“Of course you know, this means war.” – Bugs Bunny
The trickster archetype is an important figure in mythology and folklore which always embodies chaos, change, and rebellion. These concepts are typically viewed as negative, but rarely are the tricksters themselves portrayed as malevolent or evil. Tricksters merely help break down the barriers that stand in way of progress. Human beings have known since the time of myth that chaos and change are often necessary in order to improve as a species; Prometheus stole fire from the gods, gave it to mankind, and in doing so rebelled against Zeus. According to Greek myth, without his rebellion then humanity would be stuck in the stone-age. Today, the barriers of traditionalism and nationalism are being erected once again, both in America and abroad. To stand up to the often charismatic authoritarians, progressives need a role model to emulate; they need a figure who stands up for the weak, fights back against the powerful, and always eats his veggies. Bugs Bunny is the ideal trickster in these days of ever more radical conservatism and this is evidenced by his consistent themes of environmental conservation, progressive sexuality, and strong anti-fascism. In the age of Trump, Bugs Bunny is the perfect modern Prometheus.
Despite all of his modern sensibilities, Bugs Bunny has a surprisingly long history. In 1940, Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. released a short animated film featuring a grey rabbit who repeatedly outsmarted a bumbling bald hunter, titled A Wild Hare. While still unnamed and unrefined, that grey rabbit had all of the traits of the modern Bugs Bunny: a quick wit, a love of carrots, and that signature wise-guy, New York City attitude. We owe that character, and many others, to the animation team working out of what was known as “Termite Terrace” at Warner Bros. studios under producer Leon Schlesinger. Ultimately, Bugs Bunny was the product of a collaborative effort over the span of decades, but the people most credited with his creation are the directors Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Isadore “Fritz” Freleng. The three men each directed different shorts starring Bugs and were the ones most involved in designing his personality and character traits. Also involved in his creation were animators like Ben Hardaway, Bob Clampett, and Robert McKimson, all of whom were responsible for refining Bugs’ visual design at one time or another. Vocal artist Mel Blanc provided Bugs’ signature Brooklyn accent as well as the voices for many other iconic characters from the studio until the time of his death. These few men were single-handedly, and against their own expectations, responsible for some of the most influential works in the field of animation.
The trickster archetype has been present in mythology and folklore for thousands of years and Bugs happens to meet all of the qualifications to join their ranks. Typically, tricksters act as agents of change and upheaval; flipping the accepted order of things on its head and making room for substantial cultural progress through trickery and deceit. There are also strong themes of rebellion, invention, and the disregarding of boundaries in most trickster stories. Many popular examples of the trickster even share a race with Bugs; Brer Rabbit, the Native American and African figures of Hare, and Peter Cottontail are all in the scientific family of Leporidae. In nearly every appearance, Bugs Bunny exhibits these trickster traits; constantly outwitting his opponents, scoffing at cultural boundaries, and thumbing his nose at authority figures. His creators nearly go so far as to acknowledge the inspiration in the third appearance of Bugs Bunny, Tortoise Beats Hare, which is a direct retelling of the well-known folktale “The Tortoise and the Hare,” wherein Bugs makes a rare appearance as the antagonist. The connection between Bugs and the history of the mythological trickster figure is so strong that the evidence is nearly irrefutable.
There is a surprising lack of any substantial critical literature examining Bugs Bunny’s theme of environmental activism, but it is clearly evident in many of his cartoons. As early as the 35th Bugs Bunny cartoon, Hare Remover, environmental exploitation had become a theme among Bugs’ antagonists. In the short, Elmer Fudd plays the role of a scientist who has run out of animals to use as experimental test subjects. This motivates him to hunt rabbits and in turn, leads to his confrontation with Bugs, which Bugs ultimately wins. Another example is in the 105th short, No Parking Hare, wherein Bugs’ home is under threat by a construction crew working on a new highway. This leads to an extended battle between our hero and a construction worker, ending again with Bugs’ victory. Even in his very first official appearance in A Wild Hare, Bugs takes special care to not put a family of birds in danger while trying to trick Elmer Fudd. The acts of the environmentally-exploitative antagonists are always framed as wrong and they are subsequently always beaten by our environmentally-conscious hero. The audience is meant to sympathize with Bugs and take his side in the philosophical argument because his side always wins. This stands in direct opposition to the well-documented climate change denial practiced by Donald Trump and the people who support him. Bugs Bunny, if he were real, would be considered an eco-terrorist by the Trump Administration.
The progressive sexuality of the Wascally Wabbit is heavily featured in both the animated shorts and in academic critique. In contrast to his environmentalism, Bugs’ sexuality is perhaps the most-written-about aspect of his character. He has been called a gay icon in multiple academic articles and the evidence seems to support that description. Bugs has a long-running history of cross-dressing, kissing men, and fulfilling traditionally feminine gender roles. As early as the first appearance of the character in A Wild Hare, Bugs was planting kisses on the lips of Elmer Fudd and doing ballet poses. Sam Abel writes, “When Bugs cross-dresses, we see a positive role model who is not tied to traditional patterns of gendered behavior, who not only gets away with gender transgression, but who triumphs through it.” Bugs achieves victory through his destruction of social barriers. It is this triumph-through-rebellion that the left should seek to emulate. Do not mistake this as a call for all progressives to start cross-dressing. Instead, it is a call for the left to break down the societal norms that serve to impede all of humanity. Restrictive gender roles are one of the biggest barriers to progress that conservatives have erected and Bugs Bunny was tailor-made to break through them.
Bugs also happens to be one of America’s first anti-fascist folk heroes. He starred in two infamous short animated propaganda films and while he was not the first cartoon character to do so, he was perhaps the most popular. The twenty-third Bugs cartoon, regrettably titled Bugs Nips the Nips, begins with Bugs being attacked by racist caricatures of Japanese soldiers and a sumo wrestler. The short ends with Bugs handing out dozens of grenade-filled ice cream bars while spouting out a stream of racial slurs. The strong anti-fascist message of this short may have been effective at the time of its release in 1944, but the extreme racism has led to this episode being deservedly suppressed by Warner Bros. and the mass media. There are things about Bugs that should not be emulated and his racism is certainly one of them. The twenty-ninth Bugs cartoon, Herr Meets Hare, was released in 1945 and depicts Bugs Bunny repeatedly outwitting Hermann Göring until he is finally captured and brought before Hitler. In the end, Bugs adopts the guise of Joseph Stalin, perhaps the most powerful leftist of his time, in order to terrify the two Nazis. Joe Sommerlad writes, “In fearlessly mocking the dictators then bestriding the world stage, puncturing their ballooning pomposity, the likes of Bugs, Donald and Popeye reassured the public that they had nothing to fear from such delusional tyrants.” It is time for progressives to stand up and fill that same role; to show the general public that they have nothing to fear from the rhetoric of the extreme right. The left needs to be more like Bugs by mocking, tricking, and making fools of nationalists and extreme conservatives. Bugs wasn’t afraid of punching Nazis when he had to; we shouldn’t be either.
An interesting pattern begins to emerge when making a direct comparison between Donald Trump and one of the biggest enemies of Bugs Bunny: Yosemite Sam. The 84th Bugs short, Ballot Box Bunny, showcases a number of disturbing characteristics shared between Yosemite Sam’s portrayal of a corrupt politician and the current President of the United States. In the opening lines, Yosemite Sam spouts off falsely populist rhetoric, claiming he is, “…for the little people,” while also promising to “…rid this country of every last rabbit.” In response, Bugs chooses to engage in civil disobedience and nonviolent protest. He is immediately shot at by the gun-obsessed Sam. This is extremely similar to Donald Trump’s repeated calls for violence against those who speak out against him. Time and time again, Trump has supported violence against protesters and taken steps to see them discredited. In a fictional world where intelligent animals exist, such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam’s use of the word “varmint” quickly becomes a racial slur and a call to rid the country of rabbits becomes tantamount to an ethnic cleansing. Similarly, one could replace the word “rabbit” with “Mexican” or “Muslim” and Sam’s opening speech becomes nearly identical to many of those given by Donald Trump. The dehumanizing language used about immigrants in tweets sent by Trump, that claimed that “migrants infest the country” and are “animals,” can be directly compared to Sam’s use of “varmint” as a tool of dehumanization. If Yosemite Sam had come out to the polls in 2016, he would have shown up wearing a Make America Great Again hat.
Bugs Bunny is the perfect trickster figure for 2018 because the majority of the existing power structures are highly conservative in nature and he embodies everything conservatives seem to hate. His gender-bending, Nazi-punching, environmentally-conscious persona should be emulated on every college campus and at every counter-protest. The left needs more silly disguises, more falling anvils, and more exploding cigars because when nationalists come to power–then, of course, this means war.
All Bugs Bunny shorts on Archive.org: https://archive.org/details/CompleteBugsBunny
Washington Post article on Bugs and his history: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2015/07/27/happy-75th-bugs-bunny-how-animations-1st-great-brain-trust-created-a-legend/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6c81c6ef5155
The Rabbit in Drag: Camp and Gender Construction in the American Animated Cartoon, Sam Abel. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.csn.edu/docview/195363910/fulltextPDF/216616F2478D4DB2PQ/1?accountid=27953
Article from The Independent on Bugs and Nazis: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/bugs-bunny-80th-birthday-hermann-goring-world-war-cartoons-warner-brothers-a8329001.html
“Trickster” by Keith Cunningham: http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.library.csn.edu/ps/retrieve.do?tabID=&userGroupName=las55353&inPS=true&prodId=GVRL&contentSet=GALE&docId=GALE|CX1764100298
NYT list of everything trump has insulted on Twitter: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/28/upshot/donald-trump-twitter-insults.html
TV interview with Chuck Jones abt a whole buncha stuff: https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/chuck-jones
Crash Course Mythology Trickster Youtube series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RW1ChiWyiZQ
The Rabbit as a Trickster. Margaret P. Baker: https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.csn.edu/docview/38957212?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo
“Is Bugs Bunny a Jew?” Israeli newspaper article discussing a lecture by film expert David Yehuda Stern: https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/is-bugs-bunny-a-jew-1.5304269