The Fandom movie: Furry paws seize the media
by Patch O'Furr
Premiering JULY 3, 2020 at thefandomfilm.com.
When the media shows furries, do they get it right?
It’s a constant furry worry. In 2017 it was announced that CNN was making a show about them. Backlash rose about sensationalism, but few critics gave a fair shake to the producers of This Is Life with Lisa Ling. Then it came out and it was “a flat-out advocacy piece on behalf of Furry“, said Joe Strike, a fan since the 1980’s who wrote a book that covers the subculture’s run-ins with bad media.
Positive response didn’t satisfy every critic. Some asked why the 3 fans featured by CNN didn’t include more diverse people. But the show (with an asian-american woman journalist) got backlash while asking volunteers to raise their paws and be counted. That seems like damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
In answer to this, The Fandom is a documentary made by the fans. It features outstanding writers (like Joe), artists, animators, musicians, costume designers, event organizers and founders. It celebrates the roots with pro quality and appeal for outsiders who might not have given a fair look before.
For decades this subculture has thrived despite adversity. Bad media is one kind, but not the only kind. Some is internal. Some is homophobic. Some is happening right now with this screwy year. There’s even a villain to tell you about.
$10 million worth of trouble
Anthrocon is the 2nd largest furry convention, led by Uncle Kage (Dr. Sam Conway), the longstanding CEO and fandom public relations figure. It was due to bring $9.9 million to Pittsburgh’s economy in 2020. Now it’s among 70 furry cons canceled by COVID-19. The movie is launching anyways on the con’s dates, without opportunities that could have won distribution. (No film fests either.)
In the parallel universe where COVID-19 never materialized, parallel me is at this very minute climbing into a van with my parallel crew, headed to parallel Pittsburgh.
— Uncle Kage (@Unclekage) June 30, 2020
That makes this all-crowdfunded movie even more special and timely.
Time marches on, founders die or get forgotten, and it gets more important to share their stories of how a fandom got its identity. One of them, Mark Merlino, co-founded ConFurence as the first furry con. Imagine seeing one con rise to hundreds! He talks about branching out from other fandoms: “They couldn’t tell what to make of us” (because it’s not based on just one genre or property like Star Wars).
Mark and others define the nature of the beast. Each thread starts with archival sources, then ties them together with current fan interviews.
- Zines: 1970’s-80’s fans started with APA zines where they could see and be seen. Mail was like “slow motion internet” where a reply could take a month. Furry Library curator Summercat talks about it. (More: Unearthing a cool fossil — A 1980’s letter shows furry fandom before the net.)
- Conventions: Mark Merlino and his partner Rod talk about meeting each other as fans, and how many felt alone until they met each other and saw “you draw like this too?” Meetings became parties, clubs, and ConFurence. (More: A brief history of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization, America’s first anime fan club.)
- Internet: Early BBS and MUCK activity brought furries together before the Web, making them one of the first subcultures to rise with it.
- Queering: For artists, using characters as ideal selves helped develop freedom to come out with role play, and band together in their own space.
- Growth: Over time these threads merged into a movement. Artists make a living from it. There’s a new wave of fans turning the old con masquerade into up-close raging dances. Bubbles, the manager of five cons, talks about being one of just a few women among all the leaders.
- Controversy: Growth and freedom pushes limits, and leaders face hard questions. They say sex is something any humans do. The first fursuiter was kinky and gets compared to pin-up art that’s normal to comic fans. Joe Strike talks about bad media and Uncle Kage talks about the challenge of answering it.
It’s not so much a narrative with stakes and a payoff but it does lead up to a conflict.
Media relations make Uncle Kage bemusedly address rumors of furry cons being “like a Pride fest on acid”.
Kage isn’t the villain, unlike in some media that have painted him like a “family values” propagandist. You can really empathize with his viewpoint when he asks if you’d like to step in front of a camera and answer sex questions while your grandma watches.
You might miss one of the movie’s most key moments if you don’t think about it. A 1990’s group bent on purifying the fandom is featured: the Burned Furs.
In old video, Burned Fur Eric Blumrich says: “I’m not asking people to behave differently than general society, I’m asking them to behave LIKE people in general society.”
His long-gone group isn’t the villain, though. It’s not publicity-hungry media, or even bigoted judgement. The villain is part of a conflict about losing identity:
— U.S. Army Esports (@USArmyesports) June 30, 2020
That’s a verified brand and a US Army recruiting project using furry fanspeak. Imagine recruiters setting up shop in a con dealer den and making predatory pitches. That’s hyperbole, but it helps show the villain lurking on the edges of The Fandom. It’s conformity.
I keep an eye out for all media about furries, and often call the Furry 101 kind boring. The Fandom raises the bar by giving an intimate tour with quality and heart. It’s 95% positive celebration.
Documentaries can show more drama or criticism or bad sides than this really does. But how much negativity do you need in these times? Not to say that this documentary has no opinion — it’s strong advocacy.
The strength in The Fandom comes in context of past fighting about things that come out gently now. They’re natural roots here. In the very beginning it points out that furry fans are heavily LGBT. That developed during the AIDS crisis, and they faced internal member homophobia. But times changed. Elders in the movie are often cis white males, but it also features POC, female and trans members from a newer wave of fans. Publicity about the movie points out the all-LGBT crew, and the director, Ash, is reinventing a career after transitioning and feeling distanced from the industry.
Sex isn’t ignored and that brings up a funny thing. For a few seconds, a vintage 1990’s video lingers on Uncle Kage’s badge and a certain fursona name. It’s like a “dogwhistle” only furries will notice.
The Fandom is recommended to show your friends or family or have a furry movie party. It makes the history time-capsule-worthy. They got it right.
- See it on July 3: thefandomfilm.com
- Papermag.com: This Doc Answers All Your Questions About Furries
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: New documentary ‘The Fandom’ chronicles history of furry nation
- Fuzzball Storytime: “The Fandom” A Documentary About Love and Acceptance
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I contributed to the Kickstarter for this a year ago. So much has changed since then that scenes of happy congoers are the last thing I want to watch.
Not wishing to be a Debbie (or Dobie) Downer, though — so I will say that the contemporary interviews are expertly shot and lit, and the extensive archive footage is fascinating, particularly when the documentary cuts from individuals a quarter-century ago to them today.
Yeah that’s a good detail to notice!