Essay: Furries

by Alison Bancroft .

Lily Donaldson's short film embodies the paradox of women and sex in the modern world. Donaldson is participating in the feminine masquerade and denigrating it at the same time by refusing to take it seriously.

There is a belief that there is ‘normal’ sexuality – between one man and one woman, in the context of a stable, monogamous relationship, with half an eye on reproduction. All other sorts of sexuality are abnormal, deviant, immoral, unnatural, perverted. According to this belief, some people (the majority) are born with good, normal sexual aims and desires, and others (the minority) are born with deviant, perverted sexual aims and desires.

However, there is another way of thinking about it. It is not that sexuality is either ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ or ‘perverted’. Instead, we all start from the same point. We all have sexual desire. However, this desire is unformed and inarticulate. It exists, but doesn’t quite know what it is or what to do with itself. It is only in the development of sexuality – a process that is social, cultural, political and psychological – that people begin to identify their sexual aim. That aim could be anything at all, and also could be subject to change over time. It doesn’t have to be penetrative sex between a man and a woman in a monogamous long-term relationship with a view to making babies.

This idea is not new. It was first thought up by Sigmund Freud in the early years of the twentieth century, and is one of the things that makes Freud such a radical. It also allows us to think about fetishism, another Freudian topic, differently.

Usually, fetishism is one of the options for ‘non-normal’ sex. It’s a bit creepy, a bit kinky, a bit strange, sometimes a bit dangerous. However, if we think about fetishism as one of the developmental paths that human sexuality can take, it becomes a bit more interesting, because suddenly we can talk about it seriously instead of filing it away under the predictable ‘urgh, that’s weird.’

The furries fetish is particularly fascinating. It comes from the world of Cosplay, and is based on a subcultural grouping based around anthropomorphic cartoon characters. Put simply, it is people dressing up as their favourite cartoon/animé animals. The furries subculture is primarily social, with between a third and a half of all participants deriving some sort of sexual encounter or satisfaction from it, depending on which survey you read. It started in the eighties, and was not then, and is not now, predominantly sexual. Nevertheless, furries are seen as one of the odder sexual fetishes, and pretty much all media coverage of it, from Vanity Fair to CSI and 30 Rock, present the fetish aspect of it to the exclusion of the social and subcultural elements, which says as much about the media as it does about furries.

Lily Donaldson’s referencing of furries in her Fashion Fetish short film is remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, by just using a furry head rather than a full-body costume, she is removed from the subculture. There is little by way of anthropomorphism here. She is not an animal with human qualities. She is instead all-too human. The furry head is simply a dehumanising masquerade, one that covers up the basis of her as a person and makes her an anonymous object. According to the feminist Michele Montrelay, femininity itself is a masquerade – it has to be, in order to function in a world controlled by men – and Donaldson is parodying that essential truth by choosing that her masquerade be a cartoon.

This short film embodies the paradox of women and sex in the modern world. Donaldson is participating in the feminine masquerade and denigrating it at the same time by refusing to take it seriously. Parading around a back-garden swimming pool in her underwear and heels, she is simultaneously dressed and not dressed. She is wearing something, but still needs to put some clothes on if she’s going to go out in public. She is being watched, observed, visually assessed, as all women are, but she plays about with that. In her furry head, doing half-hearted press-ups, sprawling on a car bonnet like a girl in a seventies car advert, she appears outside the boundaries of conventional sexual attractiveness available to women under the heterosexual norm, but remains unconventionally beautiful and compelling to watch.

If the desire that motivates fetish sex follows a different route to the desire that motivates normal monogamous reproductive sex, then it follows that fetishism, particularly for women, is a rejection of conformity in sex and, it is implied, in other areas of life too. The feminine sexuality on display in this film refuses the role it is usually proscribed, and instead offers a different, autonomous sexuality; one that does not willingly play the game, and, indeed, mocks the game instead. Women are expected to conform, in a whole host of ways, and when they do not, they are trouble, and they are in trouble.

The jerky, hand-held quality of the film looks every bit as seedy as Donaldson herself says she intended it to. It is exploitative and voyeuristic, and it makes slightly uncomfortable viewing because, watching it, we the viewer are implicated in the lascivious, objectifying lechery of the person holding the camera. However much the Donaldson we see in the film may reject ‘normal’ feminine sexuality, the world is still one dominated largely by men, and the mise-en-scène reminds us of that. Trouble, we sense, is just out of shot. We do not know if she will manage to avoid it.