Thursday, March 15, 2012

Introduction: Anthropomorphism

At first sight, anthropomorphism may seem somewhat strange, the combination of human and animal characteristics in a figure. You may have encountered the subject many times before in both culture and media, such as mythical creatures in fairy tales or even television shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Biker Mice from Mars, Swat Kats and the list goes on.

But anthropomorphism in sexual content is probably not something most people have really encountered before and it does beckon some questions about the art. People might consider it rather abnormal - like why would someone view sexual content with an anthropomorphic character than a regular character? Is it necessary for the character to have a tail and floppy ears?

The question here is, what effects does those features have on the character's visual impression and what I will be discussing in this entry, is the application of anthropomorphism in art.

What is Anthropomorphism?

"The Jackal" from "Pain King
Vs. Cleopatra" in Kim Possible
[Click to Enlarge]
Basically, imagine anthropomorphism as a form of hybrids, a mix between two or more species. The minotaur from Greek mythology is a classic example of this, a human male body combined with features from a bull, such as the head, the fur, the tail and the hooves. These features add a lot of depth to the character and there are numerous examples of such through different cultures and art history.

Some of your innocent childhood memories might include the ever popular Disney examples of anthropomorphism, such as Mickey Mouse and all the cartoon characters.

Then there are the more select adult anthropomorphic cartoon characters that bring out the sex in the male body, at some point even the designers at Disney thought of anthropomorphism as useful to enhance masculine features in characters. The fact is there is far more to anthropomorphism than just a muzzle, fur, paws and such detail.

In cartoonism, anthropomorphism basically allows the character to be more abstract without distorting the image of human anatomy. For instance, if you were to look at "The Jackal" character as a human with that anatomy, he would be the freaking Hulk because humans just aren't that large. Depending on the species, a character's shape can be drawn more cuddly or monstrous, the latter allowing far more bulky male characters.

With other words, anthropomorphism is a tool for character design. It allows the artist more freedom, and it can enhance some characteristics to give a better visual impression of the character. This applies to erotic artwork as well, as anthropomorphism can be used to draw out the sex in the gender as animals carry features that symbolize masculinity.

Furthermore, animal aspects can be used to describe a character's personality, for instance a fox is considered to be running and thieving, so an anthropomorphic fox character would make a good rogue. There's a lot of cultural symbols in animals, such as pride, leadership, nobility, et cetera.

Borderline Bestiality?

Bondage Scene with Killer Croc
from "Rumors" in The Batman

[Click to Enlarge]

To better understand the sensitivity of this subject, it is to say that anthropomorphism leans towards some disliked subjects that makes people afraid to identify with it out of fear of discrimination. For instance, where is the line between anthropomorphism and bestiality? How many animal features does a character need to have before the characters becomes more animal than human?

This is a reasonable argument because there really is no line and it comes down to your personal judgment. At first there were some features of anthropomorphism that I didn't like either and it took me time to get used to thinking of them differently, but my doubts on the topic has long been dispelled.

My answer here is that it comes down to you and you alone. I know my taste for anthropomorphic characters have nothing to do with such a fetish because I never once associated anything sexual with beasts and it's not the animal portion of the art that makes the attraction, but what those features do for the masculine human values in the character. A study suggests most people feel the same way, if knowing such a statistic makes a person more comfortable with the subject.

Most criticism towards anthropomorphism takes root in prejudice and being labeled a "furry", a term I have been avoiding to use in this blog. Internet reputation doesn't make the art, but it does change how some people feel about associating with it. However, I would say you should only view art through your own eyes and with this blog post, I hope to make people better understand what anthropomorphism really does for the artwork.

Anthropomorphic Character Design

As I mentioned earlier, anthropomorphism is a powerful tool for designing characters because not only does animals come in many shapes and colors, but there's also a both cultural and natural background behind each animal that makes it easier to give an impression of a character.

For instance, you probably know some things about animals that you may never have even seen before, like how fast a cheetah can run and using the species in an anthropomorphic character would make a good athlete.

[Click to Enlarge]
Anthropomorphism also allows you to vary characters at easy without a larger study of anatomy because you have features that can make the character unique, like different colors of skin, body sizes, different types of tails, even small things like teeth and tongues. These are tools that makes it easier to illustrate different characters without having to make people read several biographies to get a proper impression.

Furthermore, anthropomorphism also gives the artist more freedom because there's no set rules for how the character should look as there's no such thing as anthropomorphic characters in reality. In comparison to drawing a real person, you can for instance draw a long snobby nose to give an impression of arrogance without making the character look like Pinocchio.

(To artists): The thing that I have learned about anthropomorphism over the years is that the more freedom you allow yourself, the cooler it gets. There's no reason to be afraid of mixing different features into a character, you're not restricted to any single species and you don't have to force yourself to a specific style

List of Characteristic Features 

These are but a few of the numerous examples of what animals can add to an anthropomorphic character in terms of design. Bear in mind this is just my opinion and interpretation, feel free to disagree.

  • Alligator: A predator, a threat lurking below murky water and dangerous. Usually depicted grim and sinister because of the numerous pointy teeth and wicked smile. 
  • Birds: A huge number of species, but overall thought of as a free spirited animal because of the ability to fly (some penguins complained about this statement). Specific examples: Chickens - cowardice, owls - wisdom and nobility, eagle - proud hunters, etc.
  • Cat: Sly, proud, prowess. "Feline," carries its own culture and traits. As popular as the dog, although I hate the damned things. Cats are slender, they don't follow orders and they have their own way.
  • Dinosaur: Old, powerful and large. Because dinosaurs are extinct prehistorical creatures, they are often associated with age. Certain species are very popular, esp. the tyrannosaurus with its enormous size and incredibly sinister teeth.
  • Dog: Loyal, protectors and companions. Dogs are probably one of the most popular animals as a standard house pet (unless you're hungry and Chinese). Featured in any large amount of movies usually as the protagonist and hero.
  • Dragon: Mythical animal, while not actually real they carry a larger legacy in medieval culture. Dragons are usually considered majestic, powerful and guardians - like protecting a treasure cave or guarding a princess.
  • Fox: Cunning, deceiving, sly. Foxes are mostly known as thieves through most of history, like prying on chickens from farmers. Literature often depicts them as tricksters, and agile.
  • Leopard: Fast. Though not the strongest predator, cheetahs hold the record as the fastest animal. Speedy and rushy characters make good leopards. Also snow leopards are considered extremely beautiful.
  • Lion: Proud animals, often thought of as the "king" species in literature, dominant hunters and predators. Rulers and leaders, strength and pride. You've probably been forced to watch, "The Lion King" at some point in your life.
  • Monkey: Rude, agile and ..monkey-like? I wouldn't know what to list as the monkey is very popular in culture, sometimes thought of as a fighter ("Monkey Kung Fu"), but also an expression for vile manners (they screech, they throw poop). The species closest to a human in terms of traits, but also usually thought of as a filthy animal.
  • Mouse: Innocent, fragile, small. Mice are often mammals target by predators (e.g. cats), and they have become popular from their tendency to live inside houses and walls. They are often depicted as bullied and innocent characters in literature.
  • Orca: Tough, dangerous, proud. "Killer whales" are as famous as the shark, though their ability to survive in arctic waters and their larger size makes them seem like a much more powerful predatory species. While not necessarily a "proud" animal, their unique black and white colors make people view them with respect.   
  • Rabbit: Cute, lovable, innocent. Rabbits are often prey in nature, hence the innocence. A symbol of love from the expression, "Breed like rabbits." Also popular house pets for small children.
  • Rat: Filthy, vile, vermin. Rats are considered horrendous creatures from their ability to carry diseases (e.g. the plague, "Black Death"). Very often depicted as villains in literature.
  • Shark: Predator, greedy, ferocious. Sharks are a very popular predator in culture from their symbolic fin cutting through water when swimming in the surface, as well as their toothy jaw.
  • Sheep: Common, average, blends in. Sheep are mostly known in culture as an animal that follows a herd; typically considered unintelligent like following something blindly (e.g. being called a sheep is usually considered an insult).
  • Snake: Evil, dangerous, malicious animals. Snakes are infamous for their poison and ability to devour other mammals whole. Christian religion has a large impact on the species with the story of Adam and Eve.
  • Turtle: Slow, tough, defensive. Should be obvious from their nature, but old stories like "The hare and the tortoise" set similar examples. Popular in culture from shows like, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
  • Weasel: Sly, cunning, mean. Weasels are often depicted as vermin, and their natural tendency of hunting smaller (cute) mammals usually make them the bad guy.
  • Wolf: Pack animals, hunts in packs. Associated with wilderness and forests; makes good tribal characters. Also a symbol for loneliness through the trait, "Lone wolf" - someone separated from the pack, driven away. Also a symbol for male sexuality and dominance ("The Big Bad Wolf," - Little Red Riding Hood).


  1. Really don't want to nitpick, as this is a very well-written and informative entry, but I was kind of hoping you'd delve a bit into the literal definition of anthropomorphism as opposed to, say, zoomorphism. The jackal from Kim Possible, for example, I think is zoomorphism rather than anthropomorphism.

  2. I sense racism in the article

  3. Nice description. Too bad moles isn't up there. It distinguishes the prejudice between seeing things on TV/Games and Furry.