This Is Life presented Furries as a wholesome coping mechanism, and that's fine
Our fandom had been waiting for a Sunday night to watch CNN, a moment of truth.
A year earlier, Anthro Northwest sprung a surprise documentary film crew onto its attendees. It immediately caused an uproar online. There was much debate and drama around it, and then things were silent.
The film crew belonged to Lisa Ling and her new flagship show for CNN, This is Life with Lisa Ling. An episodic documentary program to highlight some of the oddities in our humble society. I, like many furs I'm sure, had never heard of the show nor seen it. It felt like we were in for another nasty media portrayal.
Closer to the airdate, we discovered that our subculture was going to be the show's season finale. Pressure's on, right?
(For the next section of this opinion piece, I'm going to do my own take on the show. Feel free to skip to the bottom for my closing comments and perceptions of the show's impact. As always, feedback and discussion is welcomed in the replies!)
Sunday November 18th arrived. The clock struck whatever time the show aired in your time zone, and we were off to the races.
The first few seconds showed us the three primary furries we'd be focusing on. In all honesty, with those first few seconds, I genuinely thought I had put on the wrong show. I was expecting fursuits on camera immediately, to grip the viewers! What's all this weirdness?!
But no, the show began on a somber and relatable note, hearing about the lives of these people before actually telling the audience that they were furries, and that this was an episode about furries.
Ok CNN, now I'm interested - you seem to be playing it cool so far, let's see how this goes.
We first meet Leilia Spaniel (I'm not sure if I want to use their real names online). We learn of her very human social anxiety, and hear firsthand how this affects her life.
The lead-in is very slow and well-paced. We see glimpses of real animals, then realistic animal art, then cartoon animals, and finally we're graced with our first close look at a fursuit. We see her suiting up with the help of her husband, and just like that, her anxiety is gone.
The camera crew follows Leilia to an event at a local park with some kids, and we see just how much this fursuit does for her and her anxiety. Even her husband remarks that he "forgets his wife is in there sometimes". This is the first person, the first furry, in the show so far. We understand this person's flaws, and watch the problems slip away when the suit comes on. It's a great start, and I'm eager to see where it goes next.
Next we meet Captain Boones. A military fur, like so many of our American friends, who lives as a self-proclaimed hermit. We learn of his struggles with PTSD from various campaigns while serving his country. This is a difficult thing for me to properly describe here... I suggest you watch the episode to fully understand. I did cry during this segment.
Not to stereotype the gentleman, but he has quite a flair for theater! Even constructing props for local shows, as well as his own suit head! A dashing dreadlock-rocking lion, with a very suave accent and personality. In this part of the show, the audience learns of one of the defining traits of our fandom, crafting a character. A bit later we learn that this is "who he wants to be", and hopefully one day Captain Boones won't be needed for him to truly come out of his shell.
It's at this point I think about the episode's two portrayals, concerning social anxiety and PTSD. CNN could be playing a sympathetic angle, and there are certainly a large chunk of furs that deal with these issues; I certainly do. I'll continue viewing this objectively. So far so good.
The last of our three fans to be spotlighted is Ashaeda, of Weasels on Easels. We get told of her background, learning that an immune disorder ended her high-endurance lifestyle. And how her partner (also a furry, courtesy of Ashaeda herself) has been by her side through all the difficulties that go along with such an illness.
As an artist and fursuit maker, we see a different side of the fandom through her. Now there's a focus on all the creativity that goes into making an entire species, which wasn't touched on as much with the previous two people interviewed. Actually, we don't get to hear much about the art itself, like its process or the business side, but we get to see her working on her trade.
Now we head to a convention, the inaugural year of Anthro Northwest! Many montages of frolicking fursuits grace our television sets in seconds, before we get our next interview. A considerably shorter segment than the first three received, but important all the same. Lisa Ling interviews Telephone.
The audience learns more about the performance side of the fandom, and we hear it again, "It helps me". And you know what? It does! It helps a lot of people. Doing things in costume because it makes you and other people happy is the joyous core for many fursuiters, including Telephone. It's a very valid reason to be in this fandom.
At this point in the episode, Lisa starts to bring up the dark side of the fandom , the sex stuff. She pokes Uncle Kage a bit about it, and asks a few others, although it was also mentioned earlier in the episode. Once briefy with Leilia, and for a moment with Ashaeda, asking if they "do it" in suit. The topic is quickly dropped when she answers no. I have a feeling this was more of a box to check off, than an actual die-hard point Lisa was wanting to push. It's very brief, and easily forgotten. Which is good.
The show winds to an end, with barely a mention of the con itself, or of what happens there. We see one panel run by Captain Boones, and another panel with younger furs that moves Leilia to tears. I wish I'd found the fandom when I was younger too, Leilia. This moment probably hit harder for us furs than for outsiders watching.
We see Lisa Ling dancing in a tiger fursuit (my mom believes she bought the suit, but I know some people with 15 suits so I'm gonna assume she borrowed it) - and the episode ends.
Then Twitter exploded. (As it does)
Generally the response has been positive. A wholesome portrayal of the fandom as a way for people with social and psychological disorders to take a break from their lives and run around as an animal for a bit. Furs have been praising the positive tone of the episode, and Lisa's understanding approach. If the last seconds of the episode were anything to go by, we may see her at a con in the future (or not). She seemed to be having fun there at the end in suit. Wishful thinking.
But there has been push-back. Some have called the episode out for neglecting furs of color or LGBT furs. While this is a valid complaint, I believe the benefit of the doubt should be given to CNN on this. It's an hour-long show (and good god were there a lot of commercials, cable, amiright?), and the primary focus was to describe how the fandom is an open door for people to come and be themselves, with three people as examples. It makes understanding furry accessible to people outside our fandom's core demographic (how many furs avidly watch This Is Life with Lisa Ling?). We're a niche culture, but we have human roots. Our fellow furs have hardships that anyone can relate to, and playing this angle was probably a safer approach than making the show into a statement on larger issues being debated in the United States. The focus was on furries.
Of course there's a question to be raised about who CNN was given permission to interview in the first place. It's likely that people who identify as LGBT may not have been as comfortable being this open on television. I certainly would've been hesitant, but I think that a passing mention - or even a goddamn rainbow flag somewhere - would've been great. And that may be the biggest issue with this documentary.
And of course they focussed on fursuits. Yeah, that's kinda old news and expected at this point.
I'm a fur of color, I identify as LGBT, and I've been blocked by a friend for saying these things. But really, as a whole, what the show did was positive. As a fandom we're fantastic at being welcoming. And if this is a place for people who've been through the worst a human being can go through, we're there for them. Furries haven't had this glowing of a media treatment in our entire existence arguably. We even had two furry-made documentaries on us, so we've had our chance to craft a narrative. Now it was CNN's turn, and they didn't take cheap shots: They heard us out, they talked to us.
This was not a take-down. It was an invitation.
Nothing's perfect, and calling out these oversights is valid, so let's praise what it got right! Cause really, it got so much right.
Thanks for reading everyone.