Why Are Rabbits Cute, but Also Kind of Spooky?
Roger Rabbit, Bugs Bunny, the Hare from The Tortoise and the Hare … throughout media, the rabbit/bunny and members of the Leporidae family have occupied a very cool space of being a trickster, a symbol of fertility, and also existing as the ultimate prey. With both The Favourite and Us using rabbits as part of their imagery (not a spoiler, no worries), it had me wonder why it is that rabbits exist as both cute pets, but also sort of haunting creatures, depending on the framing.
As a piece in Nylon explains, “Bunnies have an interesting history on film, having embodied everything from the idea of innocence and goodness (Thumper in Bambi), to the destruction of said innocence (that boiled bunny in Fatal Attraction), to pure evil wrapped up in a cuddly package (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), to the looming specter of death (Donnie Darko).”
In The Favourite, the bunnies that Queen Anne keeps are there as a representation of the deaths of her many children, a practice Sarah finds “macabre,” and at the time the movie is set, rabbits were seen as either pests or food. In Western culture, rabbits have mostly come to represent fertility/rebirth and are associated with spring and Easter. This is because, as the saying goes, rabbits reproduce a lot and very quickly, because they reach breeding age around seven months, and then it’s all bunny babies all the time.
The connection to innocence with the rabbit mostly comes from the fact that they are helpless little fluffy turds. Unlike hares, they are born blind and without fur, so they spend their early youth pretty much dependent on their mother for everything. In the wild, rabbits, due to being a victim of everything, have evolved to sleep with their eyes open so that any sudden movements can awaken them.
Juxtaposed with that innocence is also the implication of a short, vulnerable life. The average age of an eastern cottontail, for instance, is less than one year. Even domesticated rabbits are quick to startle and are prone to heart attacks. Hell, picking up a rabbit the wrong way can trigger the panic response of attacking you.
Being a bunny is a hard life, which is why we are so affected seeing Abigail in The Favourite stepping on one. It can’t do anything to fight back and is truly helpless.
Out of what I can only assume is pity for these small creatures, mythology and folklore have transformed the rabbit into a trickster figure. Bugs Bunny may be the most well known modern version of it, but characters like Brer Rabbit started the American vision of rabbits as witty and crafty in order to survive.
Brer Rabbit comes out of African trickster figures, particularly the hare. The trickster is dangerous because they use their perceived innocence to take advantage of others for no reason other than boredom.
As the 1972 film Night of the Rabbits tried to highlight, the creepy aspects about rabbits is their numbers, the ability to keep reproducing to an overwhelming amount, but also the white rabbit. The white rabbit, not just in Alice in Wonderland, is a particularly creepy visual because of its white fur against its red eyes that look slightly demonic.
Rabbits have also been portrayed as familiars, as symbols of death, or symbols of coming destruction. Just as they symbolize fertility that doesn’t come from the joys of sex, it comes from evolving to deal with a very short, cruel life in which fear of death has literally been programmed into their being. It’s the irony of the rabbit’s foot being lucky, but not for the rabbit.
So, when you look at the fluffy white bunny, which do you see first? Its soft white fur or its red eyes?
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