“I was just terribly, terribly frightened and you’re so big and so strong,” purrs a fully dragged up Bugs Bunny to a kindly gentleman, moments after he defends Bugs’ honour. Taken from 1949 short Mississippi Hare, this is just one instance of Bugs, giggly and flirtatious, donning a gown and wig to seduce male characters for quite literally no reason. As is tradition, after Bugs’ dress rips, exposing his suspiciously-shaped tail and furry legs, the gentleman is so horrified he throws himself into the nearest river. But why does Bugs do it? Because, according to his co-creator Chuck Jones, he just likes it.
Jones discussed the character’s lifelong penchant for crossdressing in a radio interview in 1996 with KLOS. “At the time, if a man dressed up like a woman, there’s no transvestite,” he said. “Nobody even knew the term. It was just funny. They wouldn’t think that the man was turning into something ‘inappropriate’.” Amid the recent tidal wave of bigotry against queer people, it’s both depressing and fascinating that right-wingers have attacked drag in the name of protecting children, when every single western child has consumed hours upon hours of Bugs Bunny in a dress and red lip. For many, cartoons have always served as an early introduction to gender variance – and no one has batted an eyelid.
Seeing characters experiment with their gender identity, something that can be fundamentally affirming for queer people, has become more common in recent years. But while the surge in mainstream drag, packaged under inclusivity, diversity and “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”, has undoubtedly been a net positive for gender non-conforming people, it’s worth remembering that cartoons got there first.
From The Lion King’s Timon doing the hula-hula to Pleakley from Lilo and Stitch’s iconic fuck-ass bob, animation has always worked as a lawless space, where gender is as malleable and nonsensical as how so many queer and gender non-conforming people see it. There’s a reason a lot of queer people have anime profile pictures online – it’s a world that’s simultaneously both dismissive and an exaggeration of gender.
Crossdressing cartoon characters have always massaged something in my brain and touched on something deeply silly. I think it’s because it’s difficult to even class it as crossdressing or drag. Bugs Bunny disguised as a sexy Viking lady bewitching Elmer Fudd isn’t just funny because Bugs is in drag, it’s funny because it suggests that Bugs Bunny, an animated rabbit, is a man performing femininity. It’s never even clear if the men who fall for Bugs in drag think he’s a human woman or a female rabbit.
Chuck Jones’ claim that Bugs Bunny predates the concept of “transvestite” isn’t true, but it’s a funny justification for how the character became a card-carrying drag queen influencing millions for decades. Even RuPaul has said that Bugs was her first introduction to the artform. Drag is often reduced to the incongruity of “a man dressed up like a woman”, but what has become acknowledged in recent years is the thrill it gives its onlookers. We love Bugs in drag because he feels himself every time he puts a wig on.
Crossdressing has always existed in every form of comedy, from Shakespeare to Carry On, but in cartoons it takes on a different form. It’s no longer about drag as a type of pantomime but as something that joyously rewrites the rules of the body – be that Wile E. Coyote having a piano crush him and his teeth replaced by keys, or Scooby-Doo in a ballgown seducing the monster. Switching between selves, in gender and sexuality, is so intrinsic to queerness that the shapeshifting perversity in cartoons becomes something to latch onto.
It has horny undertones, too. The surface-level harmlessness of cartoons can often belie deeper fetishistic elements; if you attempt to source a supercut of Bugs’ moments in drag on YouTube you’ll instead find “BUGS BUNNY’S Sexiest Moments in Drag”. And more often than not, the horniness is the point. In almost every drag scene, Bugs is depicted as unbearably lustful while male characters suddenly stumble over themselves at the sight of a heavily rouged rabbit in a ringlet wig. Is Elmer Fudd a chaser? It’s more than likely.
There’s even an entire episode of Pokémon that’s been scrubbed from the Internet because the gigantic fake boobs worn by a disguised James (of Team Rocket) were ultimately considered too horny for young audiences. The animators were clearly striving for a classic man-in-a-dress set-up (Team Rocket take part in a bikini contest for nefarious ends), but it “accidentally” ended up being so pornographic the entire episode was banned from broadcast. It’s reminiscent of the recent downfall of the Green M&M, whose sex appeal as the chocolate’s lone female spokesperson got so powerful Mars, Incorporated had to formally de-yassify her.
In explicitly adult cartoons like Family Guy and American Dad, characters like Stewie Griffin and Roger wear drag simply because they want to. They no longer need childish shenanigans as justification for their crossdressing; it’s less of a joke and more of an intrinsic part of their character. It’s unsurprising that their pure, unbridled cuntiness has led the pair to becoming constant memes, to the point where Roger was even formally anointed a “drag icon” by Drag Race queens Trixie Mattel and Trinity the Tuck in May.
The blurring of gender within animation has no doubt trans’d an entire generation. Queer people have always gravitated towards gender variance in cartoons because it has unwittingly given so many the blueprint for how to live their lives. As bigots continue to loudly advocate for hard and fast gender rules, it can be comforting to lean into worlds where nobody gives a shit. Be more Bugs. As RuPaul once tweeted, “I live 4 that bitch!”