Opinion: A call for more criticism of furry
Furry fandom has had more than its fair share of criticism, both from within and without. A Flayrah review of Shawn Keller's "Horrifying Look at the Furries" (2001) notes that Mr. Keller "associated furry with bestiality and pedophilia." A decade later, most of our critics do the same.
But the title was purposely provocative. This may come as a surprise, but I'm not talking about the furry fandom at all. Instead, I'm calling for more criticism of the furry genre.
This piece has three goals: to explain why criticism is needed, what kind of criticism, and finally to offer a few points of criticism as examples.
Criticism: descriptive, not prescriptive
What I mean by criticism is an explanation of what art does, how art does it, and, if it's feeling really good about itself, why art does what it does. Criticism is not necessarily critical; it is not criticizing, nor is it necessarily laudatory. The kind I'm talking about is descriptive, not prescriptive.
Criticism of anthropomorphic animal characters is scant, both inside and outside the fandom – and as a result, our understanding of our own genre is woefully low. To date, I have found only one book that even begins to offer any such criticism; M. Blount's Animal Land. It isn't very good. If anything, it illustrates my point; early chapters range from Richard Adam's Watership Down to William Caxton's The History of Reynard the Fox, drawing few connections other than that they both involve talking animals. Anyone who is familiar with these works knows they are very different animals.
The reason for this lack of criticism is quite simple. There is "high" art, which is quite respectable to write critically about. Then there is "popular" art. You won't be quite as respectable critiquing such art, but normal people might actually have read, say, Roger Ebert, as compared to Susan Sontag.
We can argue all day long about high and low art, but the average piece of anthropomorphic animal art belongs to another realm, one so low that critics on both sides like to pretend it doesn't exist. I'm talking about children's art.
Now, I can hear the protests already; there are plenty of talking animals in "adult art". In my defense, whether all anthropomorphic animal art is for children is beside the point; the man on the street perceives that talking animals are for children — and in art, perception is as good as reality.
Why call for more furry criticism? First, because it is virtually nonexistent; and second, because such criticism will not come from an uncaring public.
There are good reasons to be wary of genre definitions. Simple descriptions, when offered, soon become very complex.
Take, for example, "adult anthropomorphic animal." Okay, sounds simple, but we instantly run into problems:
What, exactly, do we mean by adult? Is it a question of appropriateness, or theme? What about the level of anthropomorphisation? Is talking enough? Do they need a bipedal stance, opposable thumbs and all? Or, going the other way, what if it can't talk, but is more subtly anthropomorphized?
Surely we can agree on a definition of animal – but wait, what about fictional or mythical animals? Dragons? Pokémon? Those blue guys from Avatar?
Erotic objectification: The human gaze
Let's refine animal to mean any non-human creature, real or fictional, that does not explicitly have human sentience. All well and good. But furry art routinely and thoroughly presents its subjects as sexual or erotic objects.
There is a word for this, and it is fetishization. It is an ugly word, but it fits.
A frequent feminist critique of movie portrayals of women is the "male gaze" effect, whereby the camera tends to focus on places where a man might tend to gaze if he wasn't being particularly tactful. According to feminist theory, this turns female human beings into fetish objects, and is thus called "objectification."
A clarification of the word "erotic" may be needed here. Eroticism is art which causes arousal. An individual may act on this feeling, but that isn't the artist's fault. Conversely, pornography is not erotic. The pornographer has failed if he merely causes arousal; his intent is for the viewer to act on this arousal.
Now would be a good time to show an example. For this, I'd like to bring in XianJaguar's "Kistelli."
To start with, the central figure is definitely an "erotic object." The vixen is dancing; an activity for the young and healthy, hallmarks of what is usually called beauty. Furthermore, her costume and setting suggest a Middle Eastern or Indian theme. Her position recalls the Hindu god Nataraja, often depicted dancing in the act of creation.
But on further analysis, another much more familiar creation story comes to mind. Take a look at the black, flat ground on which the character dances, with the watery blue fabric draped randomly.
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Now, the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. " Genesis, Chapter 1, Verses 1-2, NIV
Follow the rest of the poetic (if not quite scientifically accurate) opening chapter of the Bible, and you'll see it's all here. The darkness over the deeps. The sky, the seas and the land. The two great lights. The green plants and the wild animals. Perhaps even – if you're so inclined – the Spirit of God. That the central figure is "erotically objectified," (i.e. fetishized) doesn't detract from this symbolic analysis; in fact, it is almost impossible without it.
Now, to come back down to earth for a minute, I doubt XianJaguar got the commission from Thomas Brady, sat down, and told herself she was going to code the first chapter of Genesis into a simple furry picture. But I do believe symbolism in art is not always conscious; sometimes it just happens.
Funny animals: The worst popular art-form on the planet
You can find long, boring theses, tracts and essays for each banality offered up as popular entertainment. People have pretentiously blithered on about spaghetti Westerns, Japanese monster movies, prime-time sitcoms and mid-day soaps.
Yet somehow, when funny animals are mentioned, it's usually as a footnote in a work dedicated to general comics or animation, or perhaps as background for a sociological study on a certain Internet subculture. By comparison, the sheer level of analysis given to superheroes and anime is depressing for a fan of funny animals. If those cartoons can be taken seriously, why can't ours? What justifies this critical ignorance?
Funny animals – of which I argue the furry genre is merely a particularly garish subset – are often thought of as nothing more than a handy shortcut. In visual mediums they allow the artist to skip problems of the "Uncanny Valley." In prose, they permit implicit characterization.
Funny animals, despite frequent accusations, don't fall into the Uncanny Valley. The Uncanny Valley is when something seems almost human, but isn't. If a cartoonist can't quite seem to get, say, the eyes right, the simple solution is to stick an animal head on a human body and call it a funny animal. Now the character is a few steps removed from a human, so if you still can't get the eyes right, it doesn't matter.
As a bonus, you get a character with built-in appeal (who doesn't like cute animals?) and you don't have to spend as long describing them, since animals are fairly archetypal. In Brian Jacques Redwall, we know from page one who our hero is, because he's a mouse. We also know our villain when we meet him, because he's a rat. These two characters are a bit more complicated than that. But not much.
This is why critics turn their noses up at funny animals; they assume it was a lazy gimmick, even if the artist chose this form for other reasons.
Here, furry parts company with funny animals. While I argue that furry is simply a subset of funny animals, it is chosen for specific stylistic concerns, rather than as a cheap shortcut. It relies more on visual appeal than traditional funny animals. Ironically, in furry objectification replaces species typecasting with a more rounded representation. Species are chosen to look good in a story role, not as a result of their symbolic compatibility.
As a subset, furry must follow the rules of funny animals. A delineation of these is in order:
- The majority of the characters must be anthropomorphic animals. Humans are allowed, and a human character can even be the protagonist, but they must be a distinct minority. Animal characters must be presented on the same level as any human characters.
- The level of anthropomorphisation should be both physical and mental. Bipedalism is a must.
- The genre of funny animals is not science fiction, or at least not hard science fiction. Anthropomorphisation should not be explained — at most, it should be vaguely hand-waved, as with fantastic "magic" or the ever popular soft sci-fi catchall, a "virus." That said, funny animals can be applied over a basic framework of soft sci-fi, like the space opera.
Conclusions are usually left to defenses of the genre; I will refrain from this, as genres are typically poorly served by fan apologists. If my definition of "fetishistic funny animal" seems underwhelming, remember that the title of what I've begun warily calling an essay is "A call for more furry criticism," not "A call for more furry criticism … by me and me alone." My goal is to provide a starting point for debate on what, in theory, we're all here for.
Instead of defending furry, I will instead defend myself. I cannot draw, and I am dubious of the merits of furry prose; to me, the genre's appeal is primarily visual. Therefore, I feel that I can best contribute to the genre by defining and analyzing it. If nearly 2,000 words seems overkill, I can only say that the first submitted draft ranged to the far side of 4,000.
I know, I know. Only 4,000?