I’ve referred more than once to Ted Sturgeon’s original “Revelation,” the one where the famous “ninety percent of everything is crud” maxim came from. Sturgeon wrote at the time that the revelation “was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition.”
Furry Fandom is twenty years old now (at least), and my involvement in it runs nearly two decades. I, sir, am no Ted Sturgeon, but I sure am weary of the attacks. I am tired of being told that furry fandom sucks now and that it’s at least indirectly my fault. And, yes, even though that’s never the way it’s put, when the argument follows the basic framework of the fandom is full of problems and nobody in the fandom will lift a finger to solve them, I take it a little personally. That’s framed as an indictment of everyone.
The problems the critics rattle off vary, but only on the surface. Perhaps the argument is that some things at furry cons (or on web sites or in fanzines) just aren’t furry and have no business being there at all. Or that those things are okay, but they should be kept behind closed doors where only people who already know they exist can find them. In all variants, the case is essentially being made that the visible presence of some things in furry fandom taints everyone associated with it.
A wretched hive of scum and villainy
Imagine that fifty people visit Cabo San Lucas, the Baja resort town. Some of them have great times; most have good times; some aren’t too impressed. One of them, though, comes back with horror stories. The hotel lost his reservation and he ended up in a roach-infested dump. Somebody stole his credit card. A drunk threw up on his $200 shoes. And nobody who should have taken responsibility for helping him would.
Suppose now our tourist is a guy who’s more suited to a weekend in Branson, Missouri than a week partying in the tequila clubs with Sammy Hagar groupies. Everything may go absolutely “right” for him and his time will still be terrible. If anything, he’ll be more inclined to tell people how terrible Cabo was for him, because it’s not just a string of bad luck combined with rude people—it’s a moral failing.
That fiftieth guy isn’t going to be interested in hearing from the other forty-nine, and he sure doesn’t want to hear from people who’ve been there a dozen times and each time it got more and more fantastic. Even if everybody else thought it was a virtual paradise, for him it was Mos Eisley without the cool band.
Furry conventions are not Cabo San Lucas. For starters, they’re much lighter on both the Sammy Hagar groupies and the margaritas. But while we don’t know what the proportions are, it’s safe to say that every furry con has its share of Mister Fifties there. They had a terrible time, they want you to know about it—and they’re not wrong. They did have a terrible time.
So let’s talk about furry cons.
Furry fan and furry con-goer are two separate and distinct ideas, but most of the arguments I’ve seen about furry fandom’s presumed wretchedness stem from the cons. Here’s some common charges:
- Individual acts of rudeness at conventions
- Open advertising for fetish-focused room parties at cons
- “Furry” has gathered a lot of undesirable, non-furry baggage
Let’s start with the last one.
Furry is as furry does
You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
— Col. Bill Kilgore, Apocalypse Now
This has a simple and true premise at its base: to be meaningful, definitions require boundaries. As long as both you and I can distinguish full-spectrum light, we can tell whether one thing is orange and one thing is blue. We may disagree on just where orange ends and yellow and red begin, but there’s a wide swath of colors we should both agree are in the “not orange” category; if we can’t do that, we can’t talk effectively about color at all. Likewise, not everyone in furrydom needs to agree on precise boundaries for “furry,” but most need to be able to fairly easily say what isn’t furry, or the term becomes meaningless. Disney’s “Robin Hood” is generally accepted to be a furry movie; “Shrek” may or may not be depending on how many points you give for the talking donkey. Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” is definitively not.
But if everyone in “Annie Hall” had been anthropomorphic animals—a romance between a neurotic comedian squirrel, perhaps, and a spaced-out gray cat—and everything else remained the same, from story to location to dialogue delivery, it’d be furry, fully in the same “slice of life” vein as some of the seminal furry comics like Omaha and Hepcats.¹
This is the shoal upon which the “furry purity” argument always runs aground. Simply put, furry is an adjective, and none of us get to dictate what nouns are and are not appropriate for modification.
I happen to like giants; I always have. I’m also a furry fan. Not too surprisingly, I’ve come up with anthropomorphic animal characters who are also giants. It would be ridiculous for me to suggest that to be a furry fan you also have to like giants. It would be no less ridiculous, though, to suggest that I need to keep my connection of the two absolutely hidden because to not do so would be to somehow force my concept of what furry is on an unwilling fannish populace.
It’s natural for people to make these combinations, to do pop culture hybrids. Electric guitars and delta blues. Space travel and westerns. Your chocolate is in my peanut butter pretty routinely. Nobody seriously worries that these are “contaminations” that leave one or both originals impure. What’s different about furry? Well, if I went out on a limb, I might guess it’s the difference between these two posters:
Furry Ham Radio
9:00, Room 315
9:00, Room 315
I’m going to bet that despite the fact that neither of those things have anything canonically “furry” about them, the one on the left wouldn’t be cause for this discussion.
It becomes clear the argument doesn’t rest on any property of “furry” at all. It rests on the proposition that if what comes after furry is sufficiently disturbing, it somehow magically reverses the role of adjective and noun. By not actively stopping diaper fetishists from making us aware that they’re among us, all furry fans will be tainted.
It’s an argument which has a nice emotional ring to it, but there’s very little evidence that it holds water. If you ask most people what a “furry” is, if they have an answer at all, it’s going to involve people who get together and dress up as animals. Maybe they’ll think sex is involved, maybe they won’t, but they’re not much more likely to think about diapers than they are about ham radio operators. The internal foibles of furry fandom by and large remain internal.
Furthermore, what’s the responsibility a con is supposed to have for unofficial activities there? Anthrocon has been known to request party hosters to alter posters to not make the focus of kinks obvious, but that’s about the farthest I’ve heard a con go in that direction, and the parties are still advertised. On the flip side, I’ve rarely heard of an advertised party actually participating in anything that would embarass the con. It may be a group of people who enjoy fantasizing about latex-covered rabbit hermaphrodites in handcuffs, but they’re still just sitting around a hotel room drinking soda and eating Doritos. They may be passing around eyebrow-singing artwork, but that’s about it. (I’ve heard of private parties at cons in which a lot more happens, but they are, indeed, private parties.)
Outrage via outlier
The “individual acts of rudeness” I mentioned before are a less subjective argument. Anyone who’s been in the fandom for a while has heard stories of unpleasant things happening, and sometimes first-hand from friends. Of course, we also tend to hear of much more significant nastiness than anyone we actually know has experienced. People just know it happened. You’ve heard these stories, too, right? They end with:
- “…and there was semen all over the elevator walls!”
- “…and there were dirty diapers in the con suite!”
- “…and when he came to, ‘Welcome to AIDS’ was written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror!”
Even if we grant the veracity of these stories, their value is predicated on accepting those cases as representative of the normal experience, rather than a worst case experience. But what reason do we really have to think they are representative?
We routinely hear about outrageous lawsuit verdicts; these stories have been used to fashion a narrative: lawsuits are out of control! But you’ll notice that the stories don’t tell you how many lawsuits of their kind are brought annually in the country; how many ever go to trial; how many end in any awarded damages; what the median damage award is; how many have punitive damages associated with them rather than merely compensatory; how the rate of lawsuits per capita now compares to the rate fifty years ago, or two hundred years ago; and even whether the outrage of the moment, if it’s a real case at all (many of the most popular ones circulating on the internet are not), was eventually dismissed.
Why do we assume these stories are about lawsuits that represent the median? There are tens of thousands of product liability lawsuits filed annually; we’re not hearing about 99.99% of them because they aren’t outrageous. As Barbara Mikkelson of the Urban Legends Reference Pages commented, “One has to wonder why someone is so busy trying to stir up outrage and who or what that outrage would ultimately benefit.”
This is what’s known as outlying data, and it’s what Ted Sturgeon was complaining about when he talked about critics using the “worst examples of the field for ammunition.” While we can’t pretend that all science fiction is Childhood’s End, we shouldn’t stand for anyone telling us that it’s all Battlefield Earth, either.
In a furry convention of a thousand people or more, there’s going to be dozens of people who probably had a bad time. It’s not going to be too difficult to find other people who had bad experiences, particularly if you post yours and open it up for comments. (Everybody likes the opportunity to complain.) Furthermore, when it comes to things we don’t like that are more subjective, our friends (and friendly acquaintances) are not a random sample of unbiased observers—they’re people who, more often than not, share likes and dislikes with us.
But the con cannot realistically be blamed for the person who propositions your seeing-eye dog, or dry-humps your leg in the hallway. They can tell people not to do it again, but that’s about it. The problem with people like that is not that they’re furries, it’s that they’re morons, and morons cannot be addressed proactively.
When you hear about these stories, there’s a couple things to keep in mind. Unless they have names, locations and dates attached with them, they’re by definition unverifiable data. And any con that was really routinely that much of a horror show would not be a con that could sustain itself. (Assuming that it’s merely everyone you’ve talked to who finds that horrifying and everyone you haven’t talked to would find it just hunky-dory doesn’t make much sense.)
“Guy goes to furry con and has reasonably good time” is not a very interesting story. It’s not going to be told and retold; it won’t be used as proof of anything; it certainly won’t be the basis of an article in your local alternative weekly. It is, however, by far the most common story.
Just wear this scarlet “F,” please
Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling going on in here!
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Renault: Thank you very much.
— From “Casablanca” (1942)
Okay. We know what the real problem here is. The problem is Those People.
Those People won’t keep their kinks in the closet. Those People are attracting the negative media attention to furry. Those People are scaring away newcomers by making them think they have to accept weird kinks in order to be furry. Those People are ruining the fandom, and if you don’t see that, you’re ruining it, too.
Well, let’s break that down. For this to really hold much water, Those People must be a relatively new phenonemon in the fandom. There are certain logical assumptions that stem from that: fans who entered furry fandom in the late ’80s and early ’90s had gentle, non-explicit introductions. Nobody entering the fandom early on ever complained about feeling pressure to draw, like or roleplay erotica. There was neither perception nor promotion of furry fans as being considerably more “sexually open” than other fandoms.
If you did, in fact, enter furry fandom during that time frame, please stop laughing. Take a few deep breaths. I’ll wait.
Ready to go on? Okay.
Look. Furry fandom owes its existence in no small part to “Omaha the Cat-Dancer,” the exotic dancer who first appeared in an underground comic book called Bizarre Sex. Furry fandom has a reputation for a fixation on erotic cartoon animal art because, well, it’s true.² Our first fanzine was called FurVersion, and the name was chosen to play off the reputation the fandom already had in 1987. We’ve been making people within the fandom and without feel uncomfortable for two decades, and any argument which fails to account for that is on rather thin ice. Don’t associate me with all that latex and handcuff stuff—just explicit sex between animal people for me, thank you very much!
But actually the ice is even thinner than that: our own collective experience suggests that, in fact, the vast majority of fans do know how to draw the very distinctions being argued that they can’t. I may love “Usagi Yojimbo” and you may despise all comics; I may love Kyoht’s artwork and hate Michele Light pinups and you may think I have it exactly backwards. And, I may love giants and you may love inflatable unicorns. Yet, nearly all of us seem to be able to love what we do without assigning them a universal mandate: none of us says you must love Kyoht or Michele Light or giants or balloon critters to be a furry.
Clearly, newcomers are not being scared away from the fandom. By any numerical measure, the fandom is bigger and stronger than it ever has been. Are there people driven away because they really do find the kinks a little too in-your-face? Undoubtedly. Is that new? No, absolutely not.
While responding to the histrionic cries of the perverts have taken over with an acerbic the perverts have always been here is tempting, the part that the histrionics never quite address is the part that really disturbs me: if we granted all those points, what exactly is being proposed as a solution? Because there’s no action I can see other than letting some people decide what is and isn’t “properly” furry, and taking steps to purge the fandom of everything that isn’t deemed to qualify.
And if you think that’s a good idea, you’d better think long and hard on whether you’re Those People to someone else.
If it weren’t for you meddling kids
Accept certain inalienable truths. Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble, and children respected their elders.
— Mary Schmich
In the final analysis, furry has always been—and I think must be—self-selecting. There are big name fans, there are convention organizers, there are popular artists, but ultimately there are neither arbiters nor gatekeepers. There has never been a Furry Handbook, defining what is and isn’t Fannishly Correct. Regardless of what the general consensus among everyone we know might be about “what furry is,” what makes somebody a furry fan is the act of them declaring they’re a furry fan.
Yet if self-definition is necessary, change is unavoidable. And the major force of change in the fandom is this discussion’s (anthropomorphic) elephant in the room. Furry is not, repeat, not being harmed by the gays, or the macrophiles, or the plushies. And it isn’t remotely threatened by news coverage, Something Awful, or even Jerry Bruckheimer.
But furry fandom is now old enough to have a generation gap.
About five years back, David Rust did a study that suggested most furry fans were aged 18-26 and had been in the fandom for five or six years. Based on my more anecdotal observations over the last few years, if he did that study again now, the median age—roughly 22—wouldn’t change. If you are in your late thirties or older, there are people in the fandom now who are young enough to be your children but old enough to get into a convention’s adult art show.
Trendwise, they’re politically a little more conservative, and socially a little more liberal. They grew up online. They don’t really remember Archie or Gopher, let alone CompuServe. Pen and paper roleplaying is an anachronism. And when they found furry fandom, it wasn’t via underground comics and novels and stories, but rather the great unmediated data hose of the World Wide Web: art archives and story pages and newsgroups and mailing lists. For that matter, from Vanity Fair and MTV and CSI. I’ve heard of more than one furry fan who was introduced to the fandom by Something Awful.
If you actually look at the shifts in the fandom over the past decade or so, you’ll see these trends:
- An order of magnitude (at least!) of new fans
- Many more conventions
- A much higher emphasis on costuming
- A shift in art away from pinups toward quasi-realism
- Cross-pollination with therianthrope spiritualists
- More “by fans for fans” creation
- A better market for furry-focused art and publishing
Not everyone will agree whether each of those trends is good, bad or indifferent. For my part, I have little interest in costuming; I’ve always liked magic realism and urban fantasy, so the shift in the art and the interest in Native American spirituality is fascinating; and while the better market is a direct result of having so many self-identified furries that it’s become a viable market, I’m concerned about how that’s led toward an insularity in the art and writing. But I think it’s hard not to conclude that all the trends show a pretty vibrant community.
But I meant “skunkf––ker” in an affectionate way
I’ve been reading “fandom has gone to hell in a handbasket” articles for many years now, so I’ve tried not to write this in a way which responds to specific details. It’s very easy for a critic to generate a list of little horrors at a con, for instance, that would make somebody not want to attend. One con I went to had drunken assaults by the con suite, damage from paintball guns on one floor, and reports of sexual harrassment.
It was not, mind you, a furry con.
Nearly all of my genuinely bad experiences at science fiction conventions, in fact, were at non-furry happenings. Is that reason not to go to cons at all? Not for me, but others might make that choice, and I wouldn’t blame them. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with choosing not to go to furry cons if you did have a bad time, or even if you’re just worried that you will. Maybe you’re making the right decision for you, and maybe you’re being hypersensitive, but either way it’s your business. Nobody else has any grounds for harrassing you over it.
On the other hand, if you insist that it’s your obligation, your duty, to explain in no uncertain terms that you’re leaving because furry fandom has been absolutely ruined by Those People, it is not unreasonable to expect dissenting responses. Whether you should expect flames depends less on content than on phrasing.
I’m not offended by someone telling me they’re Leaving The Fandom Forever, even if I may not agree with their rationale. If, however, they’re hurling epithets at Those People and—either by proxy or direct aim—at the vast majority of fans who just don’t get too worked up about the presence of Those People, they’re going to create much more heat than light.
At times, there seems to be a misperception that speaking stridently and being openly contemptuous of one’s adversaries is an effective way to add emphasis to an argument; in practice, it just makes people who don’t agree with the argument before they start reading to come away with the impression the author is being a jerk for no good reason.
And, of course, the downward spiral from there is eminently predictable. It takes only one person to response with oh yeah? I can see your ‘to hell with you all’ and raise you a ‘fuck you and the horse you rode in on’ for things to get much, much uglier very fast.
It ain’t rural anymore, but maybe suburbia ain’t so bad
Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.
— Tom Lehrer
Furry fandom is not the same as it was twenty years ago. There are people I miss, publications I miss, and the small family feeling that once existed is long gone. The convention sketchbook has changed from a free exchange between fans to a side business for artists. Art show quality—and prices—have skyrocketed.
But you know, most of what brought me to furrydom in the late 1980s is still here, too. There’s still good art and good writing, and there are still good people to talk to online and at conventions. I’ve lost friends over the years, but I’ve gained others.
And really, I don’t think my experience is so unusual that other people couldn’t have it, too, if they chose to. This does require them to be willing to look the other way when they see things they don’t enjoy, and to be willing to simply say, “No, that’s nothing I’m interested in” if by chance the question comes up.
It is not, in the final analysis, that onerous a burden. If you put even modest effort into doing what you like, after all, you’ll likely find you just don’t have that much time for things you don’t.
1. There would, of course, be pedants pointing out that a furry Annie Hall wouldn’t be exploiting furry concepts very much, but you get the idea.
2. This is not an argument that furry fandom doesn’t have a lot more to it; I’ve been trying to push the “furry can be literature” meme for years, after all, and I firmly believe it to be true.