Image 1: Hasbro/Tiger Electronics 1998 Furby. (Photo credit: Author)
Since the mid-1990s robotic and digital creatures designed to offer social interaction and companionship have been developed for commercial and research interests. Integral to encouraging positive experiences with these creatures has been the use of cute aesthetics that aim to endear companions to their human users. During this time there has also been a growth in online communities that engage in cultural production through fan fiction responses to existing cultural artefacts, including the widely recognised electronic companion, Hasbro’s Furby (image 1).
These user stories and Furby’s online representation in general, demonstrate that contrary to the intentions of their designers and marketers, Furbys are not necessarily received as cute, or the embodiment of the helpless and harmless demeanour that goes along with it. Furbys’ large, lash-framed eyes, small, or non-existent limbs, and baby voice are typical markers of cuteness but can also evoke another side of cuteness—monstrosity, especially when the creature appears physically capable instead of helpless (Brzozowska-Brywczynska 217). Furbys are a particularly interesting manifestation of the cute aesthetic because it is used as tool for encouraging attachment to a socially interactive electronic object, and therefore intersects with existing ideas about technology and nonhuman companions, both of which often embody a sense of otherness.
This paper will explore how cuteness intersects withand transitions into monstrosity through online representations of Furbys, troubling their existing design and marketing narrative by connecting and likening them to other creatures, myths, and anecdotes. Analysis of narrative in particular highlights the instability of cuteness, and cultural understandings of existing cute characters, such as the gremlins from the film Gremlins (Dante) reinforce the idea that cuteness should be treated with suspicion as it potentially masks a troubling undertone. Ultimately, this paper aims to interrogate the cultural complexities of designing electronic creatures through the stories that people tell about them online.
Authors of fan fiction are known to creatively express their responses to a variety of media by appropriating the characters, settings, and themes of an original work and sharing their cultural activity with others (Jenkins 88). On a personal level, Jenkins (103) argues that “[i]n embracing popular texts, the fans claim those works as their own, remaking them in their own image, forcing them to respond to their needs and to gratify their desires.” Fan fiction authors are motivated to write not for financial or professional gains but for personal enjoyment and fan recognition, however, their production does not necessarily come from favourable opinions of an existing text. The antifan is an individual who actively hates a text or cultural artefact and is mobilised in their dislike to contribute to a community of others who share their views (Gray 841). Gray suggests that both fan and antifan activity contribute to our understanding of the kinds of stories audiences want:
Although fans may wish to bring a text into everyday life due to what they believe it represents, antifans fear or do not want what they believe it represents and so, as with fans, antifan practice is as important an indicator of interactions between the textual and public spheres. (855)
Gray reminds that fans, nonfans, and antifans employ different interpretive strategies when interacting with a text. In particular, while fans intimate knowledge of a text reflects their overall appreciation, antifans more often focus on the “dimensions of the moral, the rational-realistic, [or] the aesthetic” (856) that they find most disagreeable. Additionally, antifans may not experience a text directly, but dislike what knowledge they do have of it from afar. As later examples will show, the treatment of Furbys in fan fiction arguably reflects an antifan perspective through a sense of distrust and aversion, and analysing it can provide insight into why interactions with, or indirect knowledge of, Furbys might inspire these reactions.
Derecho argues that in part because of the potential copyright violation that is faced by most fandoms, “even the most socially conventional fan fiction is an act of defiance of corporate control…” (72). Additionally, because of the creative freedom it affords, “fan fiction and archontic literature open up possibilities – not just for opposition to institutions and social systems, but also for a different perspective on the institutional and the social” (76).
Because of this criticality, and its subversive nature, fan fiction provides an interesting consumer perspective on objects that are designed and marketed to be received in particular ways. Further, because much of fan fiction draws on fictional content, stories about objects like Furby are not necessarily bound to reality and incorporate fantastical, speculative, and folkloric readings, providing diverse viewpoints of the object. Finally, if, as robotics commentators (cf. Levy; Breazeal) suggest, companionable robots and technologies are going to become increasingly present in everyday life, it is crucial to understand not only how they are received, but also where they fit within a wider cultural sphere. Furbys can be seen as a widespread, if technologically simple, example of these technologies and are often treated as a sign of things to come (Wilks 12).
The Design of Electronic Companions
To compete with the burgeoning market of digital and electronic pets, in 1998 Tiger Electronics released the Furby, a fur-covered, robotic creature that required the user to carry out certain nurturance duties. Furbys expected feeding and entertaining and could become sick and scared if neglected. Through a program that advanced slowly over time regardless of external stimulus, Furbys appeared to evolve from speaking entirely Furbish, their mother tongue, to speaking English. To the user, it appeared as though their interactions with the object were directly affecting its progress and maturation because their care duties of feeding and entertaining were happening parallel to the Furbish to English transition (Turkle, Breazeal, Daste, & Scassellati 314).
The design of electronic companions like Furby is carefully considered to encourage positive emotional responses. For example, Breazeal (2002 230) argues that a robot will be treated like a baby, and nurtured, if it has a large head, big eyes, and pursed lips. Kinsella’s (1995) also emphasises cute things need for care as they are “soft, infantile, mammalian, round, without bodily appendages (e.g. arms), without bodily orifices (e.g. mouths), non-sexual, mute, insecure, helpless or bewildered” (226).
From this perspective, Furbys’ physical design plays a role in encouraging nurturance. Such design decisions are reinforced by marketing strategies that encourage Furbys to be viewed in a particular way. As a marketing tool, Harris (1992) argues that:
cuteness has become essential in the marketplace in that advertisers have learned that consumers will “adopt” products that create, often in their packaging alone, an aura of motherlessness, ostracism, and melancholy, the silent desperation of the lost puppy dog clamoring to be befriended - namely, to be bought. (179)
Positioning Furbys as friendly was also important to encouraging a positive bond with a caregiver. The history, or back story, that Furbys were given in the instruction manual was designed to convey their kind, non-threatening nature. Although alive and unpredictable, it was crucial that Furbys were not frightening. As imaginary living creatures, the origin of Furbys required explaining: “some had suggested positioning Furby as an alien, but that seemed too foreign and frightening for little girls. By May, the thinking was that Furbies live in the clouds – more angelic, less threatening” (Kirsner). In creating this story, Furby’s producers both endeared the object to consumers by making it seem friendly and inquisitive, and avoided associations to its mass-produced, factory origins.
Monstrous and Cute Furbys
Across fan fiction, academic texts, and media coverage there is a tendency to describe what Furbys look like by stringing together several animals and objects. Furbys have been referred to as a “mechanized ball of synthetic hair that is part penguin, part owl and part kitten” (Steinberg), a “cross between a hamster and a bird…” (Lawson & Chesney 34), and “ “owl-like in appearance, with large bat-like ears and two large white eyes with small, reddish-pink pupils” (ChaosInsanity), to highlight only a few.
The ambiguous appearance of electronic companions is often a strategic decision made by the designer to avoid biases towards specific animals or forms, making the companion easier to accept as “real” or “alive” (Shibata 1753). Furbys are arguably evidence of this strategy and appear to be deliberately unfamiliar. However, the assemblage, and exaggeration, of parts that describes Furbys also conjures much older associations: the world of monsters in gothic literature. Notice the similarities between the above attempts to describe what Furbys looks like, and a historical description of monsters:
early monsters are frequently constructed out of ill-assorted parts, like the griffin, with the head and wings of an eagle combined with the body and paws of a lion. Alternatively, they are incomplete, lacking essential parts, or, like the mythological hydra with its many heads, grotesquely excessive. (Punter & Byron 263)
Cohen (6) argues that, metaphorically, because of their strange visual assembly, monsters are displaced beings “whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration. And so the monster is dangerous, a form suspended between forms that threatens to smash distinctions.” Therefore, to call something a monster is also to call it confusing and unfamiliar.
Notice in the following fan fiction example how comparing Furby to an owl makes it strange, and there seems to be uncertainty around what Furbys are, and where they fit in the natural order:
The first thing Heero noticed was that a 'Furby' appeared to be a childes toy, shaped to resemble a mutated owl. With fur instead of feathers, no wings, two large ears and comical cat paws set at the bottom of its pudding like form. Its face was devoid of fuzz with a yellow plastic beak and too large eyes that gave it the appearance of it being addicted to speed [sic]. (Kontradiction)
Here is a character unfamiliar with Furbys, describing its appearance by relating it to animal parts. Whether Furbys are cute or monstrous is contentious, particularly in fan fictions where they have been given additional capabilities like working limbs and extra appendages that make them less helpless. Furbys’ lack, or diminution of parts, and exaggeration of others, fits the description of cuteness, as well as their sole reliance on caregivers to be fed, entertained, and transported. If viewed as animals, Furbys appear physically limited.
Kinsella (1995) finds that a sense of disability is important to the cute aesthetic:
stubby arms, no fingers, no mouths, huge heads, massive eyes – which can hide no private thoughts from the viewer – nothing between their legs, pot bellies, swollen legs or pigeon feet – if they have feet at all. Cute things can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t in fact do anything at all for themselves because they are physically handicapped. (236)
Exploring the line between cute and monstrous, Brzozowska-Brywczynska argues that it is this sense of physical disability that distinguishes the two similar aesthetics. “It is the disempowering feeling of pity and sympathy […] that deprives a monster of his monstrosity” (218). The descriptions of Furbys in fan fiction suggest that they transition between the two, contingent on how they are received by certain characters, and the abilities they are given by the author. In some cases it is the overwhelming threat the Furby poses that extinguishes feelings of care. In the following two excerpts that the revealing of threatening behaviour shifts the perception of Furby from cute to monstrous in ‘When Furbies Attack’ (Kellyofthemidnightdawn):
“These guys are so cute,” she moved the Furby so that it was within inches of Elliot's face and positioned it so that what were apparently the Furby's lips came into contact with his cheek “See,” she smiled widely “He likes you.”
[…] Olivia's breath caught in her throat as she found herself backing up towards the door. She kept her eyes on the little yellow monster in front of her as her hand slowly reached for the door knob. This was just too freaky, she wanted away from this thing.
The Furby that was originally called cute becomes a monster when it violently threatens the protagonist, Olivia.
The shifting of Furbys between cute and monstrous is a topic of argument in ‘InuYasha vs the Demon Furbie’ (Lioness of Dreams). The character Kagome attempts to explain a Furby to Inuyasha, who views the object as a demon:
That is a toy called a Furbie. It's a thing we humans call “CUTE”. See, it talks and says cute things and we give it hugs! (Lioness of Dreams)
A recurrent theme in the Inuyasha (Takahashi) anime is the generational divide between Kagome and Inuyasha. Set in feudal-era Japan, Kagome is transported there from modern-day Tokyo after falling into a well. The above line of dialogue reinforces the relative newness, and cultural specificity, of cute aesthetics, which according to Kinsella (1995 220) became increasingly popular throughout the 1980s and 90s. In Inuyasha’s world, where demons and monsters are a fixture of everyday life, the Furby appearance shifts from cute to monstrous.
Furbys as Gremlins
During the height of the original 1998 Furby’s public exposure and popularity, several news articles referred to Furby as “the five-inch gremlin” (Steinberg) and “a furry, gremlin-looking creature” (Del Vecchio 88). More recently, in a review of the 2012 Furby release, one commenter exclaimed: “These things actually look scary! Like blue gremlins!” (KillaRizzay). Following the release of the original Furbys, Hasbro collaborated with the film’s merchandising team to release Interactive ‘Gizmo’ Furbys (image 2).
Image 2: Hasbro 1999 Interactive Gizmo (photo credit: Author)
Furbys’ likeness to gremlins offers another perspective on the tension between cute and monstrous aesthetics that is contingent on the creature’s behaviour. The connection between Furbys and gremlins embodies a sense of mistrust, because the film Gremlins focuses on the monsters that dwell within the seemingly harmless and endearing mogwai/gremlin creatures. Catastrophic events unfold after they are cared for improperly. Gremlins, and by association Furbys, may appear cute or harmless, but this story tells that there is something darker beneath the surface. The creatures in Gremlins are introduced as mogwai, and in Chinese folklore the mogwai or mogui is a demon (Zhang, 1999). The pop culture gremlin embodied in the film, then, is cute and demonic, depending on how it is treated. Like a gremlin, a Furby’s personality is supposed to be a reflection of the care it receives.
Transformation is a common theme of Gremlins and also Furby, where it is central to the sense of “aliveness” the product works to create. Furbys become “wiser” as time goes on, transitioning through “life stages” as they “learn” about their surroundings. As we learn from their origin story, Furbys jumped from their home in the clouds in order to see and explore the world firsthand (Tiger Electronics 2). Because Furbys are susceptible to their environment, they come with rules on how they must be cared for, and the consequences if this is ignored. Without attention and “food”, a Furby will become unresponsive and even ill: “If you allow me to get sick, soon I will not want to play and will not respond to anything but feeding” (Tiger Electronics 6). In Gremlins, improper care manifests in an abrupt transition from cute to monstrous:
Gizmo’s strokeable fur is transformed into a wet, scaly integument, while the vacant portholes of its eyes (the most important facial feature of the cute thing, giving us free access to its soul and ensuring its total structability, its incapacity to hold back anything in reserve) become diabolical slits hiding a lurking intelligence, just as its dainty paws metamorphose into talons and its pretty puckered lips into enormous Cheshire grimaces with full sets of sharp incisors. (Harris 185–186)
In the Naruto (Kishimoto) fan fiction ‘Orochimaru's World Famous New Year's Eve Party’ (dead drifter), while there is no explicit mention of Gremlins, the Furby undergoes the physical transformation that appears in the films. The Furby, named Sasuke, presumably after the Naruto antagonist Sasuke, and hinting at its untrustworthy nature, undergoes a transformation that mimics that of Gremlins: when water is poured on the Furby, boils appear and fall from its back, each growing into another Furby. Also, after feeding the Furby, it lays eggs:
Apparently, it's not a good idea to feed Furbies chips. Why? Because they make weird cocoon eggs and transform into… something. (ch. 5)
This sequence of events follows the Gremlins movie structure, in which cute and furry Gizmo, after being exposed to water and fed after midnight, “begins to reproduce, laying eggs that enter a larval stage in repulsive cocoons covered in viscous membranes” (Harris 185). Harris also reminds that the appearance of gremlins comes with understandings of how they should be treated:
Whereas cute things have clean, sensuous surfaces that remain intact and unpenetrated […] the anti-cute Gremlins are constantly being squished and disembowelled, their entrails spilling out into the open, as they explode in microwaves and run through paper shredders and blenders. (Harris 186)
The Furbys in ‘Orochimaru's World Famous New Year's Eve Party’ meet a similar end:
Kuro Furby whined as his brain was smashed in. One of its eyes popped out and rolled across the floor. (dead drifter ch. 6)
A horde of mischievous Furbys are violently dispatched, including the original Furby that was lovingly cared for.
This paper has explored examples from online culture in which different cultural references clash and merge to explore artefacts such as Furby, and the complexities of design, such as the use of ambiguously mammalian, and cute, aesthetics in an effort to encourage positive attachment. Fan fiction, as a subversive practice, offers valuable critiques of Furby that are imaginative and speculative, providing creative responses to experiences with Furbys, but also opening up potential for what electronic companions could become. In particular, the use of narrative demonstrates that cuteness is an unstable aesthetic that is culturally contingent and very much tied to behaviour. As above examples demonstrate, Furbys can move between cute, friendly, helpless, threatening, monstrous, and strange in one story. Cute Furbys became monstrous when they were described as an assemblage of disparate parts, made physically capable and aggressive, and affected by their environment or external stimulus.
Cultural associations, such as gremlins, also influence how an electronic animal is received and treated, often troubling the visions of designers and marketers who seek to present friendly, nonthreatening, and accommodating companions. These diverse readings are valuable in understanding how companionable technologies are received, especially if they continue to be developed and made commercially available, and if cuteness is to be used as means of encouraging positive attachment.
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