Not that I’m equating the enormous, heroic, presidency-defining act of justice with furries: I’m not. But it’s important to let the giddy, giggly, amazed moments of life tattoo themselves on your mind as well as the serious ones. If you let the serious stuff have all the room, you’ll find, it will take it.
Furries or plushies, the sometimes-sexual fetishizing of anthropomorphic (humanlike) animals, was pretty new to the world when I heard about it in 2002. Sure it had been foreshadowed in a 1969 Monty Python sketch ("The Mouse Problem") and in the decidedly fetish-y Catwoman (circa 1967), but this segment of MTV’s “Sex2K” was not a parody or byproduct of costuming. It explains the defined and stated sexual preference for furry human/animal hybrids.
I was captivated by the idea of furries, not just because their’s was such a novel fetish, leaving tired ol’ BDSM and foot sniffing in the ancient shade, but because that novelty really made you think about the nature of human sexuality. It makes you consider how varied it is, how interesting, how much thought people give to their preferences and especially the stunning ability of human beings to give reality the finger while finding pleasure and passion in just about anything it presents to them. This was the kind of story that made me focus on sex and relationships as a writer; I wanted to spend my professional life happily feeling like this.
Furries have certainly come into their own. If you’re looking for the sexual side of it you have but to Google “Furries and sex,” and you’ll find plenty of fodder, including where you can pick yourself up an ersatz dragon wiener.
On the G-rated side, here’s the big convention called Anthrocon that gets covered on CNN and this Orangina commercial from France that suggests a subculture that has officially absorbed into adult pop culture, just like BDSM gave the fashion world “bondage chic.”
Very interestingly, the G-rated furries may well be onto something. The comfort taken in the tactile experience of those anthropomorphized animals has been shown to be demonstrably good for our ability to interact with others.
Researchers from the National University of Singapore have released a study showing that holding a teddy bear made adults who feel rejected less likely to behave in anti-social ways than those who had just looked at one. They studied 181 undergrads, employing different means to make half of them feel ostracized or unwanted. Then were asked to evaluate the appeal of a teddy bear, some just by sight, some by holding the little guy (A story by Tom Jacobs on Miller-McCune details the methods of the study.) The subjects who didn’t feel ostracized were not affected by their experience with the bear. Those who did feel ostracized and who got to touch the bear were more likely to be cooperative and generous later than those who had only looked at it.
Now, nobody in the study had sex with the teddy bear, hence my reference to the benefit of G-rated furriness specifically. But what is it about simply holding a toy that could affect us so much, possibly even letting us naturally drug ourselves from within?
The research group speculated that holding the teddy bears might have triggered a release of oxytocin, also known as “the cuddle hormone,” that makes us cozy up to and bond with each other as well as making us feel less stressed, more generous and more altruistic in intergroup conflict. They also speculate the bear might have lowered cortisol levels in the excluded parties, cortisol being the hormone released in times of stress or anger.
That’s a big job for a little bear and teddies have two qualities — cuddliness and human-like features – that one imagines might have contributed to the good feelings. Holding the bear was key, which makes sense; most of us grip something when stressed, whether it’s the armrest theater seat at a horror film or the person sitting in that seat. When Dr. Harry Harlow did his now-famous love studies on infant monkeys in the 1950’s, he found that the babies preferred to attach to an inanimate cloth "mother" who provided a sense of security than to a non-cuddly wire mom who gave one food, which sustained life but gave no tactile comfort. They wanted the one they could hold more than the one who fed them.
But did the experience include people’s ability to anthropomorphize — to project humanness onto an inanimate object? After all, teddy bears were companions to many of us in childhood, before we knew about bills, break-ups and yeast infections, when we were encouraged to be imaginative instead of sneeringly told to “get real.” Maybe we still see company in a sculpted swatch of fun fur and it still comforts us. We had imaginary friends as children and to an extent; we now have them online (do you know all your ‘friends’ on Facebook?). It’s a stock joke that God — an anthropomorphized entity — can be some people’s imaginary friend, but clearly helpful to many. We related to Tom Hanks using “Wilson” to keep from going mad on a lonely island in Castaway. Our ability to perceive companionship where it does not clearly exist (no “my ex wife” jokes please) must have some importance. In her commencement speech to Harvard's graduating class of 2008, J.K. Rowling extolled the virtues of imagination, not just because it make her a bazillionaire but also because it creates empathy – when we can imagine other people’s pain we are more likely to try to help them. The comfort we sometimes invent may end up making us more comforting to others.
I’m certainly not suggesting abandoning our real-life companions for a pillow with eyes, but maybe things like Snuggies and anime body pillows that we think of as dopey or weird actually have more value than we know. Like Lars and the Real Girl, when we feel isolated we might just need a temporary substitute, something to hold that’s both a refuge and a bridge, like you use the vibrator (and your imagination) till you find a lover or the one you have gets home from work, or like you prattle on and on to the cat (and imagine he gives a damn) until your friend comes over for wine and pizza.
Loneliness is common feeling but a study released by the Mental Health Foundation found that a third of people think it’s embarrassing to admit to. It shouldn’t be, since most of us experience it, but at least now we know that the non-human company we keep is truly helpful and significant. Keep the oxytocin up — the human beings you lavish it on later will thank you.
And probably Bobo, if they have that much imagination.