Did Tennessee Williams See Bugs Bunny Kiss Elmer Fudd?

by Michael Abernethy

14 June 2011


Where Would We Be, Without Bugs and Tennessee?

It’s possible that Williams saw his first male-on-male kiss in popular culture before he conceived the early drafts of A Streetcar Named Desire. That is, if he attended a matinee in 1940 and caught the Warner’s Brothers’ cartoon “A Wild Hare”. It was here that Bugs Bunny first kissed Elmer Fudd. Over the next few years, Bugs continually seduced Elmer, as well as other foes. It may seem a stretch to connect the intellectual Williams with a slapstick cartoon character, but both pushed sexual boundaries and allowed viewers to consider sexuality outside of the conventional heteronormative values prevalent under the restrictive Hayes Code.

With Bugs, sexual ambiguity is a weapon, used to disarm opponents; his frequent kissing of same gender characters invariably causes those characters to become disoriented long enough for Bugs to escape or place into action his next plan for revenge. Thus, the same-sex kiss has no intimate purpose. On several occasions, Bugs shows unbridled lust for a female character, but by and large, his world consists of other males. This, of course, is not a consequence of Bug’s own choosing, but one thrust upon him by cartoonist Chuck Jones, but it nonetheless creates an all-male society in which Bugs must provide the feminine yin to the macho yang of Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and the Coyote. 

This femininity manifests not only in Bug’s kisses, but also in his numerous appearances in drag. Here he becomes seductress, argues Sam Abel in the Journal of Popular Culture (“The Rabbit in Drag: Camp and Gender Construction in the American Animated Cartoon”, Winter 1995), noting that Bugs is “not only pretending to be a woman, but a highly sexualized woman”. Yet this seduction is just one reason for Bugs to do drag; he also uses it to humiliate his opponent, who suddenly finds himself in drag, or to surprise the audience, usually through a sneak peek of Bugs in women’s clothes, for which he feigns modesty.

Abel offers other clues to Bugs’ sexual ambiguity: his language and demeanor. Bugs repeated use of “gay” lingo, such as the often used “Oh, Mary”, implies knowledge of gay culture. When combined with effeminate behavior, this creates a distinctly male character presenting himself as womanly. For example, in both “Hair Raising Hare” (1946) and “Water, Water, Every Hare” (1952), Bugs pretends to be a beautician to foil the aggressiveness of a large orange monster, making such comments as “My stars. If an innnteresting monster can’t have an innnteresting hairdo, then I don’t know what things are coming to.” Although not in drag, Bugs behavior and vocal quality make it clear that he has assumed a female persona.

This is not to suggest that Bugs is gay, simply that he has little respect for sexual roles. “On the one hand,” Abel notes, “he is a thoroughly masculine character, even butch. Yet he can play the entire range of gendered behaviors, without anyone calling his masculinity into question.” Not unlike Tennessee Williams, it seems.

This similarity is an unusual footnote in LGBT history, but the significance is far more note-worthy. During a time period when LGBT characters were rarely seen on stage or screen, or even in public, Bugs and Tennessee pressed sexual issues that allowed LGBT characters to be visible. Because their works were seen by millions of people who had never (knowingly) met a homosexual or cross-dresser, they opened doorways for countless playwrights and screenwriters to take the next step; ripping off the veil of hidden sexuality to openly expose the lives of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans persons.  It was a first step in allowing the mass public to understand and accept LGBT persons—and cartoon characters—via media presentation.

So, as you wave your flags and attend your marches this Gay Pride month, raise a cheer for Bugs and Tennessee, while you’re at it. Without them, we might never have learned how conflicted Karofsky is, or that Southerlyn is a lesbian. 

Cheers, Queers, to CNN’s Don Lemon, who came out as gay. Lemon’s coming out not only provides another high-profile example of an LGBT person who excels at his/her job, it also gives young gay black men a role model, something young gay black men could use more of. Also, Cheers to Rick Welt, President and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, for coming out, providing a positive role model for gay athletes.

Here’s Mud in Your Eye to the rash of pro athletes and coaches who have been hurling homophobic slurs at whoever has pissed them off. The obligatory and clearly insincere “Gee, I’m sorry” routine has worn thin.

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