Furry fandom, aesthetics, and the potential in new objects of fannish interest

Kameron Dunn

University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Furry fandom has received little critical scholarly attention to date even though furries have populated the same spaces as other fandoms since the 1970s and engage in the same practices, including cosplay, fan art, and fan fiction. Yet furries deserve further study, particularly in light of the fandom's unique uniting feature: the object of fannish interest is an aesthetic. By deploying an aesthetic of anthropomorphic animals as text, furries broaden the notion of what an object of fandom can be and shed light on the sorts of transformative potential engagement that objects can have for fans. This argument, situated via a history of furry fandom in the 1970s, draws on fan-made sources, including today's furry art, to demonstrate how furry aesthetic manifests in real situations—and how furry aesthetic has the potential to broaden beyond studies of fans to queer and animal studies.

[0.2] Keywords—Animal; Art; Furry; History; Queer

Dunn, Kameron. 2022. "Furry Fandom, Aesthetics, and the Potential in New Objects of Fannish Interest." In "Fandom Histories," edited by Philipp Dominik Keidl and Abby S. Waysdorf, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 37.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Rod O'Riley's gaze drifts away from the viewer, his eyes enlarged by the large aviator-framed spectacles secured to his head a few inches above his large and bushy mustache and a few centimeters beneath his bald head. One of the original furries, fondly referred to by others as a "grey muzzle," he recounts the struggle of the furry fandom in identifying itself among other fandoms back when furries got their start in the 1970s. He explains in Ash Coyote's documentary The Fandom (2020) what being a furry in this fandom was all about back then:

[1.2] We were a very strange fandom. We didn't fully grasp how strange we were going in. But we were not a fandom of a property, nor were we a fandom of a genre. Other fandoms would look at us and get extremely confused. What are you about? Who are you about? All of those specificities don't matter. It's the overarching "animals-doing-things-that-animals-don't-do" thing that binds this all together. Beyond that, it can be anything.

[1.3] O'Riley refers to furries and their chief object of fannish interest as a kind of furry-specific anthropomorphic-animal aesthetic. "Animals-doing-things-that-animals-don't-do" refers to cartoon animals, animals that are anthropomorphized similar to those in Disney animated films and on cereal boxes. Furries are attracted to this extant aesthetic in mainstream media, and they paw out the parts they find most attractive to make their own fan creations. This anthro-aesthetic is what "binds this all together." What follows this initial interest is often a transformative process engendered by the fandom—that is, "Beyond that, it can be anything." I explore this aesthetic, its ramifications for fan studies, and its transformative potential for furries, and I discuss how research on furries may impact studies of fans and media cultures.

[1.4] The furry fandom has thus far been criminally overlooked in studies of fans and fandoms. The most comprehensive work on furries to date has been accomplished by junior scholars, usually limited to master's theses and doctoral dissertations, and often outside the realm of fan studies (note 1). However, beyond the academy, furries have received burgeoning mainstream coverage with varying degrees of kindness for their supposed deviancy, from such inner-fandom-lambasted depictions as the 2003 CSI episode 4.5 "Fur and Loathing" to more empathetic takes like the Rolling Stone piece on Chicago’s Midwest FurFest, the largest furry convention in the world (Dickson 2020).

[1.5] These mainstream depictions have shifted the gaze of many people to furries, but anthropomorphic-animal fans have prowled around the same spaces as other fandoms since their origins in the 1970s. Furries behave the way other fandoms do, too: cosplaying, writing fan fiction, producing fan art and video games, and hosting their own conventions and meetups. Furries operate like other communities in the conversations of fan studies, and furries call themselves a fandom as well. I would argue that scholars should also shift their gaze to furries and their fascinating inner workings.

[1.6] The central intervention I propose for fan studies through this analysis of the furry fandom is an expansion of our conception of a fandom's object of interest. A fandom like furry, which is built around an aesthetic interest as opposed to an interest in narrative, character, or other facets of canon (or even sports, music, brands, celebrities, or any other number of fannish objects) holds fruitful implications for the study not only of furries but also of fans and fandoms more broadly. For this study, I consult a diverse range of resources: academic, fan-made, and some based on my own experience as a furry.

[1.7] First, I show the emergence of this aesthetic and the fandom through a historiography composed of fan-made and scholarly sources in the section "Furries in the 1970s." Following this, in "A Fandom of Aesthetics" I rigorously investigate furries' aesthetic and how an aesthetic as an object of fannish interest fits within larger conversations within fan studies. In "Theorizing the Furry Fandom" I do exactly that: offering initial considerations for how studies of furry connect to conversations not only in fan studies but also in queer studies and animal studies. In the conclusion, I point to future directions for research.

2. Furries in the 1970s

[2.1] A fuller understanding of furries requires historical context. Furries have kept meticulous records of the major events and players throughout their fandom's history, originating in the 1970s when other sci-fi and anime fandoms were taking form in the United States (Coyote 2020; Patten 2017; Strike 2017). The United States and its transitioning media consumption, especially the growing taste for Japanese anime, foregrounds this history, and a wealth of academic literature attests to these preconditions. However, there is a dearth of academic writing on the history of furries up to this moment, though many scholars have mentioned furries at least in brief (Boellstorff 2008; Baker 2013; Reinhard 2018). As such, I turn to furries themselves as a kind of oral history maneuver (Abrams 2016). Fan studies scholars take seriously the work of the fandoms they study and the histories they make of themselves, and I bring that philosophy to the historical inquiry in this essay (Mittell 2009).

[2.2] That being said, history making is often a funky process. The sources I consult here, mainly Ash Coyote's (2020) documentary, Fred Patten's (2014; 2017) various writings, the furry-curated website Wikifur, and Joe Strike's (2017) book, are fan-made works created especially for the furry audience (though Strike seeks a broader appeal), and the biases that are associated with these creations come out strongly. Furries have faced stigma throughout their tenure. Most work on furries made by furries is a sort of reparative work, leaning into the more palatable aspects of the fandom and frequently striving for feel-good appeal. To that end, narratives, figures, and other events are naturally left out of this process, which may pose a problem especially when consulting more niche components of the fandom's history. What I offer here is a broad view of the fandom's origins based on the materials available in all their hairiness, shying a bit from the saccharine; I hope that the overall narrative I construct here works despite the gaps.

[2.3] Furries got their start in the 1970s, a churning tide in American history. Importantly, furries' aesthetic—a key feature I discuss at length—manifests within larger transnational economic and cultural flows, primarily animated cultural creations by American cartoonists and by Japanese artists, whose country's imports during that time were circulated by the furry fandom's founding members (note 2). Stateside fandom features like print and comics cultures and the rise of sci-fi, anime, and role-playing brought these original furries together (Coppa 2006).

[2.4] Americans' taste for Japanese media heightened in the underground as well as in the mainstream in the decades following Japan's surrender. Namely, after World War II Japan situated itself as an international competitor in a growing global animation industry (Daliot-Bul and Otmazgin 2019). Americans who consumed Japanese-produced media had varying levels of awareness of the source's origins. For instance, the widely (and still) popular 1964 stop-motion animated film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, considered a Christmas classic in the United States, was, in fact, Japanese animation (Clements 2013). Importantly, the establishment of the Tōei Animation studio in 1956 led to the formation of anime fandom in the United States (Daliot-Bul and Otmazgin 2019). For Americans, this entry of Japanese animation into their living rooms and convention spaces was met warmly, though accompanied by a newfound anxiety as economic prospects felt less stable in the 1970s.

[2.5] Even more, Americans in the 1970s saw themselves as part of a larger process of globalization, which they never had before (Borstelmann 2012). The origins of the furry fandom owe to this gestalt both the new excitement for Japan's broadly consumable products and the anxiety over Japan's troubling economic prowess in the wake of 1970s stagflation in the United States (Meltzer 2009). The 1970s also saw an emergent and familiar fandom culture, notably with the rise of Star Trek and its fandom (Coppa 2006). Along with sci-fi and anime—and the artistic production that more broadly took root among these fandoms—and within and between these various points in a media underground, furries found one another, shared their art, and watched anime.

[2.6] In this way, the furry fandom was a byproduct of a larger transnational economic process, a spore in a lichen. In the 1970s, the United States had successfully rehabilitated the image of Japan, and Japan itself had kickstarted a global powerhouse of economic and cultural export. Americans' anxieties about Japan did not fade; rather, they transformed as Japan's highly influential developmental state thrust their country into economic prosperity. What emerged from these economic forms was the aesthetic for which furries found intensified desire. However, what were the precise US economic conditions that led not only to furries' interest in this aesthetic but also to the aesthetic itself?

[2.7] The affective, social, and political state of the United States in the 1970s can best be described as precarious. Anne Allison (2013) describes precarious labor as conditions that are unstable for the worker, which was relevant to the US economy after the abandonment of the security that the New Deal and Fordism mass production model had instilled in American workers. The American worker (white and male, in this instance) had such security ripped from his arms with the onset of stagflation in 1973 (Meltzer 2009). Policy missteps and a rise in oil prices (subsequent to the OPEC embargo) engendered a rise in the annual consumer price index from 3.6 percent to 10.7 percent from 1973 to the end of the decade (Meltzer 2009). At the same time, a central working-class identity—constructed on the bounties of the postwar boom—splintered and washed away as the decade sailed on (Cowie 2010). In its wake bobbled up confusion and lostness; precarity became the de facto affect as the American economy, which had been tightly wed to one's security at home, became itself precarious (note 3). Though Japan would deal with its own precarity in the recession of 1991, the 1970s United States saw Japan not merely as an ally in the Pacific but as a dreadful economic adversary (Allison 2013; Miller 2011).

[2.8] Furries refigured much of their economic and political anxiety—founded on local US conditions and outside forces—into their cultural practice and community formation. Where large swaths of the American working class felt national unity and kinship fracture at the bone, furries grafted bits into their own fandom economy and community to engage with the political moments of the day in their own ways. In all instances, furries spun the otherwise upsetting, banal, or severe strains of living in the 1970s United States into a pliable, meaningful engagement with broader society and each other. Testimony from the original furries in the 1970s indicates that different members of the fandom harbored an interest in anthropomorphic animals before they knew one another (Coyote 2020). These individuals—mostly documented as men—found one another and hosted informal events where they could celebrate their love and production of anthropomorphic-animal media. Thus, it may be suitable to locate a unified fandom within these initial meetings and the individuals who started them.

[2.9] The initial meetings of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization (C/FO), which convened for the first time in 1977, allowed the original furries to congregate (Strike 2017). These meetings were led by fandom legends Mark Merlino and prolific anime fan and furry Fred Patten, who documented a large amount of the materials we have on early anime and furry communities. The C/FO screened titles popular in the sci-fi/anime underground at the time such as Kimba the White Lion (Mushi Production/NBC, 1965–1966), one of the first anime to receive a large audience in the United States (Strike 2017). A key moment in furry fandom history would be the introduction of Kimba to regular consumption in the anime underground.

[2.10] Many of the original furries were also anime fans, so here we see furries readily engage with Japanese media as a kind of cross-fandom practice (Patten 2014; Hills 2014). As well, furries began meeting one another in scheduled room parties within larger sci-fi conventions such as Westercon in Sacramento in 1985 and BayCon in San Jose in 1987 (Patten 2017). Following these successful gatherings, Mark Merlino and his partner Rod O'Riley went on to found ConFurence 0, the first ever furry convention, held in the Holiday Inn Bristol Plaza in Costa Mesa, California, in 1989 (Patten 2017). Furry conventions since then have only risen in popularity, and so we can chart the origins of these gatherings back to these first room parties and conventions ("List of Conventions by Attendance" 2021).

[2.11] In tandem with these group meetings came the rise of anthro-comics publishing. A large influence in this networking of artists and early furries was the publication Vootie, an amateur press association (APA) publication ("Vootie," 2020). In Vootie, early furry artists networked with one another and shared art, cartoons, and stories ("Amateur Press Association" 2020; Strike 2017). This APA was created by fandom founders Reed Waller and Ken Fletcher, who designated it "the official organ of the Funny Animal Liberation Front" (note 4). The premise of an APA is to create and support an internal community among artists with similar creative proclivities; issues of APAs are not sold to consumers but rather are sent to all those who contribute to the publication ("Amateur Press Association" 2020). "Funny animal" in this instance referred to characters portrayed in newspaper cartoons—that is, "the funnies"—with their own iteration of the anthropomorphic-animal aesthetic (Coyote 2020, 10:35). Waller and Fletcher's Vootie and its successor Rowrbrazzle constituted some of the first communication among people who independently harbored a keen interest in the anthro-animal (Strike 2017).

[2.12] Thus, we have the origins of furries and the beginnings of their artistic practices. It is crucial to have this information before diving into the current day particulars, and I bring up other facets of the history later on as they become relevant. What we see are furries historically engaging in cross-fandom practices, pulling inspirations from different sources, and gathering together based on a shared interest in the anthropomorphic (Hills 2014). Next, we must reckon with the most basic concept of furry interest: the anthropomorphic nonhuman-animal.

[2.13] Furries' attachment to anthropomorphic animals places them in larger webs of belonging and engenders certain attitudes as well as practices. Most modern-day furry activities—donning fursuits, drawing art, and writing fan fiction—date back to the original furries of the 1970s. The founders drew inspiration from the political circumstances that surrounded them, and these original behaviors continue in the fandom today. Furries are and have historically been a community built around artistic production. We can thereby understand their merging of queerness and animality by close-reading furry art and seeing the role of aesthetics in the formation of furry fandom.

3. A fandom of aesthetics

[3.1] Furries are assuredly a fandom, but their fandom-ness requires contextualization. By this, I mean that furries' fan dedication to their aesthetic holds implications for studies of fans and fandoms; as such, we must understand their object of fan interest and how they consume it within the field's current conceptions of fandom. Furries have an object of fan interest, but this object is not canon media easily reducible to text. Rather, furries take interest in an anthropomorphic-animal aesthetic, and this aesthetic can be consumed as text, an entryway into community and transformation.

[3.2] Furries' fan interest in their aesthetic aligns with Henry Jenkins's construction of textual poachers and nomads, fitting squarely within traditional thought on fan cultures (1992). Furries poach and traverse media at two levels. On the first, furries poach text for meanings beyond the intention of the original creators to remix and rework various elements of those media for their own purposes. For instance, furries may ship the lead wolf, Legoshi, in the anime Beastars (Studio Orange/Netflix, 2019–2020) with his dog friend, Jack, and write fan fiction and draw fanart of the two together. Furries may also be nomadic between these anthro-media, too, poaching many different texts for meaning to remix and rework those media. For instance, furries may pair the lead fox from Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (20th Century Fox Animation, 2009) with the fox character, Nick Wilde, from Disney's Zootopia (Walt Disney Pictures, 2016). On this level, furries can be considered a fandom in that they are poachers and nomads of texts like other fandoms.

[3.3] More crucial to my argument, furries poach and traverse these texts to manufacture their own aesthetic for self-generated fan production and consumption. Furries' main uniting feature is their shared interest in an anthro-aesthetic that remixes and reworks elements of anthropomorphic-animal depictions seen in mainstream media productions, amplifying these elements they find desirable into something distinctly furry. Furries may take the large eyes from one studio's style and place them on the slender body of a wolf drawn in another studio's style, and add a smirk reminiscent of yet another team of creators. In this way, furries are not merely consumers of a prescribed aesthetic from media companies but also actively recreate their own aesthetic by perpetually poaching and traversing texts for that precise aesthetic meaning.

[3.4] Moving beyond the first wave of transformative culture studies, we must further interrogate what a text actually is in order to understand how an aesthetic as an object of interest can be consumed as one. Cornel Sandvoss (2005) argues that fan culture challenges easy-to-define notions of text. Novels, films, and TV shows can readily be identified as texts, given that each media property can be reduced down to written words at some point in its creation and has well-defined boundaries of the text's beginning and end at its points of production. However, as Sandvoss states, "in the everyday life context of media consumption, textual boundaries are distinctively more fluid" (2005, 826). Fans of, say, the television show The Sopranos (HBO, 1999–2007) can watch all six seasons up to the final episode then opt to read fan fiction to rectify the discomfort of the final few minutes of the drama. Here, the boundaries of the text differ for the fan compared with the production company: the fans may choose a different ending and thereby experience their own version of the text. Thus, as Sandvoss says, "the text as a set of signs (whether as images, sound, or in written form) that is actually read varies from reader to reader" (2005, 826). As boundaries get challenged, so too does an easy identification of a text.

[3.5] Sandvoss (2007) later analyzes the ambiguity even further by discussing objects of fandom that cannot be readily reduced to literal words and text. For example, fans of Korean idol singers may engage in fandom practices like writing fan fiction and shipping, but this K-idol—the person—cannot be reduced to text the way a TV show or novel can. However, the K-idol (and his associated act) are still being consumed as fan objects. To this phenomenon, Sandvoss says, "whether a given fan object is found in a novel, a television program, or a popular icon, fan objects are read as texts on the level of the fan/reader" (2007, 22). Even though actors or athletes may not be identifiable texts, Sandvoss argues, they are still consumed as texts.

[3.6] Furries' aesthetic as their object of fan interest does not necessarily challenge Sandvoss's or Jenkins's conceptions of fandom, but it instead drives their ideas in a different and exciting direction. Furries poach and traverse media to curate their own object of fan interest: the aesthetic. In this process, furries challenge the boundaries of the text as prescribed at the point of production. Take, for instance, that furries ship cereal box mascots like Tony the Tiger and Trix the Rabbit (note 5). For cereal companies Kellogg and General Mills, the boundaries for their advertising mascots are confined to the thin cardboard box and a voice actor's commission. Furries, instead, see romance in these characters and draw them in fantasy situations. The boundaries for these furry readers are much different from those of the regular cereal buyer. Going farther, furries draw Tony the Tiger and the Trix Rabbit in their own unique furry style honed over years of practice and in a sort of furry art tradition. In other words, these characters are molded into the furry aesthetic, the object of furry fan interest. By way of the aesthetic, these characters are then consumed as text.

[3.7] As these examples have alluded to, furries engage in cross-fandom practices but do so in pursuit of aesthetic intrigue (Hills 2014). Other fan studies scholars have pointed to the role of aesthetics in fandom (Stein 2017). However, aesthetics may be more of a feature of other fandoms whereas for furries the aesthetic of anthro-animals is really the grounding issue. Furries expand our notion of the potential object of fandom through their engagement with this aesthetic, but, even more, furries' engagement with anthropomorphism (and zoomorphism, perhaps) and the potential it offers reveals more about fannish practices as transformative.

[3.8] So let us dive into the aesthetic in practice. Figure 1 shows Jao Kuma's rendering of a Bernese Mountain Dog character in his own style. More precisely, this is a commission of a fursona—a portmanteau of "furry" and "persona." A fursona is a furry's alter ego, the identity by which he or she is known in furry spaces such as at conventions and online as well as between other furry friends. The fursona is a key feature of the fandom, and as someone who claims acafan status as a furry scholar, I speak to the ubiquity of the fursona as a crucial part of being a furry (Hannell 2020). At conventions, furries wear badges with their fursona's name on it. In Telegram chats, a fandom-favorite platform that works well with images, furries go by their fursona's name and likeness. This also is true for Twitter and anywhere else furries may congregate, virtual or IRL (in real life). For example, my friends in the fandom do not know me as "Kameron Dunn" but as my fursona.

Animated image of a furry dog wearing clothing

Figure 1. A piece of furry art, a commission of a Bernese Mountain Dog fursona named Sam, drawn in an identifiable anime style by Jao Kuma.

[3.9] The particular dog shown in Figure 1 and his owner are named Sam, and in looking at him one may start to wonder what he sees out of frame. Jao's art here leans heavily into the anime aspect of furry art. Take, for instance, the way Sam's eyes are drawn. Take, also, the jagged lines around his fur, as well as the buildings behind him, which are all reminiscent of long lines of anime art that came before this piece.

[3.10] By contrast, Figure 2 fits more in line with American traditions of animated cartoons. Figure 2 is a piece by Silvixen for a fox fursona named Cadenza. Cadenza's trademark brown marks on his muzzle distinguish him from other fox fursonas, important to this commissioner. The fox looks back at the viewer, who may either feel somewhat threatened or perhaps touched to be recognized as evidenced by his widening grin. This piece feels in motion, assisted by the digital paint style, like a still from an animated film.

Animated image of a fox.

Figure 2. Digital painting by Silvixen of a fox fursona named Cadenza, drawn in the style of American animation.

[3.11] There is something cohesive about these two pieces of art. Beyond their obvious similarities—each are portraits of anthropomorphic animals—something about them appeals to furries in a unique way. Furries spend much of their time in the fandom looking at images like these, renderings of anthropomorphic animals that they find desirable. I have historically situated certain elements that get altered or amplified in furry art, but furries intuit these and other elements that make furry art its own distinct genre. Artists take their favorite aspects of anthro-art in the mainstream and refigure it into something other furries can readily identify and take interest in. In general, furries gravitate toward the same media. Familiar titles show up again and again: Robin Hood (Walt Disney Pictures, 1973), The Lion King (Walt Disney Pictures, 1994), Beastars, Zootopia, Redwall (Nelvana/Teletoon, 1999–2002), and others (note 6). All these media appeal to furries' aesthetic sensibilities, and furry artists like the ones mentioned here tap into that desire, resulting in fannish productions rendered in an aesthetic furries find desirable.

[3.12] Most furry aesthetic productions involve these original characters (OCs), mainly the fursona. A furry's fursona may receive the bulk of her or his commission requests, role-play, and even recognition in fandom spaces (International Anthropomorphic Research Project, n.d., "3.1 Species Popularity"). The fursona may play a key role in furry self-identity, as one can customize the fursona as much as one likes: species, bodily form, gender, and sexual orientation among other features. Furries' reworking of elements of anthro-aesthetics extant in mainstream media productions have significant impact on the level of the personal, emotional, and identity for furries. Furries poach and traverse aesthetics present across media and appropriate them for their own personal uses through a cohesive furry aesthetic, one that is identifiable for furries and honed over decades of art tradition.

[3.13] Certain historical preconditions must have been met for the furry fandom to exist in its current state. In the realm of the aesthetic, aspects alive in mainstream media—both American and those imported from Japan—must have been in a shared vernacular for artists like Jao Kuma and Silvixen to utilize. As well, furries adopted fannish practices central to their community thanks to the rise of other fandoms with whom furries shared convention space and camaraderie, such as fan art and comics. By analyzing these works, one can trace these inspirations back to their origins in the 1970s.

[3.14] These features of the furry fandom are enticing subjects for analysis, and here I offer essentially a commercial airline view of a complicated landscape on the ground. My purpose is to cover most of the ground, offering furries a bit of room in the conversation in academic spaces like this journal. In the following section, I theorize these components within relevant literature, animal studies, and queer studies especially, to make meaning of furries as they are relevant to furries themselves. My main intervention here in showing that furries are a fandom whose object of fannish interest is an aesthetic is hopefully a prelude to more robust discussions.

4. Theorizing the furry fandom

[4.1] An analysis of the furry fandom offers the fan studies scholar a plethora of theoretical implications for the field and whatever other fields their work may intersect. I want to highlight how furries' adherence to their aesthetic offers transformative potential to them and their community by way of queer possibility through engagement with animals broadly but more precisely with animal representation. Both of these crucial components of the fandom—its love of animal characters and its majority queer demographic—require further investigation than an article of this size can accomplish. Thus, here I offer a first-step consideration of animal studies and queer studies theorization for further steps to be taken by other scholars focusing on furries.

[4.2] Based on my personal experience as a furry over the years in the fandom, I find time and time again that furries are less invested in the world of biological animals and more invested in their myriad representations in the media. This distinguishes furries from therians, a community of people who "often define themselves as people who identify as a non-human animal" (International Anthropomorphic Research Project, n.d., "7.2 Animal Identification"). So far, this essay points to many iterations of these representations and how they coalesce into a definable furry aesthetic. Furries are attracted to the way certain wolves are portrayed in the media: take the seemingly infinite fanart of Balto or Beastars as examples (note 7). The way the wolf appears in art and role-play is predicated less on actual wolves and more on animated wolves created by artists. The resulting fursona is thereby a conscious re-representation of the wolf already represented in the media. This detracts from a casual onlooker's perspective that furries "dress up as animals" (Tait 2017). Dressing up and role-playing as a fursona and as OCs is more nuanced than this because animal representation must be taken into account.

[4.3] The furry art I analyzed in the previous section points to this cultural feature of furry artistic production. Sam and Cadenza are representations of their real-life inspirations: the Bernese mountain dog and the fox. Sam and Cadenza (we call him Franky) are two of my friends in the fandom, and both do indeed love their requisite species of animals. We pass videos of foxes and Bernese mountain dogs back and forth, making humor based on certain qualities of the animals as they pertain to the person embodying them. However, as I have argued previously, my friends are furries not merely because they love these animals but because they strongly identify with these animals' representations—how they are represented aesthetically. It is through this confluence of many representations that the furry aesthetic is molded and, more interestingly, how that aesthetic molds furries.

[4.4] The fruitful endeavor of approaching studies of the furry fandom from the perspective of animal studies may further advance the conversation in both fields as an analysis of furries roots the representation and embodiment of animals to people who use those representations toward transformative ends. There are unique implications in how furries engage with the animal. Furries' adherence to animal aesthetics holds transformative potential for them, especially in the technology of the fursona, which often yields a world of queer possibility unavailable outside of the fandom (yerf 2020). Furries who study furries (a growing breed of us) take particular interest in the fursona. Animal studies can account for some of the intrigue, but a robust account for an entire community's interest not merely in the animals themselves but rather in their representations does not yet exist in a full enough form to account for this crucial feature of the furry fandom.

[4.5] Animal studies in the fields of social sciences and humanities are particularly interested in human–animal relationships (McHugh 2011; Chris 2006; Melson 2005). Approaching furries necessitates going beyond the human–animal to the human–animal–animal-representation to garner a fuller understanding of the role the animal plays in the lives of furries. If furries are dressing up and role-playing not as literal animals but as their representations, what does that say about human–animal relationships? And what does it say about people's relationships to animated media?

[4.6] Most scholarship on furries has been conducted by a team of social scientists working under the name FurScience, and they have approached questions around furries and animals from the perspective of social psychology (International Anthropomorphic Research Project, n.d.). (For full disclosure, I am a collaborator with this team.) For instance, the team conducted a study of furries that found that people who like animals tend to anthropomorphize them, though this affinity for animals does not necessarily pertain to a higher status of well-being (Roberts et al. 2015). And, really, most people who like animals anthropomorphize them to some degree—consider your family members who baby-speak to their dogs (Melson 2005). This generalized claim of "liking animals," though useful on its own, misses the fact that furries do not merely like animals but are invested in how they are represented. Furries work on a different level most of the time through their preoccupation with the anthro-animal aesthetically.

[4.7] Steve Baker's poststructuralist analysis of artists "becoming-animal" (working with Delueze and Guattari) points more concisely to the role of the representation of animals in art as they pertain to identity. Baker dilutes these ideas, opening with a tantalizing phrase: "Becoming-animal is a means of undoing identity" (2002, 68). The fursona as an artistic work seems to have the potential of undoing at least some features of identity. We can turn to the corporeal. Quoting Deleuze and Guattari, Baker states, "This making-something of the body involves a radical shift in perspective: a focus, once again, on what things do rather than on what they are. 'We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are'" (2002, 77). Understanding what a fursona does to and in service of furries is a way of understanding "becoming-animal" for a certain subgroup of people, or perhaps becoming a representation of such an animal.

[4.8] A clear example of this undoing-identity process in practice is transgender furries who explore the trans facet of their identity and embrace it through the fursona within the furry fandom. In a focus group study I conducted at Texas Furry Fiesta in 2020, one of the largest furry conventions in the world before the Covid-19 pandemic, I asked open-ended questions about the importance of the fandom and fursonas for furries' queerness (note 8). One furry said that she used her fursona to explore a new gender identity before identifying with that alternate gender herself later. She had initially commissioned art of her fursona as male, later commissioned art of her fursona as female, and subsequently later on identified with that fursona's identity beyond the fandom. She reworked this original, male OC as a transmasc, identical twin to her new, female fursona. Here, the fursona borne from the furry aesthetic offered this furry a gateway into new forms of identity. Other furry testimonials on Twitter and elsewhere show how common this process is (note 9).

[4.9] Queerness and trans identity regarding animals and their representations has been robustly analyzed by scholars. Consider Transgender Studies Quarterly's special issue "Tranimalities" (2015), which offers a diverse range of scholarship on trans/animal studies scholarship. A piece in the issue by Camille Nurka, "Animal Techne: Transing Posthumanism," outlines how "relocating posthumanism through animal becomings and the emerging field of trans studies…[offers] new possibilities for theoretical exchange between 'post' and 'trans'" (2015, 224). These new avenues of inquiry stand in opposition to essentialist narratives of human social and gendered origins by "postulating a body without a continuous 'natural' history" (2015, 224).

[4.10] A fursona, a new sort of body blending animal and human, may also challenge prescriptive norms around gendered bodies as the illustration above gestures to. A study of the fursona and its transformative potential for transgender furries may contribute to queer studies, trans studies, and animal studies all at once, especially in relation to material and virtual bodies. As the furry scholar yerf has noted, "the fursona is not just an extension of the individual but is a critical part of a reorganization of how affects get to travel; furry rescripts cultural norms, allowing aesthetic styles that are often characterized as 'deviant,' 'cartoonish,' or 'fake' to be seen as culturally valid technologies" (2020, 11–12). The aesthetic is an entryway into the furry technology of the fursona, a feature that redraws the human into a new, desirable form that has lasting implications for the furry's identity.

[4.11] Queerness seems to play a large role in the furry fandom, though labeling the furry fandom as a queer community may be a fraught endeavor. As yerf says, "I am also somewhat cautious with [queer] framework[s], because I am against simplistically labeling furry a 'queering' or 'transing' of anything" (2020, 9). I err on the side of caution with those sorts of claims, too. However, given the queer potential of certain facets of the fandom, it is hard not to associate queerness with furries to some degree. For instance, only around 20 percent of furries identify as "exclusively heterosexual," and furries are twenty times more likely to identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming than are members of the general population (International Anthropomorphic Research Project, n.d., "1.3 Sex, Gender, and Gender Identity," "5.1 Orientation"). Furries have a legacy of queer representation and organizing, as evidenced by two key figures in the fandom's history, the aforementioned Mark Merlino and Rod O'Riley. Their experience in leading the early organizing of the fandom speaks to the furry aesthetic's potential to foster queer community.

[4.12] In the 1970s, when Merlino and O'Riley began their journey into the fandom, tides were changing for queer people. Though gay communities as distinct entities have been around since the late nineteenth century, the 1970s saw a new kind of visibility for gay people in the United States (Chauncey 1994; Downs 2016). After the Stonewall Riots in 1969, gay liberation became a more mainstream conversation. As Jim Downs shows in his text Stand by Me (2016), gay communities formed in myriad, culturally diverse ways beneath the larger events that preceded the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The furry fandom's founding in the 1970s is another iteration of how queer people "[invented] new families and communities that could offer some haven from oppression" (Downs 2016, 15).

[4.13] Mark Merlino and Rod O'Riley found haven in their aesthetic and the community that shared interest engendered. In Joe Strike's Furry Nation (2017), the two offered their views on the role their own experience of being gay played in their larger sci-fi interest context as well as in larger LGBTQ+ spheres. O'Riley stated, "We're kind of weirdoes on the outside to the LGBT community because of the [furry] fandom—both of us are geeks before anything else" (quoted in Strike 2017, 66). Merlino concurred: "We never felt like we fit in other than the [sci-fi] fandom connection. When we went to a gay sci-fi convention [and] we showed them gay furry art—they just didn't get it" (66). Here, it is evident the two found issue belonging to certain communities, the former predicated on marginalized identity and the latter on niche fannish interest. Finding a sort of home in gay sci-fi, their deeper interest in the anthropomorphic aesthetic still alienated them within that niche. However, the two forged their own community of those who shared this meaningful connection to the anthropomorphic-animal aesthetic.

[4.14] The remark "they just didn't get it"—regarding showing nonfurry queer people furry art—has particularly interesting resonance. What is it they don't get, exactly? That these men are gay, that they love these cartoons, or that they do not feel the same way about their own fandoms? The affective register that strikes Merlino and O'Riley does not hit these other gay sci-fi hobbyists: something about the aesthetic that appeals to Merlino and O'Riley does not appeal to these others who meet at a similar intersection of niche interest and sexual orientation. The furry aesthetic is not universal in its intrigue among gay people who find themselves in adjacent circles. Rather, the aesthetic holds meaning for furries that distinguishes them even among people who share similar lived experiences, a shared aesthetic sensibility and desire.

[4.15] In Ash Coyote's documentary, Merlino said, "I just loved animation: what it looked like and also how it was done" (2020, 4:40). O'Riley said of his interest in cartoons, "I'm into it in a way that my school friends aren't. I'm into it in a way that my parents aren't. So, what do I do? I was looking for fandom" (4:46). Fandom offered Merlino and O'Riley in the 1970s what it offers to furries today: a community home to queer people and a niche fannish interest in aesthetics. This falls more in line with an interest in the acceptance of fandom. The other nonfurry queer people simply do not identify in a transfandom/cross-fandom connection with furries as Merlino and O'Riley do, despite an obvious queer and queer-accepting component (Hills 2014).

[4.16] What is it that furries like Merlino and O'Riley see when they encounter their own cultural aesthetic productions or encounter the fandom's cultural productions before folding into the fandom themselves? Here, we should pay careful mind to the affective component of these aesthetic works and the ends these cultural productions ultimately serve for furries. I will refer to the work of Sianne Ngai and her book Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012). Though furries' affective response to art may vary, I want to focus particular attention here on furries' embrace of cuteness, a crucial component of the allure of furry art (note 10).

[4.17] Beyond a rote biological response to neoteny (baby-like features), one's experience of cuteness is predicated on a sense of power over the powerless in Ngai's understanding (Glocker et al., 2009). She states, "There is no judgment or experience of a [sic] object as cute that does not call up one's sense of power over it as something less powerful" (Ngai 2012, 11), though she notes that this may encompass more than mere dominance to include "a surprisingly complex power struggle" (11). She also states, "Whether in response to socks or to large-scale, mass-mediated spectacles of public intimacy, cuteness solicits a regard of the commodity as an anthropomorphic being less powerful than the aesthetic subject, appealing specifically to us for protection and care" (60). In essence, one's experience of cuteness—to say this or that is cute—is to recognize one's own power over something and a subsequent desire to nurture whatever that thing is, though Ngai is preoccupied mainly with commodities.

[4.18] When furries see art they find to be cute, they experience an affective cuteness bound up at once by the commodity nature of this art, as Ngai discusses, and in larger webs of transnational media production. Taking the previously referenced artists' examples, the elements of cuteness in this furry cultural production become evident. The anime and American cartoons from which furries take inspiration are commodity productions, so in a grander sense these furry artists have wrenched the power away from larger media industries and forged their own iterations of the commodity—one that other furries, like those who commission them, can claim a sense of power over. Working transnationally, artists like Jao Kuma utilize Japanese aesthetics to craft a new aesthetic that resonates even more with furries. Thus, the affective component furries experience—that of cuteness—is wrapped up in larger economic webs that can only be understood by examining furries' historical context.

[4.19] In sum, here are the influences at work that I outline. Furries engage with the animal and its representations often as an avenue to self-discovery and identity expression. This adherence to negotiating the animal through reworking and remixing animal representations enables furries to craft a desirable aesthetic, one often predicated on cuteness. Many queer furries have embraced the transformative potential in this aesthetic and the myriad forms that aesthetic takes in furry spaces. This aesthetic must be contextualized historically to pinpoint the various inspirations furries draw on in their cultural creation, and the legacy of the queer people who helped to found this community and craft early fannish production becomes evident when consulting present-day furry craft.

[4.20] I argue that to understand furries fully requires a mixed-methods approach best suited to the realm of fan studies, or at least I believe that fan studies offers a fruitful approach to understanding any of these facets (and many more I do not have room to mention here). An investigation of the furry fandom may lead fan studies scholars in interesting directions. Here, we can see the potential of a trans studies approach to fandom or an animal studies approach and the value of understanding the history of fandom and the fans who put that history together. Robust engagement with furries from the academy would therefore be mutually beneficial to understanding furries and understanding, more generally, the beauty of fandom (Coppa 2014).

[4.21] As a queer furry conducting scholarship on furries, I am repeatedly inspired by the potential I keep referring to. In a certain sense, I see the potential of furries for queer people as a kind of utopian project in José Esteban Muñoz's construction in his work Cruising Utopia (2019). He states, "Often we can glimpse the worlds proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic" (1). He also says, "Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world" (1). In essence, when queer furries appropriate anthropomorphic-animal aesthetics for their own meanings, they do not necessarily offer an escape from reality, but rather they imagine a new future within that reality, one often predicated on queerness or involving queer processes. This fannish process of consuming an aesthetic as text thereby functions as a utopic world-building practice within the furry fandom, at least as I can see it in certain contexts.

[4.22] However, a common theme of fandoms looms large over any intersectional claim one can make about furries: that is, furries are overwhelmingly a white cohort. The FurScience team has gathered data that substantiates this claim, showing that only around 15 to 20 percent of furries are non-white (International Anthropomorphic Research Project, n.d., "1.2 Ethnicity"). Scholars of furries (and many other fandoms) often fail to theorize the racial component in studies of fandom. As Rukmini Pande states, "The ways in which the role of whiteness as a structuring force in media fandom, as it is most commonly conceived of today, is repeatedly footnoted in favor of the supposedly more relevant issues of gender and sexuality" (2018, 112). Though I focus primarily on the latter two issues, I want to point to the role of race in the fandom in this section's final paragraphs.

[4.23] Furries who are people of color have contributed to the furry fandom not only in fannish ways but in more political and cultural ways beyond fandom. For instance, the Indigenous furry Tonya Song has done much education on Indigenous issues through Twitter, a platform very popular with furries (note 11). She recently made a thread on the myth of manifest destiny and how Indigenous children in education see themselves erased in public education on America, and the lack of any education on Indigenous genocide. I attended a panel of hers at the convention Further Confusion several years ago where, to a mostly white crowd of furries, she gave an introduction to the diversity of Ingenious cultures and the problematic ways furries integrate certain Native aesthetics into their art (and how to not do that if you make furry art).

[4.24] Recently, the fandom has produced Harvest Moon Furfest, whose "mission is to embrace Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) voices and celebrate diversity, inclusiveness, and unity within the fandom through the enjoyment of an entertaining, safe event for all anthropomorphic enthusiasts" (Dogpatch Press Staff and Mac_TheWolf 2020). The CEO of the to-be-held convention, Chise, said, "I think a lot of the concerns of those in the BIPOC community have gone unheard. Whether it is them feeling uncomfortable concerning hate groups that may be attending a convention or the lack of representation on certain con boards, this con seeks to eliminate those negative feelings" (quoted in Dogpatch Press Staff and Mac_TheWolf 2020). These furries engage in the fandom practice of con organizing to advocate for the voices of people of color and space within the fandom itself. In these examples, there is a clear potential for furries to deconstruct issues of whiteness in their own fandom to make space and give voice to the people of color within their ranks. The responsibility is also on white furries to share in this labor of making their community more amenable to non-White folks.

[4.25] Furry scholars, too, are seeing themselves engage critically with scholars of color. I have referred to yerf several times in this essay thus far, and I want to show how they use Alexander Weheliye's formulation of technology in their discussion of furries. They say at the opening of their paper, "We can also look to Weheliye's (2014) wording of, 'technology…in the broadest sense as the application of knowledge to the practical aims of human life or to changing and manipulating the human environment'" (yerf 2020, 4). Furries use the technology of the fursona to do this. They may manipulate the environment or their own self-conception. This crucial theoretical component to understanding furries hails from studies of race, showing the integral nature of theorizing race within fandom as Pande (2018) has pointed out.

[4.26] Thus, beyond animal studies, queer studies, and history, to understand more fully the machinations of fandom, scholars must look to the role people of color play in fandom and the thoughts of scholars of color in their interpretations of fandom and fandom behavior. Again, I turn to the potentiality in the writings of Muñoz. In reference to artist Andy Warhol and poet Frank O'Hara, Muñoz asserts, "Utopia exists in the quotidian. Both queer cultural workers are able to detect an opening and indeterminacy in what for many people is a locked-down dead commodity" (2019, 9). The potential of aesthetic as a text-consumable for furries seems utopic, if furries and those who study them readily engage with the whiteness of fandom despite the diversity of queer identity and do not place the burden of dismantling white supremacy on fans of color. Perhaps my optimism is naive, but I cannot help but to see a wealth of possibility for furries and fandoms and those who study them.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Furries offer much potential for studies of fans and fandoms. I have highlighted the major theoretical proposition furries offer the fan studies community: through their love of an identifiable and cohesive anthropomorphic-animal aesthetic, furries expand our notion of what a fannish object of interest can be. Furries consume this aesthetic as text, as do all fandoms and their objects, and they engage in fandom behavior that often leans into the transformative. I have offered a brief history of the rise of the fandom and its aesthetic in the 1970s, followed by an analysis of furry art in the current day. I point to theoretical considerations of studies of furries such as their influence on animal representation and the role of gender identity, crossing the bridges between animal, queer, and fan studies. All these themes cover a large amount of general ground in order to present furries as a worthy candidate of study in the field of transformative media cultures. More detailed studies may proceed.

[5.2] I would also like to point to areas for future research and more grounded implications of the larger thesis around objects of fandom and aesthetics. This new sort of aesthetic object may not be as unique to furries as it first seems to be. For example, the Brony fandom, based on the My Little Pony toys and media (Hasbro), may be a worthy community to which to apply discussions of aesthetics in understanding their fandom and how it works. The Brony fandom has a large arts component, and many consider the Brony fandom adjacent to furries to some degree. Understanding Bronies as interested not only in the canon media but also in the pony aesthetics may offer new insight into that culture. Other fandoms that take root on image boards and image-based blogs may be well suited to a similar analysis.

[5.3] For studies of furries more specifically, there are key features of the fandom I have left out of my analysis. I mention fursuiting in brief, but more research should be done on this very common activity among furries. Being able to embody one's fursona in literal fabric and fur offers a new kind of sociality for the furry who engages in that practice. As well, this is a fandom craft of building and cosplay not only of artwork (where most of my analysis remains). I also have left out most of the erotic dimensions of the furry fandom, including its diverse array of fetishes and intersections with nonfurry and furry-adjacent kink culture like BDSM and pups. The transformative potential of the aesthetic holds very meaningful potential for furries and how they engage erotically with one another and with themselves.

[5.4] Future research can consult furries themselves in similar focus group studies, furry art online, and a diverse range of furry writing. For more historical work on furries, the Fred Patten collection at the University of California–Riverside is a great source for scholars as an archive. As I have done elsewhere in my research, interviewing furries for oral history work is still a very worthy option.

[5.5] Furries are a fandom that is here to stay. The fandom has only grown in popularity since its beginnings in the 1970s. I found my own way into this community and have experienced some of my life's most meaningful moments and human connections through it. In my work, I hope to show others what makes this community not only unique but revelatory in its potential for those who find their way into it as I have. I hope other scholars turn to the furry fandom as well to see what they can find in their work and perhaps what their work can offer others.

6. Notes

1. A lot of this work has been gathered into one place by the independent scholar yerf (2022), whom I cite frequently in this essay.

2. Knowledge of the workings of these underground arts can be attributed to the works and writings of Fred Patten, one of the original furries and originators of anime fandom in the United States. He recounts his experiences and charts the rise of interest in anime in the United States in his text Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews (2004).

3. Jennifer M. Miller states, "American observers posited that Japan's rise symbolized America's decline; that it highlighted the deleterious nature of American individualism and the declining potency of American power; that Japan's success negated America's greatest victory in 1945 and represented a threat akin to Pearl Harbor" (2019, 281).

4. Waller and Ken Fletcher's political sarcasm with respect to the post-Stonewall gay rights moment holds its own set of implications (Strike 2017, 75–77).

5. An example of this ship can be found on the popular furry art-sharing site, Fur Affinity (see for example, “Tony Tiger Tickling the Trix Rabbit” by CheesyBear,

6. This sort of fan art can be found across furry platforms like the aforementioned Fur Affinity ( and Twitter. These references come in many shades: fan art, fan fiction, and general nods and winks in casual conversation, based on my own experience. For examples, search Fur Affinity for Robin Hood, Lion King, Beastars, Zootopia, and Redwall.

7. Again, this fan art can be found on Fur Affinity and elsewhere. For example, search for Balto.

8. For this focus group, around fifteen volunteers were brought into a conference room, and I asked a series of questions such as "What are some things that you just want to say about being LGBTQ+ in the fandom?" and "Do you consider the fandom to be a predominantly LGBTQ+ space?" In this semistructured conversation, I recorded the responses and pulled direct quotes to analyze. I also offered short surveys for demographic information and various questions that furries could rank their identification with, such as "My fursona's gender identity is different than mine" and "The furry fandom supports my sexual orientation."

9. Examples include;; and

10. In my experience, "cute" is a word utilized a lot to describe furry art and fursuits.

11. A link to this specific thread:

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