Red and Blue Bunny
A shorthand or simplification becomes a crippling stereotype when you forget that you should compress the messiness of social reality only to make a provisional or argumentative point. We’re all on the verge of doing that with the red-state, blue-state simplification, and I indict myself in that accusation.
20th and 21st Century societies all around the world have made generative cultural and social use of urban-rural or modern-traditional dichotomies. These divisions are quintessentially “invented” and shifting. They are and have been mobile, transitory premises for persuasive dialogues, social movements, cultural conflicts.
The terms of the red-state, blue-state opposition that is so much a part of contemporary American public discourse are at times novel and at times draw from from very deep wells. The gravity and intensity of the division we imagine we now face, however, contrasts pretty sharply with the lighter, more humorous tone accompanying similar tropes in the past.
I was really struck by this while watching Bugs Bunny on the new collection of classic Warner Brothers cartoon shorts.
Is Bugs a red-stater or a blue-stater? If you watch him torment a naked Elmer Fudd in “The Big Snooze” with surreal images of jazz and modernism, followed by forcibly cross-dressing Elmer and subjecting him to sexual pursuit from some zoot-suited wolves, you’d have to conclude that Bugs Bunny is about as blue-state as you can get. In general, he always appears that way when he’s paired up with Elmer or Yosemite Sam. But then watch Bugs tormenting two French chefs in “French Rarebit” (which concludes with Bugs looking askance at the cuisine on offer and remarking, “Personally, I prefer hamburger”) or opera singer Giovanni Jones in “Long-Haired Hare” and you get a different sense of Bugs as the quintessential salt-of-the-earth ordinary-guy American at home in the red-state universe.
You get the sense that Bugs is the same kind of character in either manifestation, the same sort of fundamentally American wise-ass trickster. It’s clear that he can be either city sophisticate or country cousin, that he’s AC/DC on the blue-red dichotomy, comfortable in either world. The sensibility of the Warner cartoons as a whole echoes Bugs in this respect, and aligns with the flexibility and general appeal of some of the pop sources and sensibilities they tended to draw upon (say, for example, Foghorn Leghorn’s citation of Kenny Delmar’s southern-fried “Senator Claghorn” on the Fred Allen radio program).
Some of the substance of what we call red-state and blue-state traits are there in this older popular culture, but much more fluidly, much less contentiously, with a much greater awareness of the fact that most Americans had ties to both worlds and were not especially dedicated to either.
Is that less true now? I don’t think so. At a conference in New Orleans this weekend, where I had the good fortune to meet up with John Holbo. I wandered out into the French Quarter around 5 pm on Saturday. Bourbon Street (which I found pretty tedious) seems on the surface to be a totally blue-state world. Drinking, sex of all flavors, hedonism. But I feel really sure that at least some, and maybe most, of the people walking up and down the street by early evening were “red-staters”, and quite a few of them Bush voters. Just about everybody seemed to be there to have a good time, though I'm sure lots of people were also thinking (me the agnostic included) that if God decides to destroy the world again, maybe this will be one of the places he has in mind. This is part of what we're tending to forget at the moment, that most human beings can hold two or more contradictory premises in their consciousness at once and feel no pressing need to resolve that contradiction.
I had dinner at the bar of a nice little restaurant away from Bourbon Street. Initially I found myself talking to an engineer who was a strong Bush voter, then when he left, to several other Bush voters and avowed “red-state” conservatives who also happened to be at the bar. It was a fine, civil, interesting conversation. I don’t think anybody changed opinions, but it wasn’t a conversation between Mars and Venus.
The divisions are real, in many ways. I continue to believe that the stakes are high, and the general mistake that has been made by Bush supporters will have and already has had very bad consequences for America and the world. Despite that, I also want to remember that like Bugs, none of us actually inhabits the confines of the simplifications that we are all coming dangerously close to accepting as sociological truths rather than provisional insights.
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Timothy James Burke - 11/18/2004
Daffy is tough to place. In the Chuck Jones Daffy v. Bush trilogy (Rabbit Season etc.) and elsewhere, Daffy doesn't really inhabit a cultural or social archetype: he's just Bugs' straight man, and most of the jokes are "in-house" jokes about the internal culture of show business, where Daffy is the ambitious but legitimately second-tier star who resents the top-tier one. He's kind of a pre-Hank Kingsley Hank Kingsley in that vein.
When Daffy is on his own, he's pretty protean, but at least one of his roles is the slick-talking con man whose schemes backfire on him.
Porky has even less of an identity in this sense--he can be a sensible ordinary guy, a farmer, a rube, a generic middle-class person, or someone else's sidekick or foil. Which sort of explains why 90% of Porky-dominated shorts are bland and unengaging.
Where things get really complicated is figuring out the archetypical signalling behind the Coyote...
Julie A Hofmann - 11/18/2004
Um ... Yoiks, and away?
Russell Arben Fox - 11/18/2004
Nice post, Tim. I've gotten such a kick out of the Looney Tunes movie that we realy ought to pick up a collection of Warner Bros. shorts. Though I'd have to say that, while Bugs is definitely at home playing wise-guy whether in the country or the city, Daffy (when they weren't playing him as simply nuts) strikes me as, generally speaking, a stereotype of your typical neurotic, scheming, petty bureaucrat-cum-new-class-intellectual. I don't think they ever portrayed him as a hayseed doofus being outsmarted by the more sophisticated Bugs; rather, it was his pretended sophistication which out did him. But maybe I'm wrong. (How to read "Duck Amuck" for example?)
David Lion Salmanson - 11/17/2004
Plus, there's the whole "What's Opera Doc?" thing which, I believe, is still used to teach the Ring cycle to certain music students at a certain liberal arts college. And I assume, at same said college, the WWII Bugs is still making an appearance at the US Social History seminar dinner, no?
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