WARNING: This post contains discussion of sexual violence.
One of the most famous, influential, and ubiquitous cartoons is the wide collection of animated shorts released by Warner Bros. Studios, commonly known as Looney Tunes, in the early to mid 20th century. In particular, the most popular character of these cartoons became Bugs Bunny, whose voice, mannerisms, and comedic routines became ingrained in our collective consciousness. One such routine is Bugs Bunny’s penchant for cross-dressing in order to pull one over on his adversary. I want to talk a bit more about this.
First of all, however progressive and forward-thinking directors like Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, or Friz Freleng were in how they revolutionized animation and conceived cartoon characters, they were just as retrograde in terms of representation. Amidst the US’s involvement of World War II, the Looney Tunes cartoons were among the most jingoistic and racist of the war propaganda released by any of the animation studios. What was considered “progress” for Warner Bros. cartoons at the time was Bob Clampett casting black voice actors and black musicians for this cartoon.
In terms of Looney Tunes’ representation of women, they are almost nonexistent. The only recurring female characters I can think in the classic run of Looney Tunes cartoons are Granny and Witch Hazel, neither of which appeared in very many cartoons. Most of the female characters that appeared in any of these cartoons were one-off characters whose only function in the cartoon was this.
Going back to Bugs Bunny, there are two things I want say about him. The first one is, does anybody else find it curious that Bugs Bunny dresses as a woman more often than actual women appear in any of these cartoons? The second and more insidious implication about that is considering that women’s roles in the world of Looney Tunes typically don’t amount to more than objects of lust for the male characters, what does it mean when a male character like Bugs pretends to be a woman? The way the gag always goes is that the adversary (usually Elmer Fudd) sees Bugs in drag and is immediately smitten by him. Bugs proceeds to flirt with the adversary and gets him all nice and worked up over this “beautiful woman” reciprocating his advances. Soon enough, the adversary discovers that the woman was Bugs the whole time and in a rage, starts chasing him, usually with gun in hand shooting it off. With transgender visibility more prevalent than it has ever been in the past, how do gags like this come off?
Now I know that there’s a world of difference between a transgender person and a person that cross-dresses, but in a society such as ours that enforces very rigid gender binaries, there is no difference as far as it’s concerned. Even though Bugs Bunny never identified as transgender, his cross-dressing gag nonetheless has a reverberating effect on the transgender community. The world of Looney Tunes is a microcosm of how our society has been constructed; a world where anyone that isn’t a cisgender, heterosexual white man exists in relation to those men. Our society encourages men to view cisgender women as objects to lust after and to view transgender women as weird men that just want to pull one over on them for kicks.
Most tend to blame the retrograde politics of Looney Tunes as simply an unenlightened product of its time. But the change in trans representation has changed very little since those cartoons were made. Certain ideas just don’t die easy.
(notice at the very end of the Family Guy video, Brian makes a comparison of trans women to sex offenders)
Getting back to Looney Tunes, I want to discuss one of the major influences of it, particularly of the cartoons directed by Chuck Jones.
This is Krazy Kat, which was a comic strip that ran in newspapers from 1913 to 1944. The foundation of Krazy Kat was built on a running gag about a love triangle between the titular character, Ignatz Mouse, and Offissa Pupp. The set-ups of the humor mined from this running gag and the broad physical comedy would serve as a blueprint to how the Looney Tunes directors would conceive their characters, scenarios, and individual gags. Another aspect of Krazy Kat that possibly played an influence on Bugs Bunny’s cross-dressing routine is the running gag involving Krazy’s gender. Krazy is usually identified as female, but that is likely due to heteronormative views reconciling Krazy’s attraction to the male Ignatz and the male Offissa Pupp’s attraction to Krazy. Krazy isn’t trans (as far as I know) either; their gender is left ambiguous. Krazy responds to both female and male pronouns and some comics refer to Krazy as “she” while others refer to them as “he”. Certain comics will pick a gender for Krazy depending on what would be funnier in the particular situation or sometimes a comic will pick a gender completely arbitrarily. Krazy’s gender ambiguity confuses some of the other characters as well, but unlike in Looney Tunes, Krazy does not use their gender to play tricks on others. Offissa Pupp loves Krazy regardless of how they choose to identify. Ignatz’s dislike for Krazy is not based on their gender. Does Krazy Kat present as positive a portrayal of someone outside of the rigid gender binary as it seems? Well…..perhaps more so than Looney Tunes, but that’s not a hard thing to do. But overall, I don’t think I would say so.
The running gag in Krazy Kat is that Ignatz expresses his antipathy towards Krazy by hurling a brick to their head. Krazy interprets this as a sign of affection and looks forward to being hit in the head by one of Ignatz’s bricks. This may tacitly reinforce how “weird” and “other” people who don’t fall within the rigid gender binary are if one such character views violence inflicted upon them as affection. This may also tacitly justify violence against those that don’t adhere to that binary. Sure Ignatz is usually hauled off to jail if Offissa Pupp catches him hurling a brick at Krazy, but he’s right back on the streets in the next comic and very often he seems to think a little time in jail is worth it if he succeeds in walloping Krazy upside the head. It’s all just fun and games in the respective worlds of Krazy Kat and Looney Tunes, but there are real-life ramifications to the ideas they both seem to be inadvertently perpetuating.
This is Danny Bonaduce. He is a former child star famous for playing one of the children in The Partridge Family. In 1991, he was arrested for beating up and robbing a trans prostitute. He later explained how the scenario went down.
“When I picked him up, I thought he was a girl. I picked him up, he got in my car. As soon as he got in and the dome light hit him, it was obvious. He wasn’t a good transvestite. If he was a good transvestite, I might never had known. I was wasted. He gets in the car and I said, ‘Oh, sorry, wrong car.’ And he says, ‘Well you took me off my corner, give me $40.00.’ I said ‘Dude, wrong car, hop out!’ This went on for 6 or 7 minutes and he still wouldn’t get out. So I get out of the car, opened his door and pulled him out of the car. But when I did, I see he’s this huge guy, about 220 pounds. I weighed 150 pounds! I attacked him first, not because I wanted to, I just thought I was going to have to and I’m too small to take the punishment from a 220-pound man. If he had hit first, I would have gone down and stayed down. So I attacked him and it turned into a fight”.
This is just one out of numerous examples of the violence inflicted upon transgender people. For a more in-depth account of the type of abuse transgender people go through in our society from the perspective of a member of the oppressed party, here is a video of YouTube blogger Kat Blaque providing a first-person account.
Rape is something that our society that generally isn’t taken seriously enough regardless of who the victim is, but Kat Blaque specifically outlines how our society further marginalizes trans women that are rape survivors. As she says, a common reaction that she got and that other trans women that are murdered or sexually assaulted get is “well y’know, they need to stop fooling these men, they need to stop fooling these men into having gay relationships with them”. Because of attitudes like this, she never bothered to even report her rape to authorities.
So what does it really mean that we’re invited to laugh at Elmer Fudd chase and shoot at Bugs Bunny when he finds out he isn’t actually an attractive women showing interest in him?