Bugs Bunny: “Eh, What’s Up, Doc?”
Dissecting the Rabbit
by Sarah Tam
(c) 2008, Sarah Tam
Smug, cocky and playfully aggressive are only some characteristics that describe Warner Bros. famous rabbit, Bugs Bunny (Sandler 32). Though most characters, real life or drawn, go through many changes to keep up with audience appeal, Bugs however, has always tried to stay the same. Rebelling against what is considered normal; Bugs Bunny represented freedom of expression through comedy for entertainment but also for the underdogs in life. Always the hero, Bugs Bunny triumphs over his enemies and instills life facts and knowledge to kids and adults alike which makes him a significant pop icon. This essay will analyze who Bugs Bunny is, what he stands for and the impact he has made in the past 60 years.
A Short Biography
Bugs Bunny first appeared in cartoons between 1938 and 1939, the first cartoon being “Porky’s Hare Hunt.” But it wasn’t until 1940 that he joined the cast of “Looney Tunes” in the cartoon “A Wild Hare” that he truly started to take form (Lenburg 54). Using his classic line, “Eh, What’s up, Doc?” Bugs floored audiences with his Brooklyn accent and smart-aleck remarks. His first rivalry was with Elmer Fudd, a hunter who always seems to be hunting rabbits. As Bugs became more famous, other rivalries emerged such as Yosemite Sam who was a pint-size Westerner and Daffy Duck who was always jealous of Bugs stealing the spotlight from him (Lenburg 55).
Semiotics and Bugs Bunny
Bugs Bunny has been featured in over 150 cartoons and yet hasn’t changed a lot in appearance since the 1940’s (Sandler 32). On a basic semiotics level, Bugs’ physical appearance can be described as a grey and white rabbit, with long ears, big feet and large front teeth with a Brooklyn accent. On a higher level, Bugs is considered to have a woodland underdog status and enjoys playing games and tricks on his enemies (Sandler 34). A cartoon character, Bugs encounters many comedic situations and has become a staple in many children’s everyday lives. As we delve deeper we find that Bugs Bunny is a symbol for rebellion and is often referred to or characterized as an anarchist. In almost every cartoon the furry rabbit would be involved in violence to save himself from being hunted or to win a battle. Since he is seen as the hero, and the hero never loses, the viewer can assume that the other character in the cartoon is automatically the villain. Other cartoons such as “Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers” (1992) have Bugs Bunny making satirical jabs at corporations and Warner Bros. management. In this cartoon, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam and Daffy Duck turn into “new and improved” characters. They are seen as pale stereotypes of their former selves with robot like behaviour. When Bugs Bunny discovers them and finds out they come from the planet Nudnick he declares, “It’s a corporate takeover” (Sandler 16).
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
In most of the cartoons Bugs Bunny stars in, the most evident level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that can be discussed is the safety and security level. Bugs Bunny is always trying to save his life from someone who wants to harm or kill him such as his long time rival Elmer Fudd. In doing so, Bugs’ enemies also end up trying to save their lives as Bugs Bunny retaliates in violent ways. Another level that can be discussed is the physiological level. Most of the conflicts that occur in the cartoons usually start because of basic needs (food, sleep, shelter, etc). An example of this would be in the cartoon “Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid” (July 11, 1942) (McCall 103). In this cartoon a mother buzzard tells her children to find food and in this case, they find Bugs Bunny. Bugs runs for his life with comedic results when he realizes that he is going to be food.
The physiological level as well as the safety and security level are the two basic needs that are used to capture viewer’s attention when watching Bugs Bunny. Bugs also seems to know that he is the hero in the cartoons and won’t lose. This boosts his esteem and confidence when dealing with his enemies but also allows viewers to maintain confidence in Bugs to defeat all of his foes in an entertaining way all the time.
Cartoons are a great way to reach a mass amount of people; both children and adults watch it. Bugs Bunny has become a household name and with it innocent, childlike values or messages are embedded in it. Before, when Bugs Bunny first started there were a lot of graphic images of violence with guns, explosives etc. Since then there have been many complaints about the violence and now, scenes have been cut such as gun play, ingesting motor fuel and drinking alcohol (Sandler 12). This made the cartoon a more acceptable television show for children. However the violence was never the main message in the cartoons. That’s just what some people perceived it as when they watched it. Marshall McLuhan would have noticed that the bigger problem was that the media was using Bugs Bunny as a way to influence their viewers especially their younger viewers. Before, Bugs Bunny used to stand up for the “little guy” and was used to boost morale in war times. Now, it’s all about merchandising and advertising and very little to do about the comedy or the underlying messages of good versus evil.
Cartoons are on television which is an extension of our creative mind. We rely on its creativity that we slowly lose our ability to create something unique. Bugs Bunny is an extension of the creative mind but also of the expressive voice. Bugs’ personality and character let him do anything his heart (or his creators) desired. He often voiced his opinions and talked back to whomever he wanted.
Bugs Bunny Is a Racist
In World War II, the cartoon industry unified and created many propaganda films and cartoons satirizing the war with obvious anti-German and anti-Japanese overtones. One cartoon about the war bond shortage called “Bugs Bunny’s Bond Rally” (1943) shows Bugs, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig urging Americans to buy war bonds (Lenburg 7). Another cartoon, “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nip” (April 22, 1944) (McCall 103) features Bugs Bunny calling a Japanese soldier “slant eyes” and “monkey face” (Sandler 12). To many people in war times, Bugs Bunny was a racist. To children, he’s a hero. In the political world, he is a danger and is seen as a symbol to fight for what you believe is right using any means necessary.
Bugs Bunny also crosses another line. In some of his cartoons, Bugs dresses in drag to distract the enemy. Although this is seen as funny, this embeds the idea that one gender should be laughed at if dressed in the other genders clothes. Challenging the different categories of masculinity and femininity has been a common form of exploitation and profit in Hollywood (Sandler 163). To people who cross dress they may feel that Bugs Bunny is exploiting their life style and making a mockery of it.
The Branding of Bugs Bunny
Bugs Bunny has been famous for quite some time but lost a little bit of momentum in the early 90’s. When Time Warner and Warner Bros. merged, their main goals became very corporate and started to merchandise their cartoon characters (Sandler 172). One of the biggest marketing ploys was “Space Jam”. This movie starred Michael Jordan as well as Bugs Bunny and introduced new Looney Tune characters. There were toys, T-shirts, cookie jars and gallery cels that featured Bugs Bunny as well as the rest of the Looney Tune gang (Sandler 188). However, this image of Bugs Bunny isn’t one of rebellion, but of a safe toy to give to your children. Bugs Bunny has become a kids stuffed animal, something that can be won in a carnival game, which is safe and doesn’t hold any deeper meaning. Bugs Bunny is now equivalent to Sesame Street or Barney.
What Bugs Bunny Means To Me
I still remember when I was 7 years old, my mother was making rice crispy squares and I was in the living room watching Bugs Bunny. It was so picturesque; almost out of a movie. Bugs Bunny meant a lot to me. As a child I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of television so it meant freedom every time I turned on the television to watch it. I was also a very creative kid; I used to draw, paint, play piano and dance. I found all the different situations that Bugs got into interesting as well as entertaining. I do remember laughing at the violence in the cartoons and although I can say that it hasn’t affected me, I’m sure studies can show that watching Bugs Bunny can increase violence in youth. It’s a shame to see how far we’ll go to have control over everything. I especially love the “Golden Age” of Hollywood; it was always so magical to me. The old Bugs Bunny cartoons had the same magical feeling. You never felt like you were at home anymore and everything was different. Now, I find cartoons don’t have any meaning and it almost seems like they’ve made it less-intelligent and more about making sounds and using lots of colour to keep children entertained.
Throughout this essay I have shown how Bugs Bunny started out as a rebel and turned into a marketing gimmick. Outspoken and almost a nomad, Bugs proved that you can be as innocent and frail as a rabbit, but if you have confidence, determination, and a creative mind you can accomplish anything. Bugs has made a definite impact on adults and children and although his image is a little tarnished, the memory of what he stood for still remains.
So here’s to Bugs. Thanks for keeping us entertained and trying to never change that smug, cocky, playfully aggressive icon we know and love.
“Bugs Bunny Nips The Nip.” Bugs 2001 Marathon. Comedy Network. CTV, Ontario. June 2001.
Lenburg, Jeff. The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoon. New York: Facts On File, 1991.
McCall, Douglas L. Film Cartoons. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc, 1998.
Sandler, Kevin S. Reading The Rabbit. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998.