November 28, 2011

Becoming Bugs Bunny*

Happy Hardaway was born in Brooklyn in 1940 under unassuming circumstances.

Like his older colleague, sometime antagonist and lifetime friend Daffy Duck, his youth was wild, turbulent. No one, including his creators could have predicted he would become an American icon, an international star with more than 175 films to his credit, an Academy Award winner, and the acme of calm, collected cool.

Every so-called self-help guru on the planet will tell you to “believe in yourself” and every self-appointed relationship “expert” preaches the value of confidence, but exactly how does one acquire it? How do you go from being shy, maladjusted and socially awkward to suave, debonaire and sophisticated?

You become Bugs Bunny.

Beginning in the spring of 1939, the hare who would be king appeared in a number of shorts where, despite his character being largely undefined, he became wildly popular. In the summer of 1940, he starred in “A Wild Hare”  assumed a pseudonym that was simultaneously tough yet cuddly, and “Bugs Bunny” was born.

In his first of many co-stars with Elmer Fudd, many of the hallmarks we recognize about him are already present: the carrots, the white gloves, the signature tagline “What’s up, Doc?,” and above all, the ability to utterly infuriate an opponent. But this is not the Bugs we know and love. He’s brash. He’s obnoxious. He’s annoying and LOUD. He’s melodramatic.

And his acting skills are questionable, at best.

Like many of the Greatest Generation, Bugs was called into military service. His civic duty began in 1942 when he made a vaudevillian request to buy war bonds. In 1943, he joined the Marines and was appointed an Honorary Master Sergeant. A wrong turn at Albuquerque landed  him in Nazi Germany instead of Las Vegas, where he met (and humiliated) Hitler.

Bugs returned from the end of the Second World War a changed rabbit. He’d become self-aware. He realizes his world exists inside a cartoon, and frequently breaks through the fourth wall. It’s the beginning of his evolution.

Veteran Bugs encountered all manner of antagonists, assembling an impressive rogues gallery. Hunters, cowboys, martians, witches, monsters, mobsters, djinn, wrestlers, pirates and even The Yankees opposed him. None of them stood a chance. His  understanding of cartoon physics made him indomitable: he could alter reality at will. If provoked, Bugs acts with the petulance of an immature Godling. He is cruel and sadistic, frequently torturing his adversaries.

This abuse of power reaches its pinnacle in Duck Amuck, 1953, where he demonstrates his mastery over time and space by changing (in rapid succession) the scenery, props, music and even the actual frames in which Daffy Duck appears.


To his credit, Daffy shows his acuity as an entertainer, moving with ease from one characterization to another. He’s a Musketeer. He’s a farmer. He sings and plays ukulele. He’s a cowboy, a sailor, an airplane pilot.

It is Bugs at his most unsympathetic.

Something changed in Bugs after this over-the-top display of superiority. His bravado is replaced with genuine self-assurance. He’s got nothing left to prove. He knows someone’s writing the script; he’s done it himself. He’s unconcerned with the outcome. You can point a double-barrel shotgun in his face and he doesn’t act; he reacts, casually, with grace and humor. From this point on he uses his omnipotence rarely and then judiciously. He’s outgrown the need to overpower his opponents; he realizes he can simply out-smart them.

This Bugs is kinder, gentler. He’s got some experience under his belt and he’s learned from it. He’s unassuming, gracious, and self-effacing. He reeks of unstated power and oozes confidence.

This newfound aura of insouciance manifests in the classic Duck Season/Rabbit Season Trilogy, 1958. Displaying a mastery of pronouns (and cross-dressing), he deceives Daffy into convincing Elmer to shoot him, repeatedly.


Incidentally, unlike Wile E. Coyote, Elmer has no desire to eat either Bugs or Daffy; he’s a vegetarian and hunts simply for sport.

It’s worth noting that Daffy Duck also served in WW2, going as far as smashing Hitler in the head with an oversized mallet. He also comes home a changed duck, albeit not in a good way. He’s bitter. He’s arrogant. He’s massively insecure and jealous of the affection slathered over Bugs.

Although he’s older and has similar experiences, he never matures. Whereas Bugs becomes self-aware, Daffy remains self-conscious. He’s as talented as Bugs and equally smart; maybe smarter. Sadly, unlike Bugs he craves attention, acceptance, and validation. We pity Daffy for the same reasons we admire Bugs.

Never is this more evident than in Show Biz Bugs, 1957. Although their performances are identical, the audience can smell Daffy’s desperation, and they despise him for it. Daffy is so overly ingratiating, so desperate for approval, he commits a stunt of self-destruction so heinous it is banned from American television. The live audience loves him for it, but (un)fortunately, suicide is an act that cannot be repeated.

The stark differences drawn over the decades between these anthropomorphic cartoon animals are a valuable–and entertaining–lesson in building self-confidence and the science of attraction. The process of becoming self-aware takes time. All of your life experience, good and bad, contributes to your becoming a whole individual. There is no skipping ahead, no fast-forward, there are no short cuts or quick fixes. How you process your experience determines whether it remains knowledge or transforms into wisdom.

Wisdom: the practical application of knowledge acquired.

The evolution Bugs experiences is circular, as he goes from being unaware to self-aware and finally back to unaware. He grows into a person who genuinely cares for others and is mildly detached from concern over his own well being. The confidence he exudes isn’t manufactured and so doesn’t feel disingenuous. He’s unfazed by mundane concerns and unflappable in the face of danger. He’s not looking for trouble but he’s not going to let anyone screw with him, or his friends.

We trust in Bugs because he trusts in himself. He accepts himself fully for who he is, huge buck teeth and all. He’s sexy because he doesn’t care if you think he’s sexy.

Unlike Daffy, Bugs stopped trying to be THE man and decided being A man was sufficient. Effortless cool, the difference between Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, and a defining characteristic of attractiveness.

© Jackie Summers 2011

* This originally appeared on the Good Men Project on 7.6.2011

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