(NOTE: This post was originally published as ‘Why Furry Is Better Than Cosplay’, but after a long time deliberating, and some life experience, I wanted to go back and change it, because everyone’s self-expression and needs are different. Just because my experience in one community didn’t work out in the long-term doesn’t mean it isn’t as rewarding, or perhaps even moreso, for others. There’s no competition for enjoyment and self-reflection. Being critical of someone else’s creativity isn’t clever or correct, so I’ve changed this article to reflect that.)
Logging into my Twitter is always an experience; sometimes good, sometimes anxiety-inducing. But the feeling I am left with every time is how much this community means to me. The more furries I meet, the more people I get to chat to or read over their experiences, the more it drives home in no uncertain terms is how progressive the fandom is, especially in comparison to many others. Arguably, the closest it’s currently to right now is cosplay, but to me it still feels worlds away from even the best cosplay groups I’ve been part of. The good thing for me is that more often than not, I get to enjoy being a furry at anime conventions anyway, and entwine two of my biggest interests together at the same time.
Although my love for furry characters runs deeper than my passion for anime, I was cosplaying before I could dream about attempting anything furry. Kind of. One of the first cosplays I took to a con was Tony Tony Chopper. At that point I hadn’t even realised that furry had its own distinct costumed fandom, and had to take what little I could find in the programming I devoured.
My Chopper cosplay was not what I wanted him to be, nor were my first few anime conventions. But my experience wearing him began a long, meandering trail between two fandoms and their crossover points, and observing stark differences between the communities. Ironically that same cosplay gave me my first first formative experience that delayed me admitting my furriness.
This run-in involved a masked duo running down the main hall of the ExCeL Centre towards me, screaming “YIFF IN HELL, FURFAG”, also adding afterwards that I should die. For someone in their very first attempt at a furry costume and being irretrievably nervous about it, this left me pretty shaken. And looking back I know it isn’t nearly as bad as what other people have suffered at the hands of trolls and abusers, but it affected me all the same. The weird and insidious icing on the cake afterwards was when one of them found me again in the main hall told me we should ‘put aside our differences’ and insisted on a hug while singing ‘WAR, WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR’. It was creepy as hell, but such is the life of as troll, I guess. I knew then that I wanted to be a furry, even though I would deny it outwardly and inwardly as often as it came into my mind, but had no idea how. This didn’t help; the experience made the very very timid post-teenage me withdraw further even away from it.
The next thing that happened was while I was in my ‘award-winning’ Steampunk cosplay which inspired my Twitter handle (I got best men’s cosplay in Neo Magazine, but some fucker impersonated me to steal the prize, so I never got anything and the photographer didn’t want to speak to me so eh).
A guy offering to sketch me at the MCM Expo Steampunk booth admired my weapon, made out of a (ridiculously heavy) bike fork and a Van Helsing prop replica. He told me, with great relish, how awesome it was, and that it would be perfect for ‘hunting furries’. I left in silence, and scrapped the sketch when I got home.
I didn’t know how to be myself in the world I felt most drawn to, one that I hoped would also be most welcoming of my major passion: my stories, and the characters I wanted to immortalise. The weird thing is, you can’t get much more outlandish than anime, so at this point I felt this was my canvas to explore being creative and find what meant most to me. But any anthro influence past a cute mascot character or That One Supplemental Character You See For One Episode painted a target on your back for ridicule.
Despite this, I found myself firmly planted in the anime fandom for a long time afterwards, and even though I’m thousands of episodes behind in every damn season of everything, I still consider myself an anime fan.
But I’ll always be a furry first and foremost.
OwO, What’s The Difference?
There’s much greater crossover now than there was when I first braved the London Expo. Furries are more widespread and communicating more efficiently. I barely had Facebook when I started out, and joined the UK Furs messageboard at a time when I was unrelentingly anxious about making new friends and couldn’t break into what I saw as a big, thinly-spread clique that I didn’t deserve to be part of anyway. Today I only have to spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook to see the influences anime and furry have on each other, from kemono artwork to anime YCHs. On the surface, they are very similar communities. Costumes are created in similar fashions, audiences are built almost entirely on social media, they have their own vernaculars, subcultures, memes, idols, contentious figureheads, conventions, merchandise, and other nitty gritty parallels that you’d think there’d be so much camaraderie between them.
From a plain old ‘where does the material come from’ standpoint, there’s already a stark contrast. Cosplay has all its inspiration fed to it from anime, video games, manga, comics, movies, TV, books (occasionally)- anything that can be consumed as media is already available to be adapted to cosplay. It’s easily accessible, and any given thing you’re into is likely merchandised in mainstream stores or targeted outlets.
Furry, though, creates it own media, from writing to drawings to video games to full-blown animations. The person whose art you love may only be two degrees of separation from you. You’re part of the community that creates the media you celebrate in turn, and some day you may even be giving art back to the person who inspired you. That’s a level of immersion difficult for cosplay to surmount, unless you count cosplayers themselves, which is now as independent a community as the anime fans they started out as.
From everything I have seen, however, the biggest factor that separates furry from cosplay is the celebration of individuality. You can be different. Not only different, but yourself.
Cosplay is a weird phenomenon because, at least professionally, everyone is trying to be their distinct, definitive example of something they literally don’t own, and many are vying to be the best representation of that character among dozens of others all doing exactly the same thing. I’ve seen people tearing themselves apart because someone else is cosplaying the same character at a con, or generally, and bitchfests targeting fans in store-bought costumes over one that’s been handcrafted. You get knowledge battles. Who’s the bigger fan? Who’s made more effort? Who’s the ‘first’ to portray an outfit that debuted two nights ago? Who wears it better?
People have different levels of participation and that’s okay, but the idea of always being held against a picture-perfect standard creates a weird dynamic of elitism that extends past any level of skill and into your ‘suitability’ for the character. You can be criticised for your cosplay portrayal by, through no fault of your own, being inherently different to them. Where you spend months building your wearable tribute to this character you absolutely love, and for many this is a means of emotional armament against insecurities and loneliness, it can be bypassed in a second by someone determined to tell you how you can never be what you most admire. That objection has no bearing on your intent, confidence, personality, or skill levels. Things that make you who you are become negligible when your image isn’t exactly what the fan you’ve never met wants.
Some people still succeed, and in this case you stand out either on your skill, prolificacy, or figure. In this way, because of the way any given media glorifies certain body types and ethnicities, you will see much less diversity in the upper levels of cosplay celebrity. Taking creative liabilities mark you as a potential target for nitpicking, from needlessly pedantic to horrifically aggressive. Whether you can cosplay against race is always a hugely contentious and bloody argument. Your identity is formed by the library of characters you’ve done, the stylistic features of your work, your material specialisation, and/or (especially for women), your body.
(NOTE: Since I first wrote this article, things have become a lot better, with more prominent cosplayers promoting body positivity, gender, and racial inclusion, and most of the elitism comes from self-titled ‘fans’, and less from cosplayers themselves)
It’s understandable why cosplayers have to be so cutthroat to stand above the rest, because everything they make and wear is based off others’ work, using techniques available to just about anyone, in a crowd of people doing exactly the same stuff. The pressure people put on themselves trying to be cosfamous is insane, and often destructive if you’re not really dedicated, patient, and mature. So much can be destroyed by a single ego and enough people unwilling to keep it in check.
Heaven forbid you make yourself an Original Character based on an existing show, by the way. Everyone will ask who you’re supposed to be but most of the time people will stop listening as soon as you mention the term ‘OC’, and more than likely you won’t get included in any group shots (or if you do, it’s right at the end when everyone else has left). As with your personal image, as a cosplayer, a good proportion of your audience will expect you to enjoy the show as it is presented, and your indulgence is restricted to the boundaries set by the production, be it in image or characterisation. You can mash-up, or switch out a theme, or if you’re lucky, get to cosplay a group of AU fanart, but are still operating within a generally-acceptable set of parameters. Audiences are ruthlessly picky.
I’ve seen original characters get asked to leave group shots at anime conventions, and friends have told me they can’t create the character they most want to experiment with because people have mocked them for it. Fan adoration in such a way is considered dumb and trashy, despite it being a massive compliment to the work at hand that someone loves it enough to immerse themselves in it as something entirely new, without taking away from the substance of the original media. They don’t want to change the story, they want to be right there alongside it as it happens, in their own adventure. That’s amazing, and it’s heartbreaking that cosplayers content to just replicate the designs of the show don’t give them the same regard that they do to their peers.
By contrast, as a furry, everyone is an OC. Furry cosplayers (as in, people who make Pokemon/Digimon/other fandom fursuits) are in the minority, but are just as celebrated as anyone’s own design, and more often than not have some degree of originality woven into them to make them stand out. Everything you create in furry builds up your fandom identity; not just as a library of characters picked from a franchise anyone else could potentially steal your limelight with, but as each of them being a facet of yourself as a unique creation. Your characters are one of a kind, based on your portrayal, and you are celebrated (bigotry and elitism aside, because yeah, sadly that also exists here) for your rarity and creativity. You can have skill, or you can support someone else’s by commissioning a suit. But always, you are your own universe, amongst a world of other universes which all coincide.
They have backstories (or not), deep meanings, emotional resonance. Some are triumphs over loss or trauma. That’s not to say cosplayers can’t be inspired by stories or characters they see and embrace that passion, but furry is an outward expression of something deeply personal, as opposed to a relation to something external. As someone who struggled to fit in, feeling like I was lost among a sea of people who already had media that catered to them that I should somehow be content with, the introspection it allowed me was both a relief, and unexpectedly necessary.
If you read through the stories attached to Joaquin’s tweet above, you’ll see what I mean. The subtle but concrete differences in how we see ourselves as the characters we make and those we’re given to portray are very poignant. We can indulge fantasies of ourselves without creative or physical constraints. Some fursonas may still be considered outlandish, or insane examples of godmodding, but honestly what person, if they’d been through anything similar or beyond the stories above, wouldn’t want the chance to show the world what it means to walk forward in a representation of your survival, or passion? When you have the ability to express in a very tangible way what your soul feels it looks like, and be embraced for being something utterly YOU, how can that not be rewarding to the highest degree?
The thing is that cosplay does exactly this for fans who need to be these characters to find strength, or peace, or a connection with others who feel the same, but the very different perceptions people have over the same character, and the entitlement by narrow-minded fans that any portrayals should be completely homogenous, makes expressing yourself without criticism much more of a minefield. And it’s not as if furry itself isn’t the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel of internet mockery, from within and without. But very quickly, the ability to be yourself far outweighs the bludgeoning ignorance people try to hit you with. I never got to that stage with my cosplay, because I was able to branch into something better for me, but I hope those who do find every piece of themselves that they were meant to, in whichever characters give them the most kinship.
*notices your individuality*
You don’t know who’s under a suit or behind a furry avatar. The stories, both real and fictional, can be overwhelming. I don’t judge people’s need to show their fursona having as many different attributes as a DnD glossary. Those are the heroes we need, that we create for ourselves. The difference is, these heroes aren’t always off saving the world from some great evil. Some may be, if that’s what we need to see in ourselves. But more often they’re just living an ideal life. They exist in ways we can’t. They’re the heroes we know and love and see around us every day. Because a hero isn’t always someone who makes grand gestures and huge statements. There are heroes who smile at us, cry with or for us, make us laugh, tell us a story, remind us what good there is in the world. Because bravery and kindness have no prerequisites. And people deserve to be celebrated for everything that they are, not just because they fit a predetermined set of guidelines.
We may always be misfits, but why not celebrate something that comes so naturally, instead of spending energy ‘correcting’ ourselves?
Furry gets it.