Peter Frank & Delia Cabral
Rabbits have been important cultural symbols in the myths, folklore, art, and literature of people around the world. In a variety of cultures rabbits have been linked to sexuality, female sexuality and fertility in particular, and were often cited in love spells, as aphrodisiacs, and to aid in women’s fertility. In eastern cultures as well as in Meso-America, ancient Europe, the Arab cultures, and throughout Africa the rabbit is also linked to the moon, which itself is linked to fertility and childbearing, with lunar goddesses commonly represented with, or dressed as, a rabbit or hare. Thanks to the rabbit's fertility, rabbits are also used in myths and rituals to signify rebirth, which explains the rabbit's role as a symbol of Easter.
With the advent of Christianity, rabbits lost their sacred associations in the Western world and because of their links to sexuality and to pagan rituals were often demonized, becoming a common witch's familiar in Medieval Europe. Women who were accused of witchcraft, in fact, were often “seen” in the guise of rabbits, leading to court trials and executions.
Rabbits are also found in the folklore and mythology of people in other areas of the world, and especially among societies such as those in Africa and pre-colonial America. Rabbits play a part in the explanatory tales of many African and Native American peoples, and in the “Just So” stories maintained by enslaved Africans. These stories are used to teach important moral lessons to children, imparting positive values such as humility, bravery, humor, and the value of quick wits over size and strength.
Representations of rabbits are still found in contemporary society, although largely stripped of their ancient symbolic meanings. One of the most common ways that humans relate to rabbits today is not through real rabbits. Rather, the enormous variety of rabbit-themed household kitsch – kitchenware, calendars, garden ornaments, figurines, clothing – testifies to the importance of rabbit imagery in modern society, particularly to women, recalling the pre-Christian link between rabbits and women (a link also seen in the modern Playboy bunny).
Images of rabbits are also found in great abundance in the lives of children, in their literature, on their clothing, on their toys, and in the décor of their rooms. Rabbits seem to be (to those who have never lived with one) soft, sweet, childish and cuddly, making them obvious choices to inhabit a child's world. But the point can also be made that representations of rabbits are commonly found among children because of their ancient associations with fertility and childbearing.
Some of the most popular literary renditions of rabbits have been inspired by real rabbits. For example, Beatrix Potter, late nineteenth century author and artist of the Peter Rabbit series of children's books, based her characters on her own pet rabbits, Benjamin and Peter. Richard Adams, author of the classic book Watership Down, on the other hand, based his realistic portrayal of rabbits on naturalist Ronald Lockley’s The Private Life of Rabbits. Watership Down, a tale of a group of rabbits forced to find a new warren when developers destroy their home. (Unlike Beatrix Potter, Adams was no rabbit lover, advocating the killing of rabbits when necessary.)
In Japanese, the term “kawaii” ( かわいい) means cuteness, and is generally used to refer to popular culture, including people who gain their attractiveness from their childish traits, their fashions, and animal cartoon characters like Hello Kitty, Domo-kun, and Totoro. Some animals are only “kawaii” if they are small, juvenile, or dressed up and/or doing something silly. Rabbits are kawaii all of the time, thanks to the retention of juvenile traits (big ears and eyes, soft cuddly bodies, soft fluffy tails) in adult (and especially dwarf) rabbits.
But even before the kawaii craze emerged in 1980s Japan, rabbits were already firmly associated with cuteness in the West. As noted, rabbits have been long associated with women and children, as they have been symbolically connected to fertility, female sexuality, and birth and rebirth for thousands of years. Furthermore, women are most often tasked with raising rabbits and other small livestock. Since rabbits have become popular as pets, they have been considered “children’s pets.”
Thanks to these associations, rabbits are one of the most popular animals to be found in the form of children’s toys and in children’s literature in the West (as well as in many Asian countries). From Peter Rabbit to the Velveteen Rabbit to cartoon depictions such as Oswald, Thumper, Bugs Bunny, and the White Rabbit of Alice in Wonderland, rabbits have long been popular characters for children, and are often stand-ins for children in the fairy tales and literature of the young. Some of these characters, like Bugs Bunny, have ancient histories, as Bugs is simply the modern incarnation of Br’er Rabbit, a character in the Uncle Remus stories and a reworking of the African and African-American slave narratives featuring a trickster rabbit.
It’s not just children – and young Japanese women – who think rabbits are cute and who collect things with their image on them. For years, adult women, too, have been buying and selling rabbit collectibles—bunny slippers, plush rabbits, baby clothes and toys, rabbit wind socks, rabbit weather vanes, rabbit lawn ornaments, rabbit cream pitchers, rabbit book ends, rabbit clocks, rabbit wind chimes, rabbit musical figurines, rabbit oven mitts, rabbit sweatshirts, rabbit aprons, rabbit earrings, rabbit dolls, rabbit stationery and much more. In fact, coins, artwork, tapestries and other items featuring rabbits have been found dating back thousands of years. While these earlier pieces probably featured rabbits because of the rabbit’s symbolic importance, today’s toys, clothes, and collectibles are much more about cuteness, and are largely divorced from either the animal itself or sacred history of the rabbit in religion. Such items, when collected by people who have no contact with real rabbits, may not necessarily be good for real-life rabbits.
When humans’ only contact with a species is with its representations, those images become the only source of knowledge about that species, which means that the knowledge base can be very shaky. As Steve Baker notes in Picturing the Beast,
[M]uch of our understanding of human identity and our thinking about the living animal reflects—and may even be the rather direct result of—the diverse uses to which the concept of the animal is put in popular culture, regardless of how bizarre or banal some of these uses seem. Any understanding of the animal, and of what the animal means to us, will be informed by and inseparable from our knowledge of its cultural representation. Culture shapes our reading of animals just as much as animals shape our reading of culture. (Steve Baker, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001, p. 4)
In the case of rabbits, the dominant images produced by the collectibles culture are those associated with women and children. That is, the cute beings depicted in bunny collectibles belong in a domestic, idealized female realm in which women, rabbits and children are innocent, sweet, passive and forever frozen in a juvenile state.