Decolonizing the anthro-animal: Furry fandom, speculative fiction, and the need for newer directions
Anthropomorphic animals have been a means through which we can think about and examine queerness, abject bodies and forms. However, it can be argued that furry fandom has relied on animals under the meanings that western, white culture imagines them to have. This essay offers a critique on how furry fandom, at this current point in time, needs to look for newer directions, inclusive of rupturing the animal concept as we know and think of it right now. Some possible directions include ideas from Indigenous literature and post-colonial identities.
Furry, as a subgenre, has developed from the wider array of speculative fiction, bringing up issues of queerness and the place of animals in humanity. These often troubled realities force us to engage with how the animal has always in some way been queer, and that going beyond the human can open new ways of living together.
A problem that still exists, alas, is how we've considered the animal – a living, breathing creature – as an escape, like in early literature which showed the West as a sort-of paradise. While the topic of escapism has of course been discussed by furry authors and critics, the question of how we see the animal has not come up – at least to my current and developing knowledge. The animal, as great as it is, still carries a haunting of colonial knowledge in its name, body, and environment. In falling under what academics have called a "reliance on the virtual" – that we see something by its customary, accepted narrative rather than what it can actually offer – our characters, identities, and matterings have been relying on predominantly white, western culture and knowledge. A fox is a fox, of course, of course – but in what ways does speculative fiction beg us to ask more questions entirely, about what "fox" could mean? How has furry fandom become reliant on concepts and identities we already know?
What would it mean to write about characters horrified or lost in new lives?
In his book Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Daniel Heath Justice argues for us to engage with lost histories, particularly of those who have been colonized, or of people who might see the animal as part of a larger ecological narrative, not just taking a simple view of how unlike us they are. Justice writes, "These stories [or ways of seeing] are imposed upon us from the outside. They belong to the colonizing populations that [have claimed indigenous and natural] homelands – populations from which many of us are also descended and with which we must navigate our complex relations as well". To this end, the animal is always (and will always) be seen as embodying difference. It steps apart from the human icon of western whiteness and agency. Nevertheless, some animals are more equal than others, an attitude seen in George Orwell's Animal Farm.
With the animal becoming a concept, which in turn can be given rank, order, and put into a hierarchy, it ultimately stands so clear to me how we can see the coyote as someone living in a trailer park as a justified Other (a view held by Sol's father in Kyell Gold's novel, Green Fairy). Or how we can see foxes as clever tricksters who continually stand as sexual objects. As Susan McHugh writes in her book Love in a Time of Slaughters, our reliance on seeing the animal "as human symbols or other literary devices" makes it impossible to truly see such embodiments any further beyond how they fulfill our personal subjective experiences.
One short story that still sits with me is David D. Levine's I Hold my Father's Paws (Roar, Volume 6), a narrative that grapples with animality as a space for decolonization from the human. In it, we follow Jason Carmelke and his father, a quiet, distant figure who's decided to become a canine, and thus alter his entire identity and being. Both his body and mind will be rewritten, altering how we see the animal as simply ourselves covered in fur. Nevertheless, Jason's father expresses that this change will bring a new and unknown potential for love, unlike when he was human and exceptional: "I'm turning myself into a dog so I can love someone. I want to be free of my human mind, free of decisions." In probably the most jarring of messages for a collection of furry fiction, Levine's story looks to the animal as beyond and outside of human grasp. To enter the state of the canine is to exist in a new set of terms and engagements; one cannot simply see the animal without rupturing the human identity. The practice of turning into a dog forces us to realize how much we rely on the virtual, expected symbolism, or how we want to identify with the animal for our own sake, never for the animal's own sort of mattering, that can exist beyond or outside of our language.
At this point in time, in which the state of politics and our world have truly become dystopic, it can be argued that what we actually need is a way to think of Others: other lives, other truths, other connections, and simply those who have been silenced. Science fiction itself has moved toward themes of questioning our exceptionalism, and although furry fandom has been able to talk about queerness and abjection, it may be time to realize that we have actually not gone where we can. How would becoming an animal be a truly alien experience? How is it that our fursonas are simply a re-engagement of Western perfection? In what ways is becoming a dog like that of breaking away from who we are? And how is this something we should think about more, as our world goes beyond what we know?