Each month in our “Why Does Nerd Culture Matter?” series, one of our authors takes a look at a different area of nerd culture and answers the question: why should we care?
When I saw the Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I sat in the theater misty-eyed, realizing that one of the people I look up to most was open and honest about himself through a puppet named Daniel Striped Tiger. Journalist Tom Jonud said, “All you had to do was see Fred inhabit Daniel to figure it out: they were symbiotic. As strange as it is to see a grown man have a symbiotic relationship with a dingy, worn-out, little sock puppet, he definitely had that.” Roger’s wife, Joanne, said something similar. “He did all the voices, but I think Daniel was the real Fred.”
To use language from the furry community, Daniel could be Rogers’ fursona, which is a creative expression of oneself through an animal with human traits in their features or behavior (i.e. anthropomorphism). Through Daniel, Rogers unknowingly exhibited a core aspect of what it means to be a furry.
What being a furry means to me.
Even though Rogers likely didn’t have a love for tigers in themselves, his television program illustrates humanity’s engrained inclination toward anthropomorphism. We often describe people as animals based on their personalities, appearance, and behavior. Sports teams often have anthropomorphic animals as rallying symbols of team spirit, complemented with many mascots that are basically fursuits (i.e. anthropomorphic animal costumes) with jerseys. Anthropomorphic characters are replete throughout all of pop culture from The Chronicles of Narnia and Robin Hood to Pathfinder and Animal Crossing. Egyptian, Japanese, and Hindu mythologies have pantheons of animal-like deities. Even Christianity attributes animal-inspired personas to the Trinity in Scripture (God as a lion, Jesus as a lamb, and the Spirit as a dove) and the synoptic Gospel authors in early church history. It’s psychologically second nature to see animals in ourselves, others, and fictional characters. Furries take this to a more personal level.
“Furry” suggests literally furry personas, and while they are called fursonas, they can also be feathery and scaly. People who wear fursuits commonly come to mind as well, but they only represent a fraction of the community since many people don’t have nor want one. And then there’s the elephant in the room; the question everyone asks: Aren’t furries just about sexual stuff?
It’d be foolish to feign ignorance toward people who involve or wholly construct fursonas around sexual desires. Even still, it’s outrageously false to assume that people only love the furry fandom for its erotic circles, which ignores others who have little to no involvement in them. Then there are others who find valuable potential in the fandom’s openness to seriously address the complexities and challenges of sexuality. But delving into these topics requires a thorough discussion through the lens of Christian sexual ethics that cannot be appropriately engaged here.I’ve spent countless hours developing my own character and discussing who he is, why I made him, and what he means to me with friends and strangers alike.
For nearly three years, I’ve poured my time, money, and heart into a fursona. For me, it’s a way to not only express my love for particular species, but also share my friendships, joys, struggles, and beliefs through art and stories. I find creative freedom and confidence in my character, but others can have wholly different reasons for being furries. We do have one thing in common though—a love for and/or personal connection with animals through fursonas. If someone is deeply connected with their Skyrim Khajiit, My Little Pony pegasus, Dungeons & Dragons werewolf, or custom anthropomorphic “foxtaur,” they could be a furry.
As unusual as furries can be, we could start by learning much from the fandom’s surprising humanity in their art and love in their community.
The Humanity in Art
Fandoms relish in universes that arise from an individual or small group of people. However, their characters are rarely wrapped up with their creators. George Lucas didn’t construct an allegorical story about his life by putting all of himself into Luke Skywalker; the person of Lucas is detached from Skywalker. Over time, Star Wars’ universe has evolved to the point where hosts of creators expand upon the foundation he established, but none of them are making characters just like themselves. They subtly weave their feelings, traits, and perspectives through established and new characters. Bits and pieces of authors, artists, and more could be scattered across characters. Furries are another story.
Furries simultaneously facilitate individual and communal creativity with characters inhabiting their own worlds and those of others. Sometimes characters may not have a fantasy world to inhabit, but are depicted in normal life. Someone may have one character that embodies all that he or she is, whereas another will imbue certain traits across multiple characters. People also mirror, downplay, or exaggerate physical and personal traits in characters. Some treat their characters seriously with sprawling lore and intricate designs, whereas others will let whimsy creatively carry them along.
There’s no concrete universe or rules to abide by because the furry universe is whatever people make it to be. “With furry, you are the intellectual property,” said Jonathan Duncan—a self-described “rogue art therapist” in the furry community [please note that some of his work contains nudity and mature themes]. He goes on to say, “It is built around the art that a person commissions or creates for themself. It’s about sharing your passions and priorities in art, not just about thinking, say, that Zootopia was really neat.” Other fandoms have people who see themselves in other characters or create their own in an established universe, but the furry universe is what each person uniquely brings to it.
Duncan primarily expresses himself through a black hare named Resin who gave him “a desire to be confident and present when I had little reason.” In contrast to other art industries he could have worked in, he said the furry community had the most “spiritual consequence” since fursonas represent what people love and even think about themselves. Duncan has publicly expressed concern toward unhealthy, unchecked fantasies through furry art, but knows there’s important art and discussions to be had with the humans behind fursonas. “Most artists create what clients want. I try to create what clients need,” he said. “In the lives of my client, the most common uniting trait would be people seeing what they could be, and pointing in that direction.” Therapeutic intention and personal accountability are parts of Duncan’s philosophy toward furry art.
Whereas My Hero Academia or Overwatch speak to their fandoms through existing characters, fursonas are self-made reflections of individuals’ desires, beliefs, struggles, and much more. I’ve spent countless hours developing my own character and discussing who he is, why I made him, and what he means to me with friends and strangers alike. Art can be a curious yet effective means for furries to express themselves in ways they wouldn’t bring up as readily in everyday life, making the latter more possible.
Lindsey Burcar creates traditional fantasy art for books and takes on private commissions within the furry community. She joined out of a fascination with wolves but left for years when she encountered people mixing furry art with explicit themes. She eventually returned in 2015 and took on the identity of a brown wyvern named Rhos, who she initially used as a front to interface with the fandom, but has since grown closer to the character. Burcar also has a wolverine character as a source of independence and determination, as well as a bear character embodying her search for peace and healing. She said that people like her create fursonas because “they not only serve as an avenue for self-expression, but also for social interaction, self-growth, and development. Having a character for yourself in this way is something I think too many people outside the community brush aside as childish or meaningless, whereas I believe having a character that reflects yourself in pivotal ways is an incredibly powerful tool for emotional and mental processing.” In reflection, she added that “my characters have a far more meaningful and spiritual connection to me than I ever realized.”
The Love in Community
Tony Barrett was better known as Dogbomb. He had a German Shepherd-inspired fursona in honor of one of his dogs. Diagnosed with ALS last year, he chose to live defiantly and optimistically in the face of the illness’ impact on his health. In the lead-up to and wake of his passing on April 5, 2019, I watched as countless artists shared pieces to celebrate his life. Tony raised awareness for ALS and not only auctioned off his possessions toward ALS research, but also donated his body to research. His defining feature in-character was a floral garland, and furries adopted the symbol as avatars in solidarity toward his passing. The furry community was a source of joy and strength for Tony, and he was in turn for others.Some furries tore open my conception of what the love of Jesus really looks like in practice, and as a consequence, my open-mindedness and faith have been reinforced from the complex discussions I’ve had with furries and their radiant transparency that most lack—even Christians.
Duncan said that, in joining the community, “you’ll see yourself from the outside, and that may be your first shot ever at living your truest life.” Being unapologetic and accepting is synonymous with being a furry, and while these attributes may arguably result in some of their greatest problems, they’re also where their greatest strengths lie.
I was wary of anyone who approached me when I introduced myself to the community, and have had unsavory and strange characters come my way. But I’ve also made best friends from walks of life that I wouldn’t have otherwise crossed. All of them exhibit an unparalleled vulnerability that has challenged me to live truthfully. I’ve cried tears of joy over the depths of their undying emotional support, and they’ve not only loved me in spite of the skeletons in my closet, but also helped me face them. Some furries tore open my conception of what the love of Jesus really looks like in practice, and as a consequence, my open-mindedness and faith have been reinforced from the complex discussions I’ve had with furries and their radiant transparency that most lack—even Christians.
Burcar said, “I wish that the general public could see past the stereotypical assessments, inaccurate media representations, and blanket generalizations of the whole of the furry community and see within it the wealth of social and emotional value, diversity of people, creative powerhouse, incredible charitable acts, accepting, and passionate group of people that the furry fandom encompasses. Furries couldn’t ever be untrue to themselves.”
Twilight Saint is a digital artist, fursuiter, and an active duty aviator in the US Navy. His main character is the desert dragon Muzafr, who is partially an expression of “[o]vercoming difficulty and finding success, even though it may only come by hardship and even sacrifices, is extremely important to me.” Since he joined the fandom a decade ago, he said it “has some really amazing, creative, good-hearted people in it, and if it wasn’t for the awesome media and encouraging, artistic spirit of it, I’m not sure if my art would be to where it is today and even if I would have ever had the courage to begin dancing!”
Furry creators already had the support of their fans long before Patreon and Kickstarter were on the public radar. It’s instinct for furries to help their own with financial and emotional support, for they fiercely bear each others’ burdens. If they don’t find belonging, acceptance, and love elsewhere, they will find them in the furry community, especially furry conventions. They’re a haven for hundreds of adults in fursuits playing pretend while emoting crazily, wagging their tails, and doling out hugs. There are “dealer dens” where artists share and sell their work. Attendees can also wander around socializing with others and participate in panels, games, or dancing competitions. Conventions like Anthrocon and Midwest FurFest draw in nearly ten thousand people each with attendance increasing every year. Charity drives are staples as well, which have raised tens of thousands of dollars for causes ranging from helping animals to promoting education.
There’s far more to say about fursuits and furry conventions, so expect another article in the near future.
When Fred Rogers was studying child development in college, he realized children were more open talking to or speaking through puppets. In an interview with the Television Academy Foundation, he said that kids “seemed so much safer having the puppet say what the child was feeling than the child himself at first. It’s a lot easier, even as an adult, for me to have Daniel say, ‘I’m really scared. Do you think maybe you could give me a hug?’ The difference from [the mouth] to [the puppet’s mouth]—-that doesn’t seem very far, but it was…efficacious, to say the least.”
If Rogers had known about furries, I believe he would’ve rejoiced knowing there’s a community of pretend animals for adults to not only be loved exactly as they are, but also, as Twilight Saint said, have a “relaxing, enjoyable experience [that] is almost therapeutic in terms of expressing ideas and even relieving stress.” To love oneself was Rogers’ iconic mantra, and I believe Brennan Manning lends clarity to what he meant:
“The acceptance of self does not mean to be resigned to the status quo. On the contrary, the more fully we accept ourselves, the more successfully we begin to grow. […] When we accept ourselves for what we are, we decrease our hunger for power or the acceptance of others because our self-intimacy reinforces our inner sense of security. We are no longer preoccupied with being powerful or popular. […] We are less often plagued with the desire to please others because simply being true to ourselves brings lasting peace. We are grateful for life and we deeply appreciate and love ourselves.”
I laughed at furries before I joined the community less than three years ago. Over time, I discovered a people unrivaled in kindness fueled by each others’ creativity and passion. There’s a place for everyone in the diverse, friendly spaces of this fandom, and while furries don’t ask nor expect to be accepted by society, they should be appreciated for their laudable, redemptive qualities. After all, I found more of myself through the people and creativity among furries more than I have in any other fandom.