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(Revised and updated from July 2007)

There are a lot of them about. Furries were, in 2007, estimated to account for approximately six percent of the Second Life population – which even then seemed a little lower than expected- and there are no less than 15 different furry conventions in the USA alone. So, where do furries come from?

There are a lot of factors, but the most often overlooked one is actually mainstream society. Mainstream society actively cultivates and encourages the creation of furs and furry fandom, and then looks down on them when they are produced. It’s not like that situation doesn’t happen in other areas of society, either.

Animals are the ideal brand image. Love them or loathe them, we all carry strong emotional aftertastes about species of animals, and breeds of animals within those species, both drawn from our cultures, media and religions, as well as through personal experiences. Furrydom was pretty much the first human social activity (after fighting and sex) and certainly counted as our earliest of artistic forms. After that, it never went away, being a part of many religious rituals and festivals, down through the centuries, as well as becoming a strong branch of Mummery in the middle ages.

Animals have strong brand characteristics. Cuddly, fierce, loyal, lazy, obedient, independent, caring, energetic, fast, slow, wise, faithful. You can probably think of one or more animals that typify each of these terms in your mind. Animals are strong brands and fantastically successful trademarks.

If you are a child, you’re positively bombarded by fursuits and anthropomorphic animals. Romper Room, Sesame Street (and Muppets generally), Humphrey B Bear, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Alice (in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass), Digimon, Barney, Wind in the Willows, Bear in the Big Blue House, the Easter Bunny, 90% of all the cartoons ever made… the list goes on.

In the last ten years, how many movies have you taken your kids to see that didn’t involve anthropomorphic animals? How many of the remainder consisted of anthropomorphic robots or cars?

Our anthropomorphs as characters exhibit strong archetypes. In Hundred Acre Wood, each of the canonical characters (and Gopher, added by Disney afterwards) exemplifies certain positive traits (as well as being balanced by some similarly exaggerated flaws). As the material plays out, these characters play against each-other, each character having a chance to display their unique strengths in fashion that encourages admiration.

All of these anthropomorphic figures are crafted to be cuddly, safe, easy-to-identify with, entertaining, admirable, cool, educational and role-models to our children. As parents and grand-parents, we accept and encourage this, and throw in a dose of the Easter Bunny while we’re at it, and maybe a heroic tale about bright-nosed reindeer saving the day.

As a bonus, toy and entertainment merchandisers encourage us to become these figures, providing us with masks and props and costumes; encouraging us to role-play these figures, to dress up and accentuate the aspects of the character or animal that we find most interesting or admirable or most identify with. At Halloween, among the witches and storm-troopers, and costumed superheroes there are the junior-sized partial fursuits.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that this doesn’t create a bias. If you’ve ever wanted to be Superman, or Batman or Wonder Woman, or dressed your avatar up as these figures, you’ve experienced something of it. If you’ve ever chosen or bought clothes based on what a movie star or television personality was wearing (or the cool kids in school), you’ve bought in at least a little.

No, what is silly is to suggest that – having actively fostered it, as parents, media-owners, merchandisers, teachers, and members of society generally – that it is somehow desirable that these activities instantly cease at some vague and unspecified age and that continuing to admire someone or something fictional for the positive qualities that they represent is somehow defective; particularly since we’re expected – as adults – to admire and subtly emulate various movie characters, actors and models, but Kung Fu Panda is suddenly supposed to be off limits.

We admire Washington and Lincoln, even though – as their exploits have come to us – their character and the qualities that are communicated to us are likely to be more mythical and fictional than actual. What’s another paragon, after all?

We may not remember which characters influenced us, or why we preferred one choice over another. My mother dressed like Jacqueline Onassis for years, though she probably never associated her clothing choices with the person – instead she dressed in a particular way because of what a person who dressed that way represented to her. What about that leather jacket you wear? The hairstyle? That tattoo? Those shoes? That ball-cap or football jersey? You are expressing not only the person you are, but the person you want to be, selecting from a set of things with assorted identifying qualities.

As humans we do that sort of thing all the time – even when we dress as anthropomorphic animals. No, what would be weird is if people didn’t do it. As a society (or societies) we foster furry ideals, and fandom, encourage it, immerse our children in it. Where does it come from? It comes from all of us.

Dressing up in one kind of empowering symbolic costume (a superhero, a Guy Fawkes mask, or an outfit that you copied from a book, magazine, television or film) essentially makes you much the same as the folks who dress up in fursuits at cons and dance to conspicuous Nine Inch Nails tracks; that is: unremarkable … human.

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Categories: Culture, Opinion.

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