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How furries resist a commercialized fandom (Part 2)

by Patch O'Furr

Furry fandom often has DIY ethics (intentional or not). That can mean nonprofit volunteer-led events, and directly supporting each other’s art instead of just consuming corporate products. A Daily Beast reporter asked about it and I shared lots of info that didn’t all make the news — so here’s a followup in 3 parts.

Fandom is big business in the mainstream – but furries have their own place apart. Why does this fandom grow independently? Let’s look at unique expression at the heart of it. Of course furries do a lot more things than this story can look at, but one aspect brings insight about decentralized structure.

Some subcultures rise and fall with media they consume. But the influences seen in Part 1 didn’t make one property in common for every furry. They didn’t rise with a movie like Zootopia. Instead, this fandom is fans of each other.

Part 1 looked at the roots and growth of their conventions. Furry cons make a platform for the specialized craft of fursuiting, with bespoke, full-body mascot costumes that cost thousands. They’re uniquely original expressions of identity. They’re tangible, huggable products of imagination. They put the fur in furry.

A lot of the fandom’s rock stars are fursuiters, who give it a photogenic face. Unlike stars of other fandoms, their original characters usually aren’t promoting something else — and fursuits can’t be downloaded or easily pirated — they’re for live experiences. It matters because online community can be temporary, but live events glue it together. They can show why this fandom is independent, here to stay, and not tied to certain media.

Rather than naming great works tied to their activity, you could say that the group is its own greatest creation. And if writing, art, or other creativity in the fandom didn’t rise out of a certain type of event, fursuiting did.

Con fursuit photos show millions in show value, and nothing else in fandom comes close in cost. Follow the money to see what leads the “Furry Economy”: Big cons are the fandom’s blockbuster movies, and group fursuit photos are the money shots. Of course the spending is different than for a Disney blockbuster. It’s counterintuitive to look at their growth as noncommercial (or noncorporate), but it isn’t necessarily about money when nonprofit cons support expression.

A past article here said: “conventions and parties, and the popularity of fursuiting are important community glue.” Zidders replied: “Porn. Porn is the furry fandoms glue.” Sex sells (and if you look deeply enough, everything in the world is about sex), but live events let people do it. Set aside the question of whether furries do it more than other adults (or if they’re just more open). Nobody’s saying “all furries do that”. The point is what it means if they do and how it’s expressed.

Here’s a great example of uniquely furry expression.

The term “fursuit” was coined in 1993. But before there were enough makers to invent jargon and have commissioners, if you wanted to get one made, you had to do it yourself. That started with original fans like Robert Hill, who was one of the first to take the tradition of sci-fi masquerade costuming to furry cons. He started as a pro Disney mascot performer in the 1970’s, and based his creations on craft from their theme parks, but with a twist. Here he is being a fearlessly kinky pioneer as one of the first fursuiters at the first furry con:

This 1989 video of Hill as “Hilda the Bambioid” was unearthed at The Prancing Skiltaire furry house, where the co-founders of Confurence have their fandom archive. (It’s curated by Changa Lion of furry.today, who uploaded it from VHS.) In 2016 it got viral mainstream views.

Today when the internet delivers the weirdest things to anyone, it might be hard to get how unique and astonishing this was for 1989 — you could only dream it up before. This gets rid of pretense that the fandom started as a neutered professional affair. Before fursuit was a word, it made a vivid demonstration of the special term “fursuit crush“. It’s a literal dance between mainstream Disney influence, but sexy weirdness that only furries have.

Of course this could piss off members with career ambitions or respectability in mind — and conflict about it will get a closer look in Part 3. On the flip side, this kind of weirdness may even be countercultural by resisting the demands of commercialism. It may be the force that keeps this fandom untamed. It’s like a Declaration of Sex-Positive Furry Independence.

Others started costuming when Robert Hill did. Some may be strictly family-friendly, and even refuse to associate with furries because of this — so of course fursuiting isn’t just about this. Not all furries are freaky. It just shows something that nobody else does this way, and if there wasn’t a place for it, there would still be people dreaming it. Furries thrive on the freedom that makes it real. Some show it with every fursuit crush that comes from their DIY power.

Fursuiting is now a cottage industry worth millions, led by pro-fans — fans who make a living by directly serving other fans. Some people complain about it like it’s a superficial takeover by newcomers (with a whiff of sour grapes, ironically from some of the same people who will praise Disney’s Zootopia as being more furry.) But perhaps it’s a natural result of roots like Robert Hill’s.

Not all roots sprout at the same time. Fursuits were just rare at the beginning because a specialized industry took time to develop. It needed access to imported fake furs, tutorials developed with years of practice, an online network to freely share them, a big enough customer base for repeat sales, and places to trade and parade the products. It took a surge in scale to build that infrastructure, by fans, for fans. (But again, it’s not necessarily about money if it’s about expression.)

Want a fursuit? How do most furries get theirs? It’s hard to estimate how many come by exchanging, but it’s certain that most do now that there’s enough makers. The easiest entry is buying pre-made, perhaps from a dedicated site like Furbuy or The Dealers Den. You can get pre-owned or starter work at a bargain from small, underrated makers (who might even be as good as big ones). The next level is commissioning an original. The top level is commissioning a highly-demanded pro who may have a years-long queue, or even being a patron of the arts for something that’s never been done (like built-in tech.)

You can still avoid expense by making your own, and original characters are expected. That’s how DIY power stays in the fandom.

More partying, less fandom? Now fursuiters flock to con dances equipped with over a million dollars in flashy staging. But a youthful rave/party influence dismays some “greymuzzle” furries like the late Fred Patten. He complained about “more partying, less fandom” (which I commented wasn’t a competition, but an opportunity for multiple things, especially with strong growth.) Remember how 1980’s furries and their room parties were looked down on by certain science fiction fans or respectability-minded artists, until they split? History repeats.

Zidders answered Fred’s complaint:

As more and more people join the fandom it’s going to become more about everything else that makes it up and not just the books or art or music alone. It’s all of those things. It’s not that people are focusing less on ‘fandom’ it’s that what many older furs define as ‘fandom’ is different than what younger furs see it as and that’s OK.

The crossroads of fandom old and new: “Fred becomes editor of Rowrbrazzle at the LASFS Clubhouse in January 1989. Present are former editor Marc Schirmeister, and Bob Hill as a Bambioid.”

Sex and parties get a bad reputation, but so what? While the fandom developed, there was mutation under the radiation of harsh attention. Of course there’s no progress without mutation, but it isn’t always commercial. The Daily Beast summarized our talk:

For decades, furries got no love in mass media, which cast them as weirdos. That outsider status became central to furries’ do-it-yourself spirit, O’Furr said.

When 1980’s science fiction cons weren’t friendly, furries quietly built their own places. It took a few years for the media to catch on and grab ratings by exploiting them as freaks, while they rejected the media. It went on for a while, but things warmed up.

Now headlines in Rolling Stone and Newsweek treat the fandom as a community with human problems the regular world has. There’s solid investigations from Vice and CNN with a gentler attitude about quirky eccentricity. The fandom has its own grapevine that went wild about whether Disney was dogwhistling at them when they splashed the word “anthropomorphic” across the trailer for Zootopia, like they’d never needed to do before.

The Zootopia marketing was debatable because it’s easy to dismiss the fandom as too small to be worth marketing to. But marketers know exactly what they’re doing and they don’t do it by accident. If you set money aside, it makes sense that furries have outsized street cred. Marketing to hook on to the attention has happened a lot by now. Look at those crazy French commercials for Orangina, or Casper Mattress. TV had The Masked Singer with Margaret Cho (a furry con GOH who welcomed my interview). In stores, WalMart’s Maskimals raised the prospect of Hot Topic-like attempts to cash in on things furries love.

But most of that is looking from outside, or winks or flirtation without getting directly into fandom business. Part 3 will look for it directly.

Meanwhile, remember how fursuiting needed to develop a base? Same for movie and video projects. Fandom-made movies seem to be starting to break out. That goes with the ethic of this site — If the media isn’t telling your story, Be The Media.

Part of outsiderness isn’t just about liking certain art or being picked on for that. It has deeper ties to identity. Research at Furscience finds that furries have a far higher prevalence of LGBT people and experiences of bullying.  It would take a whole article to look at why, but the fandom makes an alternative place for people who get prejudice for how they express as people, not just artists or fans. It lets them be who they want to be.

The mainstream is starting to appreciate it. Here’s the film maker of The Fandom:

Personal identity and a place for unique self-expression leads to a certain sense of fandom identity. Protecting it is part of how furries engage with commercialism. Tomorrow, Part 3 will look at how fandom can work like counterculture (or even punk), and how commercialism creeps in and complicates it.

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6 Responses to “How furries resist a commercialized fandom (Part 2)”

  1. Pakrat says:

    I here challenge that the term ‘fursuit’ was coined in 1993… the first use of the word to my knowledge was in a 1977 episode of In Search Of (Bigfoot). At about minute 13:15, it describes a Bigfoot costume as a ‘fursuit’ a total of three times.

    • Patch O'Furr says:

      Good tip 🙂 I’d suggest separating that from the usage we know (it is a pretty intuitive term) unless there is some fandom type of connection beyond just talking about Bigfoot. Maybe say fandom useage started with that one mailing list in 1993.

  2. […] (6) INSIDE THE SUIT. Patch O’Furr continues a deep diver into furry fandom with “How furries resist a commercialized fandom (Part 2)”. […]

  3. Critter says:

    I just got back from BLFC 2019, and it’s amazing such a huge event is produced entirely by volunteers.

    I happily put in my hours doing registration which was a tiny effort compared to those who put in many, many hours making art, writing the con book, organizing, and on and on.

    I hope the furry world doesn’t get eaten by profit motivation.

  4. Jeremy says:

    I’m sure you’re going to get into this in the third part, but the commercialism we do have is insidious. Our main forms of communication are owned by companies who mine our data for resale (Telegram, Discord, Twitter, Furaffinity), our fandom would be danger if we were to lose those vital communication methods but we choose to not replace them or even discuss backups. We are reliant on commercialized tech to maintain our fandom now more than ever before. We don’t really organize outside that commercialization. If we were to lose those things, that would be a damaging blow for the fandom.

    • Patch O'Furr says:

      Yeah that’s definitely an aspect. I’d say an upside is that the fandom existed with organizing through the US Mail and fan conventions, before the internet was barely even a thing outside of universities. If it loses one venue it could migrate to another.

      I’m not sure the data mining etc is such a concern (relative to how it happens for anyone on social media, fandom or not) — compared to some of the interaction guided by design to increase traffic — which often means stirring up outrage. The part 3 gets into that, and how reflexive reaction can be good and bad.

      Talking about the companies more could be a whole other article, so I kept the focus more on fans themselves. I’d love help if anyone wanted to try working on one as a guest writer or something. Probably could be best done with someone with professional background in tech that I don’t have.

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