Furry Shakespeare

I’m at the 2017 Shakespeare Association of America, and write this after a day thinking about the (in)accessibility and (non)diversity of scholarship and Shakespeare. Karen Raber’s plenary on Queer Natures, Arthur Little’s panel on The Color of Membership, and Simone Chess and Will Fisher’s seminar on Early Modern Trans*Historicity all challenged us to think and act differently about difference and personal, structural and socialised phobia. In effect, we have been conferring about the (in)opportunities to confer, to participate, to matter.

Arthur Little powerfully called out members of our professional community who refuse to commune: those who do not include themselves in sessions about contemporary inclusion. For those of us who do attend such events, there is (I hope!) the shared experience of commitment to such values and an investment in valuing and celebrating historical forms of difference. We sometimes ask what these issues look like from the point of view of the patriarchy, of white superiority, of ablism or a binary-gendered position, but as a general rule we would not want to prioritise or re-enable such positions.

Meanwhile Atlanta is also hosting a conference for furries in a hotel connected by a bridge to the SAA hotel. Until yesterday, I had no idea the word ‘furries’ or the identities it underpins existed, and when I walked into the hotel next to ours and was confronted by hundreds of people dressed in gloriously-coloured anthropomorphic animal costumes, my first thought was that someone had spiked my drink. I was confronted with the new, the unexpected, the different and the fantastic. My colleagues and I responded with all the emotions such situations prompt: curiosity, fascination, embarrassment, the desire to look and the uncertainty about whether it is right to look.

I don’t want to conflate the various kinds of difference we explored yesterday at SAA with the difference of furry identity, but I am struck by the challenges this experience poses to the historical work we have been doing. When we historicise phobia, power and difference, we generally do so from a position of intellectual or cultural superiority: we are historicising forms of power-based differentiation which we ourselves do not or would prefer not to perpetuate. But our mutual conferring with furries presents us with new kinds of difference, and in effect places us in the subject position of dominant, normative identities – non-furries – confronted with unexpected difference. Allison Hobgood and David Houston have written recently about staring and disabled bodies, about the response of those who see themselves as normative to the surprise of meeting people who act or present as non-normative. I lived that issue yesterday: both the surprise and the sheer number of furries around us made it difficult not to look. And of course I wanted to look, not only because of my own curiosity but because it felt phobic not to look. And to my surprise, looking prompted immediate responses: furries looked back, interacted with me, and I found myself challenged by the practical difficulty of establishing eye contact with someone whose eyes I could not see.

There are issues here around play, fantasy, identity, human-animal relations, masking, bodily size (these costumes add both bulk and height to the human body) and even colour, though not in the sense that we usually use that word. However much I want to challenge the historical and contemporary issues of people who feel fear when confronted with difference, I myself found it unnerving to be unexpectedly amongst people whose faces and bodies I could not see and whose identities I did not understand and, perhaps crucially, could not name. So here we are, Shakespeare Associates, discussing difference and inclusivity, whilst also being excited and surprised by modern forms of difference. In our responses and experiences, we are embodying the normative subjectivities we usually critique. How does that feel?

I’ve written this during SAA itself. Please forgive typos or incoherence, but I wanted to record my responses as they happened, and invite others to respond.

Andy Kesson.

9 thoughts on “Furry Shakespeare

  1. BRAVO for this. I went to a Milton conference years ago when the co-conferees were “County Hunters.” (Love you, Middle Tennessee!) We constantly stumbled into each others’ coffees and had conversations ranging from stilted to revelatory. I rather enjoyed the challenge of explaining to my southern brethren why Milton (listed with a backwards N on the hotel sign) needed a conference and who the hell was Milton anyway? Everything in this SAA conference came down to the first panel I attended (as did you, Andy?): Shakespearean Distortions of the EM. We are NOT the center; Shakespeare is not the exemplar; we are the freaks, the (too frequently) pale myopic enthusiasts in tweed. Your blog calls upon us to wonder WWFD (what would furries do?). They’d engage and they’d be joyful in that engagement.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi, Andy! Welcome to the fandom!

    A friend who was at the furry convention you saw tweeted your blog post, and I was very excited to see our little “family” through a stranger’s eyes. I just wanted to complement you on your insight and introspection.

    I’ve been a furry since long before I knew there was a word for it, and the one thing I know: I know better than to try to explain it. There are as many reasons that people come to find the furry fandom as there are people who have found it. Some come because they find a community of people who want to make and wear brightly colored costumes. Some come because they find a community of people who feel the same profound connection to a particular kind of animal that they do. Some come because they found a community of people who love the same cartoons and comics that they do. But the thing you saw that many strangers who stumble across furries in the wild often miss is that furries are people in a community of people.

    Imagine if, instead of just coming across furries in a hotel, you came across furries after an awkward childhood of feeling different, weird, and ashamed because unlike your peers you imagined how awesome it would be to live in a cartoon world of giant alive stuffed animals that loved you with innocence and a complete lack of judgement. That’s my experience. For me the shame I felt for “being furry” (long the punch line of internet jokes) far exceeded the shame I had to deal with to be out and gay. I was in my mid 30s before I figured out what really mattered: None of this.

    I’ll leave it to researchers and intellectuals to try to explain it in scientific or rational terms. All I know is what I’ve learned down here on the ground: Finding a community of people who want the same things you do, and then finding the courage to work through your shame and embrace those people (Thank you Brené Brown!) is wonderful. Maslow will tell you that finding a few thousand people who will travel across a continent to join you in a weekend-long joyful mutual delusion is not everything, but I assert it covers a big chunk of his triangle for a lot of fun, creative folks.

    It’s absolutely okay to look at us if you look at us as people. Heck, it’s okay to hug most of us! You’re doing great.

    One last note: Reconciling the absurdity of how much I enjoy our fandom has opened the door to tolerance for me. When I see a person enjoying something from which I personally can’t comprehend deriving even a shred of joy, such as spending my weekend listening to lectures about the current state of Shakespearian intellectual pursuits, I simply say these words aloud: “Find your magic.” Connecting my own pursuit of joy to someone else’s fills me with love and empathy for just about anyone no matter how different our roads may be.

    I’m glad you exist and I love you! Be well!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello! I can’t see a name here so I’m going to call you Collins. Thanks so much for your response to my post!

      I don’t have much of substance to say except that I loved your comments, appreciated you taking the time, and found them very useful in my next blog piece, which is very much about the weirdness of my own group of people.

      I am glad you exist and glad that we are both glad of each other’s existence. Much love, laughter and and a bit more love!

      Andy

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  5. Shakespeare’s texts are saturated with issues of otherness and difference, and Shakespeare’s plays are performed around the world in a remarkably diverse range of socio-cultural contexts, and yet the Anglo-US contemporary academic and dramatic Shakespeare industry which represents and reproduces these texts/plays is entirely the opposite: sedulously reinforcing the conventions, norms, binaries and assumptions which constitute a significant part of the Anglo-US fable about it’s own glorious history (as if it were both single and inexorably progressive).

    Thus, Shakespeare has become a vehicle for a dominant corporate neoliberal ideology in the privileged Anglo-US context, in which the only kind of variety on offer is that produced by market segmentation, which maximises profits and disseminates those binaries the plays are used to reinforce. This is nothing to do with the nature of the scripts themselves or the many other ways in which Shakespeare is understood and used beyond this context, but is a result of the way in which Shakespeare has been commodified by a corporate elite and the cultural establishment.

    It is hardly surprising that the dominant ideology has so thoroughly depoliticised Anglo-US Shakespearean criticism in the last decade or two, as its values have been rolled out across academia, media and culture, given that the values it disseminates are so conservative. What is required in order to actually create the conditions in which diversity can return to Shakespeare performance and research is that rigorous critical-theoretical models which analyse and identify the underlying causes of historical processes and their relationship to established power structures need to be brought to bear in this as well as other cultural fields. If this does not happen, we will only find ourselves intermittently surprised by our community’s lack of diversity, and wholly at a loss to understand why this is so.

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