I had started this blog post about something entirely different, but given this weekend’s bitter and vehemently-divisive furry fandom events, it renewed things in a fairly big way. I am typically very patient, and value communication greatly, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t exhausted by the brutal back and forth that erupted on Friday night. I’ll start it as I intended, but cohesion may not be great because my energy is limited.
The recent explosion in publicity for Ready Player One has brought a lot of feelings to mind, and many are not great. Much of that has to do with the book and/or movie itself, but it’s an interesting analysis of geek culture as a whole, and how social media has formed it into distinct (but not always diverse) communities. The biggest issue, or perhaps what makes me most uncomfortable about RPO, is that the main character’s existence is based entirely around what he consumes, which means the human elements and meaning behind each is completely disregarded. I have made long Tweet storms about this before:
We all enter into the relationships we have with our fandoms with different intents. Some are just casual observers, perusing but not really engaging or reciprocating much. Others throw themselves right into the fray with contributions of content, memes, opinions, and get all of these back in great supply. And while there’s a whole sliding scale of immersion between these extremes, there’s a whole other scale of expectations about how the fandom ‘should be’, what it means to call yourself a fan, and how individuals should behave.
What’s interesting as part of that is the dynamics of individuality and preconceived behaviour when people join those communities. Ostensibly this has greatest relevance right this moment to furry, as that’s where I have the greatest amount of observed experience and oh lord I hope this weekend doesn’t last all week.
Fan in the Flames
Trolls notwithstanding, the general idea when you enter a fandom is that you expect to make friends with people who share your interests. On the surface, that should mean potentially anyone in the fandom is a future friend. Subconsciously, we hope for that. The biggest issues with that is we’re (sadly) human, and an aesthetic appreciation doesn’t at all equate to a shared mentality across all facets of our individualities. But we still project our tastes and ideas onto the avatars of the friends we want to have, like gluing faces onto mirrors, because we want to belong and identify. We connect with people over art, memes, fursuits, fursonas, etc, and start to assume that because we have entered into this one-sided relationship with a fandom, that it should reciprocate in kind with the expectations we fuel our immersion with.
Undeniably, we are all furries.
But everyone has a different idea of what that means, and rarely talks about it until there’s a conflict.
“Furry is where anyone can be themselves.”
“Furry is an escape.”
“Furry is a safe space.”
“Furry is a place for creative expression.”
“Furry is for self-exploration.”
“Furry has no restrictions.”
It’s like a horoscope. Statements we all agree with for an infinite list of reasons. We follow people based off their species, fursuit, stories, or artwork, usually paired on social media with some kind of statement, or no statement at all, and our hopes and presumptions fill in the gaps. If you asked me how much I knew about the friends that I followed, I could say very little, but presume that I’d get on okay with them if we were all in the same room. I have no guarantee that’d be the case. We’re all tiny universes with endless differences. But we are so eager to connect and belong that we rarely extend ourselves beyond a cosmetic level because the further down you go, the greater the differences seem, and the thinner the ice you stand on.
But sometimes these general statements aren’t enough. Awful hot takes have pervaded the fandom for some time, each of these based off a flawed assumption that furry adapts to the needs of the identifier:
“Furry is a fetish.”
“Furries over 30 should GTFO the fandom.”
“You’re not a furry if you don’t have a fursona.”
“Fat people shouldn’t fursuit.”
“Female furries are gross.”
These are easy to debunk, but are prime examples of how fans adapt their view of what ‘true’ fandom is and how it should be curated. To people who consider ‘furry’ to be their primary designation above all else, these preconceptions, or any other, become a big problem for everyone else. Because the discovery that someone is one of these ‘undesirable’ elements can either open someone’s mind to future discoveries, or lower the individual in a fan’s estimation. This prejudice demonstrates that any given fan is only as important as their furry facade, and those who think this way isolate themselves from a fandom more likely to accept them for whoever they happen to be UNDER the fursuit or profile pic. The only people who stick around are others who don’t care, in the same dismissive way.
A big conundrum lies in trying to resolve this when the nicer, broader statements aren’t technically mutually exclusive, but can be so widely applicable that they’re almost redundant. Creative expression can be anything from the cleanest saccharin Lisa Frank-esque sona cuteness to the hardest-core porn you ever needed a stiff drink after seeing. A ‘safe place’ can mean for protection from hurtful ideas or somewhere to express them without reprisal. And while every single furry may tell you each of the above statements was true superficially, we all have a different interpretation of what they mean, and embody them in how we treat each other. And so, every one of us has a different view of what Furry should be, and our experiences vary wildly. When the people around you don’t live up to those invisible expectations, things start to break down.
Pandora’s Box Is Not A Bad Dragon Product
The biggest conflicts lately have arisen from social issues, but the most telling arguments about fandom self-identification aren’t about whether the existence of real-world abuse is bad, but is in statements like these:
“Why shouldn’t I like (x)? This person could be lying.”
“Furry art isn’t real, you can’t say it’s abusive.”
“Forget those SJWs, I’m just here for your art.”
These comments aren’t really about the issues themselves. They’re protecting the art, or creator. It’s a protest against the need for greater awareness in relation to the fandom, and a reluctance to give up a portion of the fan’s self-designation of what they consider makes them, or the creator, a furry. Especially where a prominent figure may have been crucial to some young fur’s awakening and fandom identity, the grip can be incredibly tight. In this view, the understanding is that furry creators cannot be bad people, but speaking out against other furries makes you a bad furry.
Hence, the worst thing a furry can do is malign another fandom member, by which point their identity is removed to something else, like ‘SJW’. This gatekeeping is how consumer-identity fans prevent real-world issues from tainting their fandom: they turn critics into something else entirely, thus removing the conflict of arguing with other furries, because in their mind, this person is no longer considered a furry. They’re the problems, the people who won’t just shut up and enjoy the dancing carpets. And some creators capitalise on this relentlessly.
Furry is inextricably a form of escapism, and to these furs, that should hence mitigate them from applying any limitations on what should be portrayed, or that no content can be inappropriate as long as it falls within the genre. Except, it seems, where that content is inherently critical of the fandom.
Moreover, when we construct our identities around what we consume, the image of what we devote ourselves to becomes irretrievably difficult to pin down or live up to, an ever-evolving fantasy of idealism, and the rules are often made up spontaneously when it comes into question. Everything should be accepted, because the medium is sacred. This is paraphrased from the progression of a real Twitter conversation about porn based off a well-known dog:
“It’s a drawing- it’s not real.”
“Well, just because it might have been based off a real dog doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate.”
The owners: “We did not give permission for this.”
The constant need to step back from encroaching responsibility even when directly faced with an advocate for rationalisation is a means of protecting this amorphous definition of what ‘furry’ is. Even if it can’t be defined in specific terms, what is clear is that being critical of it is perceived to be an assault on a ‘rightful place’ in the fandom, which is purely constructed from personal expectations of what we want it to be, not what it actually is. It’s the same kind of reaction you get when debating religious issues (and religions are the OG fandoms, if you think about it) because everyone interprets their actions as different devotionals to the same message while living extraordinarily distinct lives. It’s self-fulfilling confirmation bias.
When someone’s primary existence is based around being a consumer, criticising one prominent fandom member’s actions, whether or not they’re directly connected, becomes an attack on the idea of being a furry itself, in the same way the criticising a religious figure or practitioner is often seen to be an attack on that religion (especially so in recent times with people who call themselves Christian but act in a very un-Christian way, being defended by other Christians simply for solidarity). Those who have solid identities outside of fandom, particularly those in marginalised groups simply because they have had to struggle with the right to exist in the first place, recognise the fallibility of such power structures because of how real-world problems get ignored for the sake of protecting an artificial status quo.
Those who have built platforms on this furry-status-quo-bubble have to conduct the delicate (or oblivious) balancing act of wanting to seem inclusive while not making any grand statements either way for fear of losing the identity that they are celebrated for; i.e. a furry. Or, they speak out against criticism as being unnecessary and malicious because it robs them of ego when they lose followers who finally realise what a tool they’re being. So we can see how toxic nonchalance perpetuates itself, where the pillars of the community are either:
-so inoffensively vanilla that they may as well be owned by The Hallmark Channel, or;
-completely embrace the lack of consequences and do whatever they want.
Both of these get rewarded by a majority audience that accepts either as the ‘proper’ way to be furry because the rules are open to such interpretation, if there even are any. Judging by the examples of the greatest content people consume (particularly YouTubers), you are a furry if: you never acknowledge drama except to tell everyone how bothersome it is, or to make fun of it, and do whatever you want otherwise, even if that includes brigading other, critical furries. And, granted, that makes it very accessible, but dangerously so when it fails to respond to any identity outside of that.
Fursona of Interest
While many of us likely enter a fandom with trepidation that we won’t be accepted, coming across conflict can nevertheless be more of a shock than we anticipate. And the further you go before you encounter it, the more dramatic the impact, and often the more combative we get, because it feels like it sabotages the positive experience we’ve had so far. We perceive it to be an attempt at undoing our security, consciously or otherwise. This seems to be particularly bothersome for casual fans who are literally here just for the artwork, or devotees who absorb every aspect of the subculture as part of their very existence. Because as long as it feeds their need for more content, extraneous behaviour doesn’t have an effect on what they get to enjoy- they merely reject unwanted content or backstory as irrelevant. This is the ‘I hate drama’ crowd, who want to get on with appreciating and sharing what they feel vilified for by the public for doing. Even though there are a lot of recognisable figureheads who get shared in our feeds every day, there are more passive consumers in furry than there are creators, even though the crossover is greater than (probably) any other fandom in existence.
It can be a huge problem when furry creators are that much closer to their fans, and are part of the community that not only pays for their content, but also plays the accompanying parts of audience and critic as well. The network becomes tighter, and a web-disrupting controversy immediately has repercussions elsewhere. In a previous blog, I gave a cursory summary of the divisions that happen when a prominent fandom member slips up:
Being Right Because I’m Popular is a shitty hill to try and die on simply because you want to save face. More than making you look bad, it further divides your community between people who apologise for any kind of bad or mistaken behaviour just because they like you; people who will forever be offended by whatever you said; those who liked you but are frustrated with you and your fans because neither will hold you accountable, and people who are caught up in the drama of vicious crap-slinging.
This is where most people consider the toxicity to really burst from under the surface, and where the greatest battles for furry identity take place. The crucial factor here is the tendency for consumers to oversimplify the fandom to ‘furry is furry art’, regardless of the content, instead of ‘furry is a community’. If you consider furry as anything with a soft texture and an animal face, then any criticism is technically inappropriate and the people behind it are null, because the genre literally encompasses everything superficial and those who create it are welcome regardless, even the egregiously awful. But when you look at furry as a group of real actual people creating content, then yes, expulsion of toxicity is absolutely viable, and necessary to keep it going. These are the two groups in a big fandom dust-up. One, the consumer-led group and those who exploit it, compartmentalises the community network as secondary to the content and its creators, and the other, which is a much greater cross-section of creators and fans, that accepts furry as an expression by that fandom, or an ideal alternate, and holds everyone equally accountable for how they treat others within it.
This is where you’re most likely to see aggressive Tweet wars, threats of muting and blocking, subtweets, screenshots, accusations of ‘SJW’, content policing, abusers, enablers, apologists, it all gets horrifically messy. The ones who lose out in these warzones are the good faith furries who want the fandom to do better but are met with resistance and hostility for trying to find a genuine balance, because sensational blanket statements and screenshot-receipts get highest viral share, and nuance is fatiguing to maintain when everyone’s shouting at once, especially if these other voices have more clout than they do.
But in truth, aren’t they just as toxic as each other?
In a word: no. Being resistant to change out of convenience to you is much more harmful in the long-term than asking someone to examine their behaviours and alter their course. Terms like ‘SJW’, ‘witch hunt’, and ‘fandom police’ are ad-hominem put-downs used to diminish critics instead of addressing the issues themselves. It reduces people to the level of that bossy Marge Simpson squirrel caricature to discourage onlookers from attaching merit to their views. Unironic users of such language are either very jaded with society in general or have no concept of the seriousness of these issues, and both of these are sad situations to be in. Either way, it’s an apathetic view that takes security in ignorance rather than extend any effort to make things better, even if there’s an acknowledgement that they are legitimately bad in a real world context.
However, even a good argument can be portrayed aggressively, and this doesn’t help negate the image of valid criticisms as being paraded by a group of kinkshaming crusaders.
So, how do we avoid this earthquake of consequences whenever a bad fandom take or unscrupulous action falls from orbit to murder us all? Considering most of our interaction is online, the vast majority of conflict comes from how we communicate, and much of this boils down to what we feel is acceptable levels of criticism for our own persona within the fandom. This is where corkscrew-in-the-ear terms like ‘callout culture’ and ‘drama’ start to twist their way in to conflate legitimate problems with bad faith arguments or professional/social sabotage, because consumer-identifiers see debate as criticism of overall fandom existence instead of a single undesirable behaviour or depiction to be excluded. The irony is, moving to new creators likely wouldn’t affect the consumers much anyway, except reducing their future art folder, possibly. But the collector mentality is hard to break.
An important thing to remember is when people say “I want (x) out of the fandom”, it’s usually a means of encouraging people to eliminate abusive behaviours instead of a push for specific people to leave. Although sometimes the two are sadly synonymous. However, if a statement like “Pedophiles/Nazis/rapists should not be allowed in our fandom spaces” makes you angry, that’s likely a you problem and you should definitely think about what you’re trying to defend, and why.
BUT, we are definitely conditioned to reacting negatively and explosively, partly because we are now accustomed to preempting aggressive defence of problematic behaviours. The tone is unavoidably affected by the instantaneous nature of social media communication. Once it’s shared, it’s out of our hands, and often with 280 or fewer characters to try and extrapolate. Retractions and appendices never get as much of a share as the sensational first take, which, on Twitter at least, is often criminally simplified for the limitations of the platform.
Adding to this, furry is a paradoxical fandom with an infinite memory and terrible attention span, like if Wikipedia had no search function and relied on clicking keywords to find what you needed. Large-scale trending conflicts seem to last for ages, but resurges with new individuals as the furore spreads wider and new (or old) stuff gets added to the fire. It becomes a learned response to immediately cut people off from the onset of a new discourse episode because we’ve experienced our concerns being met with shrugs, apologism, or outright abuse whenever they’re brought up.
This becomes hurtful and exhausting, so it’s natural to vent and walk off/block when it next shows its head. The fear of that makes people react vehemently when it’s their turn to defend. And, when it feels like nothing changes, your world becomes smaller as you turn to the people you can trust and away from a wider world that keeps denying your validity. That’s a very big problem for a self-reliant fandom. None of the subgroups is large enough to sustain itself completely. But, as long as there are new voices coming through, it will keep its equilibrium. That’s why they must be supported.
Okay, So… What Can I Actually DO?
If you find yourself in a debate but are worried about what that means for you as a furry, or the fandom as a whole, some things to consider:
- The fandom will still exist. It has for years, even when it was much smaller and divisions ran much deeper, and social media didn’t even exist as it does today.
- The fandom may never be perfect, but as long as we keep listening to each other, we will try.
- Putting creators on a pedestal where they can do no wrong isn’t sensible, helpful, or healthy. We, as a whole, and you, as an individual, need to recognise that.
- If you’re fed up of furries being misconceived as sexual predators, maybe don’t apologise for ones who actually are, or ones who encourage those behaviours, because you’re undermining your own reputation.
- There are many diverse creators around. Losing respect for or unfollowing someone that you held previous appreciation for won’t stop new, better content being created. In fact, you can help the fandom grow by finding these new voices when another shifts out of favour, or just generally. You can be a change that helps the fandom flourish, so that everyone really can have a place here. Consider yourself a voyager.
- The biggest influencers are not necessarily the ones of greatest value. Don’t follow someone because they’re popular. Follow them because you genuinely want to.
- Find your own value, and don’t be caught up in the need to be big. You will find longer-lasting acceptance from authenticity than you will from popularity. If you get popular from being authentic, then awesome. But focus on honesty first, always.
- ‘Honest’ does not mean ‘brutal’. Honesty is truth, brutality is force.
- Things naturally change. From individuals to the world at large, things will change. Whether you want to be a part of that or not, it is inescapable. If you want to be involved in the fandom instead of complaining about how awful it is, take time to watch, and consider changing with it. If the change is too much, then it’s not the place for you any more.
- You can take a break if you need it.
- A negative experience does not have to erase positive ones. Ground yourself in your passions, and keep good people around you.
- More people talking about a problem doesn’t mean it didn’t already exist. You’re just noticing the extent of it, and that means you need to pay it consideration. It may involve having to face up to some embarrassing truths, but you and the people around you will be better for confronting something with honesty instead of ignoring it.
- Some people act in bad faith, some just phrase things badly. It’s up to you how to respond to finding out which is accurate.
- Some are naturally anxious to commit to a new idea. Let them form their opinions on their own, and let them ask questions. Being oppressive pushes quieter, but equally valid, voices away.
- Don’t assume criticism of an aspect of content you enjoy is an attack on you personally, even if it frustrates you. You exist outside of what you consume and remember that others do too.
- You can enjoy something while recognising its flaws, but, like furry as a whole, you will likely be under scrutiny for it, especially if a lot of people are telling you why those problems matter. Don’t just excuse them outright.
- However, as much as representing yourself, you are also representing the subgroup of the fandom in question. Who or what you defend, what you say, and how you say it will reflect on you and your peers. That is your responsibility. If people break away from you for it, and that hurts you, you may want to consider what part of you they are turning away from.
- Just because you love someone or their work doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing bad things. It’s a horrible thing to come to terms with, and I’m sorry.
- Recognise when people are upset and listen to them. This is not an obligation to agree, but dismissing their concerns as stupid or performative without acknowledging their truth and feelings is as damaging as problematic content itself, and creates even deeper resentment for those who support it. Acknowledging that someone may have incredibly valid reasons for being hurt is the very least you can do to make communication more constructive.
- Changing your mind doesn’t make you weak. Adaptability is an advantage. We all find new information every day. Use it, and do better.
- Don’t force yourself to stay in a situation you don’t feel comfortable in. There are many different furries- you don’t have to stick with local ones, or even the ones you first met. If those around you are forcing you to appreciate or do something that you have doubts about, they’re not doing it for you, they’re doing it for them. Be honest with yourself.
- The threat of being cut off from people you’re familiar with because you disagree with their views can be scary, especially if you’re new. Trust that there can be a new place in the fandom for you, and ask for help if you need it.
- It is entirely your call to choose what you get exposed to. Respect yourself in that, always. If you dislike someone, whether for their behaviour or art style, don’t force yourself to be in contact with them just because they’re furry. This goes for creators and general fans.
- Even if your opinions are different, you cannot deny someone else’s experience. Everyone has a unique story, and that includes their own past, and interactions with people you may idolise.
- Despite the ‘slippery slope’ argument anti-critics peddle, getting rid of abuse won’t purge the internet of your porn. Good people can be (and absolutely are) kinky. We’re not going to turn into a fandom of Puritanical crusaders. There will be plenty of bara dads, twinky softness, gorgeous lesbians, impossible breasts, guro, candygore, inflation, anything else you can wave a Bad Dragon toy at. Sex and sexual expression is awesome. But it has to be awesome for everyone involved, not just you.
An Important Reminder
As much as furry is a particularly maligned fandom, any position where you can ignore someone else’s abuse to enjoy what you want because it doesn’t effect you is privilege, just FYI. It might not feel like it, but it is. Choosing to support people who refuse to acknowledge their transgressions actively rewards them for continuing, and believe it or not, much like you with furry persecution within geek spaces, continually ignoring toxic problems like rape, child/animal abuse or bigotry makes people more upset and more likely to be even more reactive when it comes round in future.
I have mentioned this before, but when I was active on Tumblr I took part in a furry’s thesis project where he was identifying psychological trends within the community. The final session was a big group Skype chat where we talked openly about our experiences. 50% of the group had suffered some form of abuse in youth. That may not be indicative of furry as a whole, but even so, if you don’t see why the fandom has such an issue with this, then lucky you, you likely weren’t in that group. But also, you have no right to tell people what they should not object to. The better thing to do is treat them with decency and understanding. Sorry that you might feel guilty whacking off to an underage character now, but that speaks volumes about how you objectify the subject of the art, and what you think of your peers. If you find the content to be more important than the people behind it, or place your comfort in ignoring drama over the people you meet at conventions who are living through it, then don’t be surprised if nobody wants to stick around you for long.
The bottom line is, if you recognise the significance of having your own fursona in an art piece as increasing its importance to you, then you can recognise the implications of drawing underage characters in sexual situations and how it hurts or disgusts others. Just as you find your identity in content you enjoy, others may do so in a very different, darker way. Always, always be mindful.
Okay, I’m about done for now. The upshot of this should be, enjoy the fandom and your part in it, but don’t hold it as sacrosanct. That does not mean it’s bad. It is fallible, its creators and fans infinitely moreso. The sooner we can all recognise that, the better we can become.