CNN’s This is Life with Lisa Ling: Furry Nation – review by Joe Strike

by Patch O'Furr

Here’s a guest article from Joe Strike, a first-wave furry greymuzzle, writer about animation for Animation World Network, and author of Furry Nation, the first history of fandom in mainstream bookstores. His website shows work with TV cartoons you may know. He sent this in around the time of MFF. (- Patch)

Our community had been buzzing for months about the “furry” episode of CNN’s This is Life with Lisa Ling before it finally aired on November 18th. I kept my fingers crossed; like most other furs I’ve been watching the media get us wrong for years. (The primary reason I wrote Furry Nation was to correct the record; as I occasionally told people, “I’m tired of outsiders getting it all wrong—I decided it was time for someone in the furry community to get it all wrong.”)

But what really piqued my curiosity was that several people told me the episode was titled… “Furry Nation”!

Okay, what’s going on here? Shortly before the episode aired, I emailed the production company to ask, wazzup? how did you happen to borrow my title?, to which they responded:

Thank you for reaching out!  Your book sounds amazing! We actually learned about this community from Lisa’s viewers. It was a suggestion someone sent in. Our research and facts came from FurScience. 

Well, thank you “someone” for the free plug for Furry Nation The Book. (Said title never appeared in the episode by the way; I assume it was only used in the episode’s listings, although a search of failed to discover it.)

Lacking cable, I caught up with the episode later via a relative’s DVR. After taking a few days to digest a second viewing, I’m finally ready to share my take on Lisa Ling’s take on Furry.

My initial reaction: irritation. Irritation over the episode’s focus on furs with crippling anxieties or physical challenges; irritation at Lisa Ling’s first-person narration and numerous cutaways of her looking variously concerned, empathetic, and/or proud; irritation at the episode’s emotion-telegraphing musical cues (ominous, poignant, uplifting, cute…).

Then I realized…yes, this is exactly right. Ling was the viewer’s stand-in, representing someone completely unfamiliar with Furry*, or perhaps only familiar with our kinky sex-prevert media reputation. The dramatic wrappings were an empathy weapon, a way of giving the episode an emotional charge beyond the ability of a straightforward news segment to provide.

* Shortly after the show aired, I explained Furry mentioned it to a Kinko’s staffer printing a photograph of my fursuited self; the fellow had simply never heard of Furry – so there are more than a few folks like that out there.

In fact, it many ways, the show was a flat-out advocacy piece on behalf of Furry, challenging that misconception and out to enlighten folks who’ve fallen for it.

The episode’s emotional, somewhat manipulative overtones rankled at first, beginning with Ling’s “what if you were so anxious you had to isolate yourself from society…meet three people who overcame the odds by doing something you might think is a joke…” Then, accompanied by spooky music, “we’re setting out on a strange trip,” as we see the first of many (and I mean many) shots of an escalator-riding Ling marveling at fursuiters.

Old home movie footage follows, kids hugging mascot-suited Disney characters. “Do you do you remember watching cartoons as a kid and the happiness it brought you? What if you never grew out of that feeling?” It’s a comment that IMHO suggests furs are immature—what if we’ve grown to appreciate animated anthro animals and cartoons in general on a deeper level?

Admirably—and repeatedly—the episode repeatedly challenges the Furry = kink misconception, both in Ling’s voice-over (“mainstream media has painted this community as a deviant sex cult”) and in comments from various furs including Sam “Uncle Kage” Conway. (“Do sex deviants exist in the world? Yes, but that doesn’t characterize what this community’s about.”)

“Community;” throughout the episode, Ling refers to us as a community, never a “fandom” or even “subculture” (a bit of shorthand I used in my book’s subtitle). That choice of words alone made this episode a breakthrough.

The episode goes onto deservedly celebrate “the extreme creativity of the furry world,” compare fursuiting to mainstream-accepted sci-fi/superhero cosplay and point out that unlike more mainstream fandoms, furs create their own characters.

Lots and lots of furry art appears on camera as Ling explains fursonas, adding furs “sometimes get a fursuit made to match.” Even with that qualifying “sometimes,” the episode visually focused almost exclusively on fursuiters, once again suggesting fursuiting and Furry are synonymous, with only the occasional glimpse of a non-suited or tail-wearing fur. (Ling even noted Kage wore a labcoat in lieu of a presumed roach suit to reflect his blattodean fursona.) An interview, even a brief one with a high-profile furry artist would’ve helped reveal the central role of art in the furry community.

I realize a single 45-minute episode of a human interest-themed TV series can’t possibly cover every aspect of a large and varied non-mainstream community: apart from furry art, I’ve heard complaints that LGBTQ furs were conspicuous by the absence as were spiritually inclined furs.

Ling focused on a trio of furs challenged by personal issues, all of whom found acceptance and liberation in Furry: Painfully shy Lindsay, PTSD-afflicted “hermit” Sean and illness-wracked Allison. All three had what I call the “furry gene” common to most furs: a pre-existing interest in anthropomorphic characters prior to discovering the community; all three created fursonas and fursuits that liberated them from their circumscribed lives: Lindsay became the “bubbly and outgoing” canine “Lalia,” Sean the dapper, dreadlocked lion “Captain Boones” and Allison “Ashaeda,” a dragon sub-species known as a “Darss Edar.”

Their stories converge at the 2017 Anthro Northwest Convention (indicating the episode had been in the works for well over a year). We again see Ling riding that escalator to Furryland, “entering a strange world and I have no idea what to expect. “Evidently it’s not a furry convention without a furry parade” she says, unaware they’re usually referred to as fursuit parades. (Not the show’s only boo-boo: the end credits acknowledge “The Conference Archive” as a source of early convention video, a typo likely resulting from “ConFurence” absent from CNN computer’s spell-check vocabulary.) She drops in on a few folks in their hotel rooms, in what I can assure you without a doubt were totally absolutely, completely unexpected surprise visits. (I mean if you instantly open your door on the first knock and a camera crew follows your visitor in…that happens to me at least twice a day.) We meet “Telephone,” the original and well-known Dutch Angel Dragon. A clip from one of her YouTube videos is shown barrel-distorted as if filmed off a TV screen, a clever visual device to distance it from the episode’s own footage. Telephone (“Deanna” IRL) admits she too dealt with anxiety when younger. “Conventions are like a giant family reunion for all of us.” —hear hear!

Ling deserves extra-special kudos for spending time at a session where the nervous parents of very young furs are assured Furry is a safe place for their kids, underscoring her “furry’s not a deviant kink scene” message. Her quick history summary (including Kage pointing out “it started with a group of cartoon fans getting together”) and referring to “90 independent events organized every year and hundreds of thousands of furry fans worldwide” is spot-on.

So yes, Life with Lisa Ling: Furry Nation was a major step forward in mainstream Furry coverage… I just wish it hadn’t been so focused on the idea that our community is primarily a refuge for damaged souls (still, a far better misconception than “kinky s-x cult”) and more on her closing words, “furries are just people who want to take a little vacation from day to day life.”

…that said, once upon a time, before I discovered Furry, before Furry even existed, I used to feel my fascination with anthropomorphic and cartoon animals, the idea of transforming into one, was the only “genuine” part of me, something I kept deeply hidden, while everything I presented to the public was a shallow façade. Thanks to Furry (and quite a few years of therapy) I don’t feel that way anymore.

– Joe Strike

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