This past weekend I went to Anthro Crossroads East, the first of its name, explosive successor to Raleigh’s Tarpaw Furmeet, and it was incredible. It felt like everything I had hoped a big furcon would be, having only managed to experience single-day meets and multi fandom events so far. It had a bright atmosphere, brilliant energy, and a solid identity that made it an experience beyond many I’ve had so far. And one thing it really drove home in no uncertain terms is how progressive the furry fandom is, especially in comparison to many others. Arguably, the closest it’s currently to right now is cosplay, but it is still worlds away from even the best anime convention I’ve been to.
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 with him began a long, meandering trail between two fandoms and their crossover points, and observing stark differences between the communities. The first formative experience that delayed me from admitting my furriness was the running masked duo screaming down the halls towards me at the London MCM Expo “YIFF IN HELL, FURFAG” and telling me that I should die. Then afterwards seeing one of them again in the main hall and him telling me we should ‘put aside our differences’ and insisted on a hug. It was creepy as hell. And even though I wanted to be a furry even then, the experience made the very very timid post-teenage me withdraw further 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). A guy offering to sketch me at the MCM Expo Steampunk booth admired my weapon, made out of a bike fork and a Van Helsing prop replica, and told me with great relish how awesome it would be for ‘hunting furries’. So it was not a good feeling all round. I didn’t know how to be myself in the world I felt was most accessible and that I hoped would be most welcoming of unique creativities. You can’t get much more outlandish than anime. 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 still found myself very 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 was going to the London Expo. Furries are more widespread and communicating more efficiently. I barely had Facebook when I started out, and I 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 now to see the influences anime and furry have on each other, from kemono artwork to anime YCHs. And 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 of 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 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 costume. That’s a level of immersion cosplay won’t ever quite reach.
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 everyone is trying to be the 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. And often 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.
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 more or less 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 try to 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 you are expected to enjoy the show as it is presented to you, and your indulgence in it is ultimately 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.
I have seen original characters get asked to leave group shots at anime conventions and have people tell 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. They don’t 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, almost 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. Everything you create builds up your fandom identity, and 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 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. It’s more introspective.
If you read through the stories attached to Joaquin’s tweet, 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. 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?
And the sad 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 much more of a minefield. Body positivity and racial diversity are huge obstacles the cosplay community has yet to overcome, and even though it’s still a work in progress in furry, overall the ability for people to be themselves even outside of a suit is celebrated far more.
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, 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.