Watching the trailer for the new Peter Rabbit adaptation, you may ask yourself how we as a species arrived at this point. A cheeky chappy bunny with the voice of an irritating Brit stares directly into the camera and delivers the veiled threat that “this is only the beginning”. He is wrong however; it is not the beginning, because decades worth of cinematic rabbits have led us to this momentous release. To understand the significance of James Corden’s bunny, we must pull his leporine forbears out of the historical hat and examine their symbolic significance. What one finds is that the rabbit occupies an uncomfortable space between individual transgression and social conformity.
First, it is important to go to the literary source: Beatrix Potter’s children’s book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The protagonist is a mischievous youth who steals vegetables from Farmer McGregor. Caught red-handed by the farmer, Peter barely escapes with his life and receives karmic punishment for his theft in the form of illness. Potter provides her young readers with the thrills of rule-breaking while still reminding them that a moral debt must be repaid.
Bugs Bunny – perhaps the most famous cinematic rabbit – is similar to Peter Rabbit in that they are both plucky underdogs to an often human foe. However, unlike Peter, Bugs is always on the defensive – he must be provoked in order to fight against his aggressors Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam. This, as well as the irreverent Looney Tunes ethos, means that there is no moralising of Bugs Bunny’s actions. The audience is there to cheer him on. Bugs’ penchant for cross-dressing also marks him as a transgressive figure in a pre-Stonewall era when many states had laws against cross-dressing. Such legislation allowed police to brutalise queer communities across America. Furthermore, one can read an anti-capitalist message in the 1945 cartoon Hare-Conditioned, which opens with Bugs working in the beating heart of consumer excess: a department store. Conflict arises when the manager “transfers” him to the taxidermy department to be stuffed, and Bugs’ fight to survive becomes a proletarian struggle against exploitation.
However, such readings of Bugs Bunny as a social transgressor must be tempered by a clear-eyed, holistic analysis of the character. Firstly, any queer potential in Bugs Bunny’s gender performances must be framed by Lonny Tunes’ vaudevillian roots. Cross-dressing acts had been immensely popular on the American vaudeville stage since the 19th century, and, far from subverting norms, they “reinscribed the gender boundaries that the law policed”. Gender non-conformity would be criminalised on the street, but celebrated onstage. Nevertheless, as a queer trans viewer in 2018, I still get a thrill from watching Bugs Bunny using his feminine wiles.
What is impossible to ignore, however, is that for all his potentially empowering subversions, Bugs Bunny has been repeatedly used as a racist propaganda tool over the years. This is most evident in the 1944 wartime propaganda short Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, where, in addition to the racial slur in the title, our hero calls Japanese people “monkey face” and “slant-eyes” in service to Uncle Sam. Even cartoons that weren’t made for propaganda purposes reflected the racism of the Jim Crow era. Perhaps the most egregious example is the 1941 short All This and Rabbit Stew, where the Elmer Fudd figure is replaced by a parody of Stepin Fetchit, which was the stage name of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. As a white writer I don’t feel qualified to discuss his legacy as a successful black actor in the 1930s, but the racism of Rabbit Stew is obvious as the black character is made the butt of every gag.
The figure of Bugs Bunny as a potentially transgressive underdog is therefore undermined by the racism of some of his shorts, and by his use as a state propaganda tool. In 1990, Bugs puts away the lipstick to be introduced as a cop in a White House approved anti-drug special. The smart-aleck rebel becoming a screw reflects an uneasy relationship between rebellion and conformity that dogs cinematic rabbits.
The line between chaos and order is explored in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, where the live-action world co-exists with the anarchic animations of Toon society. Set during Bugs’ heyday of 1947, the film’s titular cartoon character is more clown than rabbit, but his relationship to the live-action Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) acts as an exploration of prejudice. Toons like Roger are a metaphor for marginalised groups in mid-20th century America. They are segregated to Toon Town and can only achieve success and visibility through show business. This inequality is made clear in the nightclub scene where all the patrons are live-action, while the staff and performers are animated. As a persecuted minority, Roger’s existence is a transgression to the anthropocentric society of the film, and he faces execution without trial by the film’s villain for a crime he did not commit. On a more personal level, Eddie’s repeated yanking of Roger’s long ears is framed as a micro-aggression.
Even though Roger is a rabbit whose very existence rebels against the fabric of our real word, the film itself is problematic because it uses fantasy elements to establish an allegory for discrimination. This narrative technique often essentialises minorities, reinforces stereotypes, and unmoors various forms of discrimination from their historic roots, thereby muddying an audience’s understanding of it. Furthermore, while the main draw of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is the ground-breaking technical achievement of incorporating animated elements in a live-action world, the narrative presents a vision of discrimination that favours the privileged. The bigoted Eddie Valiant is the main character, and he is the prism through which the audience sees the film. His arc is about overcoming his prejudice towards Toons, and so the film is less about the Toons’ marginalisation. This tends to be why the historically white male dominated mainstream film industry struggles to portray discrimination in a way that resonates: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is for a white audience, Philadelphia is for a straight audience, and The Danish Girl is for a cis audience.
Roger Rabbit may be a transgressive element in a live-action world, but the concept of animation as an allegory for racism only serves to ‘other’ marginalised groups in service to a white audience and therefore reinforces the status quo.
The 1978 animated adaptation of Watership Down paints a picture of the English countryside that hews closer to reality in its complicated relationship between transgression and conformity. Unlike Bugs and Roger, the majority of the cast are anatomically accurate rabbits. They are only anthropomorphised through their ability to speak English. The main thrust of the plot is rebellious as the main cast are led by Hazel (John Hurt) to break away from their warren to form a new, better society in the form of Watership Down.
Yet the politics of Watership Down are never adequately explained beyond a vague notion of freedom, and they are rather defined against other warrens. It is not the warren of Cowslip, which is an assimilationist nightmare where a human farmer offers food and protection on the condition that the rabbits offer an occasional sacrifice. Neither is it the totalitarian state of General Wormwort. What is obvious is that Hazel and his friends see doe rabbits as a vital resource for the warren. The sexism of the film therefore undermines the narrative about breaking away from old social structures and creating a fairer society.
Thus far, the focus of cinematic rabbits has been on animation, but one live-action example would be Rabbits. A 2002 series of web videos by David Lynch, Rabbits characteristically defies audience attempts at interpretation. A static camera lingers on a dimly lit living room belonging to a family of humanoid rabbits. The premise is a twisted inversion of the American sitcom. The comfort food of television is utterly defamiliarized, violating the sense of safety the genre normally provides. Canned studio laughter punctuates the tension at arbitrary moments and causes the rabbits to freeze. A glacial pace, coupled with a static camera leave the audience in agonising anticipation. If the previous examples of cinematic rabbits offer tantalising glimpses of transgression only to fall back onto normative routines, then Lynch’s Rabbits does the opposite. The familiar heteronormative comforts that family sitcoms provide are turned on their heads, exposing the horrors of conformity. The aforementioned laughter of a studio audience is exposed as a threatening command for us to buy into the messaging of a culture that constantly hammers home the necessity of the nuclear family structure.
Which brings us at last to the 2018 Peter Rabbit, a bog-standard family film, designed by commission to extract money from desperate parents. Now, historically I’ve had a bizarre fascination with this kind of film, but that interest is intensified by the casting of James Corden as Peter Rabbit. As far as I can tell there is nothing consciously Lynchian about Peter Rabbit, so it’s safe to bet that it will not dissect the family film the way Rabbits did the sitcom. However, the star persona of James Corden at this particular moment in time gives Peter Rabbit a weird sort of relevance.
It’s not a stretch to say we are living in strange times, and plenty of culture writers strain to place films within the fever dream that is the Trump era. Corden may just be the key to our topsy turvy world where experts are treated with suspicion, and saying dumb shit makes you a noble crusader for free speech. Corden is a mediocre white actor who is entirely too loud. In the wake of his success with Gavin and Stacy, Corden outstayed his welcome in the UK with dreck such as Lesbian Vampire Killers. He then went quiet for a bit before recently resurfacing in America as a late-night talk show host. In some ways Corden is the sequel to Russell Brand: an annoying British celebrity whose career takes them to Hollywood where they voice a CGI rabbit.
Throughout this piece I have discussed how cinematic rabbits have tread the line between transgression and conformity. With this is in mind, Corden is perfectly cast as a Peter Rabbit, who hosts an anarchic, yet U-rated house party. This is the guy who got nominated for Best Ally at the British LGBT awards (why is that category even a thing) for doing the bare minimum. At the same time, he sees no problem kissing the former Press Secretary to an anti-LGBT administration, then waving it away with a weak half apology. The Sean Spicer kiss is a seemingly transgressive act that, in fact, normalises a fascist, making this Corden bunny the perfect cinematic rabbit for our age.