Following the global success of The Masked Singer and the follow-up nobody could see catching on, The Masked Dancer, I imagine TV execs just sit around brainstorming formats of shows that already exist, before one zany outlier jumps onto the roundtable and shouts: “What if we added the element of disguise?” Why else would Gordon Ramsay don a number of unnecessary undercover looks for his American reality show, 24 Hours to Hell and Back?
This is also surely how Netflix came to commission Sexy Beasts, which is your typical dating show, but with the added entertainment of identity-concealing costumes – the masked dater, if you will. There’s a cheeky wolf that keeps howling at his dates, a cutesy dolphin and a timid panda, while the preview of the show dubs these meet-cutes as “the strangest blind date ever”. When the trailer dropped on social media three weeks ago, users were quick to voice their opinions ranging from confusion to amusement. However, one maligned and misunderstood group came to mind almost instantly: furries.
Furries are the animal-loving subculture where people dress up in fursuits for fun, friendship and, sometimes, sex. As such, they’re more than familiar with looking for a partner via a different persona. So, what do they think of the show?
“The aesthetics of it are certainly uncanny and I’m not too interested in the show itself on that account,” says 21-year-old Serah the Lioness, explaining how the furry fandom is often mischaracterised and that representations from the outside are often “flawed”. The community has often been framed as a kink by many outlets. It is true that one study found that a large majority of men had sexual motivations for being a furry, as they experienced attraction to anthropomorphic characters and were aroused by fantasising about being an animal.
But this was only a study of around 300 furries. There is a huge global community all with different motivations, such as loving artwork, costumes and role-play around being an animal. Sexy Beasts presents animal costumes as “strange”, inviting some nervous responses from the community.
Most media that shapes the views of furries is, as Sereh notes, intended to shock readers with “little regard for the people it will harm”. But comparisons between Sexy Beasts and the community happened mostly on social media, rather than it being an angle explored by Netflix explicitly. “Most people have it as a hobby rather than a full identity,” Sereh explains. Her “fursona” is a basic reflection of herself. “It’s an idealised version of my hopes and dreams.”
Although Sexy Beasts presents dating in costume in a sensationalist manner, Serah says there are a few recognisable elements that match what she’s seen among furries in love. “Dating as a furry is completely different from ‘normal’ [dating practices].”
The fact that furries are open-minded means they have fostered a safe culture to explore sexuality via the illustrated porn and online forums. “Most notably, furries are overwhelmingly queer,” Serah observes. A furry academic group, Fur Science, found that furries are five times more likely to identify as gay than the general population, although it’s unclear how many people were surveyed and from which demographics. We weren’t able to get any older furries for this piece and they probably have had different experiences, having been the originators of the fandom; the torch has been passed.
There are many fandoms where original characters and creatures are created by the individuals in the community, rather than by a company, i.e. cosplaying canon characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example. “Having a character to express yourself is another safe way to explore gender and sexuality that is unique to original character (OC) fandoms like My Little Pony, furries and homestuck,” says Sereh.
As such, Sexy Beast’s storylines actually fall in line with furry culture in small ways. As the concealed lovers go on dates, they find themselves changing their regular dating behaviours and feeling more free to explore different types of romances. Take James the ass-obsessed Beaver and Alexis the Leopard, for instance. The two fall for each other based on the quality of conversation rather than body types and bravado, reflecting the power of the fursuit.
Attraction in the furry universe is different to locking eyes with someone in a bar or double-taking when you see someone cute. For Cross, a 22-year-old trans-masc wolf, it is based on specific species. “I’ve been told I’m attractive or cute because one of my fursonas is a wolf and I connect a lot with wolves.” The alternate characters that people create hint at their personal interests, which Cross uses to gauge what type of person their potential suitor might be. “A fox fursona is probably peppy and pretty. A wolf fursona is probably mysterious and confident, and a dog is probably outgoing and loyal.” Of course, on Sexy Beasts, the contestants don’t necessarily choose their costumes.
According to Mallie, 27, while some are comfortable with dipping in and out of the fursuit, others exclusively interact with people in the community as their character. “Our fursonas are extensions of ourselves, whether they are a representation of how we see ourselves as we are or, a lot of the time, ideals we want to be seen as, like myself,” she says. “A lot of furries use their fursonas as a way to break the ice when meeting people, whether it’s platonic, just to find friends or romantic. Fursuiting can take an edge off the pressure of interacting with strangers.”
Mallie is a pink sheep who says she met her wife on a furry dating website named Pounced (which the US government, incredibly, shut down). Similar to Sexy Beasts, this meant that she only knew her wife’s fursona when they were getting to know each other. “I only knew what her character, a bright green and gray sabretooth, looked like. I knew that she lived an hour away and that we shared an interest in old coins,” she says. “There’s something terrifying and thrilling about talking to someone who doesn’t know what you look like and whom you can connect with on a personal level before anything else.” Six years later, they’re still married and still “weird furries”.
In this way, she thinks the show’s concept isn’t as novel as mainstream reactions suggest, but it’s still nowhere near the authentic furry or OC dating reality. “I’m all for campy reality dating shows, but there is a stark difference between having a fursona as an alter ego of yourself and dressing up like a beaver because TV producers tell you to,” she says. “All these reality shows hire attractive models and then act like it’s so terrifying if someone sees what one of them looks like underneath their animal prosthetics.”
Furries eliminate discrimination by allowing themselves to become someone else entirely. Speaking to people who date via masked characters, it feels like Sexy Beasts misses an opportunity to really examine how these relationships allow people to come out of their shells. While Emma in episode one notes that she “grew up really shy” and that the mask was helping to bring out her personality, most of the contestants (including her date, who looks like Rafiki from The Lion King) are conventionally attractive and very confident. There is little examination of racial identities, different body types or gender identities, which act as a barrier for many when dating, as people instantly make judgments based on these qualities upfront.
“I may still check it out for a laugh,” concludes Mallie. “But I don’t feel Sexy Beasts is looking to create an authentic experience with meeting people and learning about them on a personal level before you see them underneath the animal costume.”