Few writers can speak with more authority on the furry fandom than I can. While researching for Animal People, I’ve attended several furry conventions, including Anthrocon, Further Confusion, and Midwest Fur Fest, respectively the first, second, and third largest gatherings for furry fans in the nation.
More than anything, I was struck by the strong sense of friendly and open community at these events: the furry fandom is a place where anyone, young or old, can drop the often-exhausting pretense of “faking good” for the assessments of others and come more or less as they are. I lost count of how many attendees spontaneously told me that furry fans are “some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
That’s no accident, according to Courtney Plante, a social psychologist who studies self and identity within fantasy contexts such as furry fandom. I visited with Plante to talk about how furry fandom isn’t just fun and games; participation can come with real benefits to the fans involved:
Brown: Furry fans are frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. What are some of the misconceptions your research has shown to be false?
Plante: Furries are, first and foremost, fans. People are fans of all sorts of things—music, literary genres, or sports, to name just a few. Furries happen to be fans of art, stories, and media that feature anthropomorphic animal characters (e.g., Zootopia, Redwall, Pokémon). Unfortunately, anthropomorphism, as a concept, is a broad and abstract thing to be a fan of (moreso than a single, concrete series such as Harry Potter). As such, many people misunderstand what furries actually are and, more often than not, rely on misconceptions propagated by the media or online.
There are, broadly speaking, three popular misconceptions about what furries are. The first is that furries are defined as people who wear “fursuits”—elaborate, mascot-style animal outfits. While it’s true that some furries’ interest in anthropomorphic animals manifests as an interest in fursuiting (analogous to anime fans who cosplay), only 25% of furries actually owns a fursuit. Limiting the definition of “furry” to “those who wear fursuits” would be like limiting the definition of “football fan” to “those who paint their faces with their team’s colors”.
A second common misconception is that furry is a fetish, and that furries are motivated primarily by a sexual attraction to anthropomorphic content. This assumption conflates the mixing of people’s interests and their naturally-occurring sex drive with a fetishistic interest in something. To illustrate: a person who likes cars and who also likes attractive-looking people will probably also enjoy pictures of an attractive-looking person on a fancy car. Similarly, a person who enjoys science fiction and who has a healthy sexual interest may enjoy an erotic scene in their favorite sci-fi novel. We wouldn’t describe these people as having a “car fetish” or a “sci-fi” fetish, nor would we assume that the former wants to have sex with the car while the latter wants to have sex with aliens. While there is furry-themed erotica (as there is erotica in nearly any fandom), research shows that furries enjoy furry artwork and stories regardless of sexual content. What’s more, fewer than 5% of furries say that their interest in furry is driven exclusively by an interest in sex – something uncharacteristic of a fetish group.
A final misconception is the belief that furries are people who self-identify as animals. This misconception likely stems from the prevalence of fursonas, furry-themed avatars that members of the fandom create to represent themselves to other furries online or in-person. While more than 95% of furries represent themselves in the fandom through a fursona, most furries do not consider themselves to be non-human animals. While self-identifying as an animal is not a defining feature of the furry fandom, it is a defining feature of a related group, therians, who, research has shown, do self-identify with non-human animals in a predominantly spiritual or psychological way (e.g., an animal spirit guide, the spirit of an animal trapped in a human body). In other words, those who define furries as “people who identify with animals” are conflating the definition of furries and therians, two distinct, but somewhat overlapping groups.
Pretending and fantasy play are often framed as harmful, juvenile, or escapist. However, your research suggests that furry fans are mobilizing their fursonas as a self-improvement strategy. Tell me some more about that!
Our research on fursonas has consistently shown that furries project a lot onto their fursonas; most fursonas could be summed up as “like me, but a little better.” Which raises the question of what happens when a person creates a fantasy-themed ideal representation of themselves. In isolation, it’s unlikely this avatar would have any effect. However, furries interact with other furries—online and in person—through their fursonas. As such, furries get practice “being” these ideal selves, which get validated when others interact with them as their fursonas. So a person who considers themselves to be shy and introverted that interacts with others as a confident and gregarious fursona will, over time, start to build up experience being extraverted. This experience, as well as any social skills they may have learned along the way, may cause aspects of this ideal self to become internalized, leading furries, over time, to become more like their fursonas.
It’s important to note that the fandom represents a safe space for this sort of identity exploration and play. When everyone is a fantasy-themed character, it reduces the level of self-consciousness a person may feel—after all, if the person you’re talking to represents themselves as a walking, talking, blue cat, it’s pretty hard for them to mock or ridicule you for your self-expression. In a similar manner, we suspect that this safe and inclusive environment may also facilitate identity expression and formation in people struggling to come out or come to terms with a stigmatized aspects of their identity (e.g., non-heterosexual, transgender).
I’m curious about why an animal identity might be more desirable for this type of role-play than a human identity. What draws furry fans to role-play idealized anthropomorphic animals rather than idealized human characters? And do you have any insights into why the vast majority of fursonas are based on charismatic megafauna such as wolves and tigers?
When it comes to the question of “why furry,” we haven’t really found a simple answer, and it’s unlikely we ever will. As it’s sometimes put in the furry fandom, there are as many reasons for a person to be a furry as there are furries. In the end, it may simply come down to a matter of aesthetic—some people prefer science fiction over fantasy, some people prefer anime over western style animation, and some people prefer stories that involve anthropomorphic characters over those that involve human characters. Research has shown that the reasons for these interests are idiosyncratic, and include specific events (e.g., marveling at seeing a powerful lion at a zoo for the first time), lifelong interest (e.g., “I’ve just always liked cats”), social connections (e.g., “My dog is my best friend”), or inspiration (e.g., “I saw a moving piece of artwork”). To be sure, people roleplay and identify with all sorts of characters (e.g., anime characters in the anime fandom, alien characters in science fiction fandom)—furries just happen to prefer anthropomorphic animal characters.
As for why particular fursona species are more popular (e.g., wolves, foxes, dogs, cats), this is likely a product of the centrality of these particular species in our culture. Dogs and cats represent the most popular pets, and are thus the non-human animal species people are most likely to encounter and form close relationships with in-person. Wolves and foxes, on the other hand, permeate the stories we tell (e.g., foxes in Disney’s Robin Hood, stories about werewolves), our spiritual beliefs (e.g., Japanese kitsune or wolves as Native American spirit guides), and even our language (e.g., “foxy”, “lone wolf”). Given that we compare and contrast ourselves with animals as a way of understanding our place in this world, it makes sense that the species that come up the most often are also the most likely to be represented in furry activities.
The furry fandom is rather unique among fandoms in that furry fans tend to self-generate their own original characters as opposed to admiring or cosplaying someone else’s original character. Are there any equivalents to the fursona in other fandoms?
One of the distinct features of the furry fandom is its relatively decentralized nature. Unlike other fandoms (e.g., Star Wars, Harry Potter), where one or a few people own the exclusive rights to the content and get to dictate what constitutes “official” canon, the furry fandom generally lacks this sort of hierarchical organization. There is no “official” governing body in the furry fandom—no one person or group gets to decide what species are acceptable or what content should or should not be considered furry. And, given this lack of organization around one or several main bodies of work, furries are generally left to create their own content. Most furries create their own unique characters (rather than cosplaying as an existing character, as is common in the anime, video game, or science fiction fandom), and content in the furry fandom is largely comprised of hundreds or thousands of small, independent artists, writers, musicians, and fursuit builders.
The closest I can think of to an analogue for the furries and their fursonas comes from the live-action roleplaying (LARP) community. In this community, people take on the identity of a fantasy-themed character (e.g., a medieval knight or a sorceress) and interact with one another online and at live events in-character. As far as I know, these characters may be inspired by existing literature or historical figures, but are largely the product of the players themselves.
I had a very active fantasy life as a child, which nearly always involved pretending to be an animal (usually a talking, sapient horse or dog). I think this kind of play has some similarities to furry fandom: the animal identities I took on were idealized as well as recurrent in that I wasn’t pretending to be just any horse but a specific equine character that I invented. The kind of daydreaming or fantasizing I do now is very different: I’m usually daydreaming about my writing, trying to solve a plot problem or attempt to get into my characters’ heads.
Are there differences in how adult furry fans engage in animal identity play as opposed to how children do it?
I would argue that most furries (and, indeed, most people) share with you similar childhood fantasy experiences—pretending the family pet can talk to you, imagining yourself as a jungle animal, or fantasizing about owning a dragon or other mythical creature. And, I suspect, many adults, if they were honest with themselves, would admit that they still find such fantasies interesting to entertain (if the continued popularity of stories, movies, and tv shows involving werewolves, dragons, and talking animals geared toward adults is any indication). The difference between children and adults has to do with social norms. As a society, we’ve deemed it acceptable for children to openly entertain such fantasy activities, but we generally frown upon adults for expressing these flights of fantasy outside of particular contexts—typically fantasies generated by others (e.g., books, movies, video games).
While we haven’t explicitly studied it yet, I believe that the sorts of fantasy activities furries engage in are largely an extension of the same fantasy activities most people engaged in as a child. The only difference is that furries may “go against the grain” by doing so as an adult, entertaining fantasies and more actively expressing them than we generally deep acceptable in adults. Indeed, our studies suggest that, compared to non-furries, furries more frequently engage in fantasy activities and, when they do, those activities tend to be more vivid and more unrealistic—though it should be noted that furries are no more likely than non-furries to be delusional or to be unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. In other words, the distinction may be that furries are people who don’t develop the inhibition toward flights of fantasy or the restrictions on fantasy activities that many adults seem to have, although this remains to be more systematically tested in future research.
How would you respond to folks who might not take this kind of research seriously? For example, what gains can be had from studying the furry fandom?
It would easy to trivialize or dismiss the IARP’s research on furries as trivial or too specific to be of practical, general value. However, it’s worth noting that many of our findings in the furry fandom have implications or applications for the average person as well. In one paper, for example, we studied the benefits of participating in the furry fandom for the well-being of individual furries, despite the fact that the fandom is, itself, somewhat stigmatized. Our findings suggest that despite the stigma associated with being a furry, fandom members benefited from fandom participation and disclosing their identity to others around them, which has implications for members of other groups with concealable stigmatized identities (e.g., LGBTQ).
Other work, such as the work we’ve done suggesting the potential benefit of fursonas, could be narrowly construed as idiosyncratic or specific to furries. However, given that our lives increasingly involve the creation of idealized versions of ourselves (e.g., online dating profiles, social media, Second Life, online computer games), it may be possible to apply these findings to the general population. I suspect, for example, that the benefits a furry may get from interacting with others as their fursona would be comparable to those of a person on Second Life who similarly interacts with others through their online avatar. In this context, the more we learn about furries, the more we may learn about people in general.
Finally, some of the recent work we’ve done with furries and therians has focused on the issue of concern for animal welfare. While psychologists have long known that anthropomorphizing non-human entities is one way to increase people’s moral concern for them (e.g., a monkey with a human-like expression), comparatively little work has tested another mechanism—seeing ourselves as more like animals. By understanding how these processes operate within furries and therians and how they are associated with concern for animal welfare, we may learn a new way to increase the average person’s felt compassion and concern for non-human animals.
Courtney Plante, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Iowa State University. His work, which began as a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, involves self and identity processes in fantasy contexts. This work has led him to study the effects of media on thoughts, feelings, and behaviour, the functions that fantasy activities fulfill for people, and the impact of participating in a fantasy-themed fan community. This final interest most notably involves the co-founding of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project, a group of social scientists who study members of the furry fandom. Dr. Plante is also a furry himself, going by the name “Nuka” in the fandom. You can follow FurScience on Facebook and on Twitter @furscience.
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