It was around the time that the praying mantis was contemplating doing a stomach slide down a bowling alley lane that I began to question my choices.
I was five episodes into Sexy Beasts, a dating show in which slim young people are outfitted with animal heads and sent to various locations—a bowling alley, an ax throwing range, a Land Rover test course—to attempt to flirt from beneath producer-issued get-ups. Each episode focuses on one contestant who goes on dates with three others and, by the end of the run time, selects a person whose face they’ve never seen to be their “sexy beast”—at which point the prosthetics come off. Contestants are not always dressed as animals; there are trolls and rocks and witches, too, but the intent is the same. By masking people’s faces, the show claims to simulate what dating would be like if you had to base choices on personality alone; contestants navigate stilted questions from one another like “Do you believe in love?” and “Would you still be attracted to me if I weighed 300 pounds?” At best, the series is a container of puffed cheese balls—you know it’s not good for you, or even particularly satisfying, but at some point you’ve had so much you might as well finish it.
The Netflix-hosted mess is going for shock value with the costumes, and early reactions to the show’s trailer on social media were predictably sprinkled with “haha, ew, furries” jabs. My editor assigned me to review the show in part because I’m a furry. But Sexy Beasts shares far more in common with late-night staples like Blind Date than the fandom known for queer animal people with paws and claws. And as I watched episode after episode of stilted “romance,” I kept thinking: Furries do all of this way better.
Part of the difference is the setting. Furry is a fandom by itself, for itself, that’s created by the people in it, not an effort to gin up Netflix subscribers. Furries gather in online communities, massive conventions that attract thousands each year, and local art jams. In addition to the artists and fursuit makers who’ve made the fandom their career, there are scientists, emergency workers, software engineers, doctors, lawyers, and more, all brought together by the fun and fascination around having an animal alter ego, or “fursona,” that’s more or less a human with animal characteristics. We’re a different breed than the makeup-daubed contestants of Sexy Beasts, down to the core.
Humans have been obsessed about the intersection of the human and the animal since the ice age, at least. Today, we’re surrounded by all sorts of human-animal remixes, from breakfast cereals to sports teams. My own trip down the furry rabbit hole was a winding one. As child of the 1980s and ’90s, anthropomorphized animals were everywhere–from my favorite childhood book The Saggy Baggy Elephant to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Not everything anthropomorphic is “furry,” of course; what is and isn’t is defined by whether it’s produced and engaged with by a certain community of adults (not whether or not its sex-related). During my teenage years, I accidentally bumped into the furry fandom proper as I was getting online in the days of dial-up. But the kink-shaming and stereotypes kept me from talking to anyone about it until I happened to meet furries through other channels. In 2016 I attended my first convention, started writing furry stories, and began to jump from convention to convention to help friends with their merch booths, finding a wellspring of incredibly talented people. (Yeah, there was some after-dark fun too.)
Naturally, part of the process involved creating a “fursona,” aka an animal alter ego. I love cats, and I love the desert, and so jaguars—historically just as at home in the Southwestern United States as in the jungle—seemed a perfect fit. I always loved black and blue, so I picked a black coat with sparkly blue rosettes as my own contribution to the furry tradition of picking bright colors and easy-to-spot markings. (Seriously, having a distinctive coat pattern can help everyone tell who’s who on the dance floor, just as zoologists look at markings to identify wild animals.) There’s no central fursona canon (or focus as to what will look good on camera, or blow up in GIFs on social media, as with a Netflix show). You can be whatever you want to be. In a survey of furry demographics, social scientists found that the most popular fursonas in the fandom are hybrids, such as German shepherd–slash-alligator or fox-and-wolf. After that rank various wolves, foxes, dogs, and big cats, with insects and arachnids being the rarest fursonas. And these characters are not just fun makeup, as are the animals on the show. They’re projections.
A fursona can be an animal representation of who you are, who you wish to be, or a part of yourself you want to explore. Foxes, wolves, and dogs are popular because they’re seen as social, happy animals. Opossums and spotted hyenas are often favorites of lesbians in the fandom, the animals thought to have more sapphic vibes. Then there are entirely made-up species, like fuzzy, sharklike sergals. The premise of being a furry is that you can express yourself in animal form however you please. And that can literally be transformative. In my case, my glitter-punk jaguar avatar started as a representation of who I was before my transition. When I got some gender-swapped art of my character, just to see how I’d feel about that, the excitement I felt about seeing myself manifested as I might wish to be was a significant shift in realizing and embracing myself as a transgender woman. I could express myself and explore through the fandom in a way I couldn’t in everyday life, within a community filled with lots of other people who project themselves—in whole or in part—through the characters we create. Riley even went from being my fursona’s name to my own legal name—not because I think I’m a literally a big cat, but because creating a fursona offered me a way to find myself.
At a furry convention, whether you’re meeting folks for some bump and grind under the black lights or just wandering the dealers’ den, it doesn’t really matter what human flesh and facial features sit below the faux fur and toony-style heads. (Only about a third of furries have fursuits, but they are a focal point of any event—especially the dance competitions and fursuit parades.) Fursona and actual personality are linked together, and the animal avatar is no less authentic than your everyday self. Maybe even more so, because, unlike with your nose and eyes and body frame, you picked it.
Not so in Netflix’s menagerie. In Sexy Beasts, “Who’s under the suit?” is a constant implied refrain. In the furry fandom, that question is pretty irrelevant. The animal features are presented specifically as obstructions to your date’s appearance—which in theory could force contestants to focus more on the conversation at hand or their date’s verbal intellect, but does not in practice. From the outset, the entire point for viewers and contestants alike is to fixate on: “Are they hot under the makeup?” The show gives this question a breathless treatment, as if we’re going to be shocked that the person who appears to be young and thin is actually still young and thin when they’re no longer wearing face paint that makes them look like a troll, a devil, or a lichen-covered rock. What a transformation. What’s also striking to me about the show is that while animal headpieces are shown as “costumes,” the polished, airbrushed, made-up contestants who “reveal” themselves at the end of each episode are presented as real and authentic. But how is wearing clothing and eye shadow in order to fit a very specific and technically unnatural definition of hot inherently more real than going overboard with the spirit gum and body paint to look like a dolphin?
Sexy Beasts does directly get at the question lurking behind all the prosthetics, the one that likely drew the social media comparison to furries in the first place: In Episode 3, a panda-clad contestant asks her date if he’d have sex with her in all that makeup. Her date, made up like a bull, chuckles and hints that yeah, maybe. That anyone would actually like the animal makeup or find it sexy is taboo, kinky, and “ew”-worthy, played for laughs. That sexual revulsion is familiar—the basis for why some people make a big deal about how gross they find furries.
And honestly, I think people who cast furries as gross protest too much. I don’t see what furries do as so different and disconnected from what counts as acceptable in the larger culture (just queerer—only about 10 percent of the furry fandom identifies as heterosexual). People dress up at Comic Cons all the time. A kerfuffle over Australian Olympic and Paralympic mascots wasn’t driven by an inherent fear that there’s something wrong with people being portrayed as animals—it was that the illustrations looked like furry art. But even sex and animals collide regularly outside the fandom. There’s a reason “sexy cat” is a staple at booze-fueled autumn parties year in and year out. Having funny feelings about the dashing fox in Disney’s Robin Hood is a rite of passage. There even exists such a thing as the Fifty Shades of Grey collar and leash set. Pup and pet play is a staple of gay and BDSM scenes—but even the most vanilla cis het sex can still trade in animalistic behaviors and imagery. It’s called doggystyle for a reason. So it’s strange to see people get all innocent and wide-eyed about the idea that there’s a vibrant, sexual aspect to some people who take the idea of screwing like an animal a little more literally.
At the end of each episode, during the overwrought and overdramatic selection scene, the episodic stars of the Netflix’s experiment say “You are my sexy beast” to their selected partners. (The show leaves us with the open question of whether these people will date again or just try to forget the whole experience.) Some of the people seem happy, others more unsure. But there’s no real sexiness or chemistry between any of them. How could there be, when the pairings are results of people being pushed at one another on camera, wearing get-ups assigned to them for laughs? In or out of costume, all anyone can seem to focus on is waiting to see whether their dates are as hot as they hope. Personally, I’ll take furry conventions’ late-night dance parties to more episodes of this bizarre guessing-game show. If the show is puffed cheese balls, they’re, well, a little wholesome. When you see a fox across the dance floor, you’re seeing the real them as much as you would be if they had those colorful layers of fluff stripped off.