Rampaging rabbit furries. Credit: DENIS LOVROVIC/AFP/ Getty

March 11, 2021   5 mins

We’re hovering on the cusp of spring. The air is warmer, green shoots are growing, birds are building their nests. It’s the beginning of that season in which animals and humans alike feel the sap rising.

The idea that we’re meant to be at it like rabbits at this time of year goes all the way back to ancient myth. And yet we’re not. We can blame it partly on lockdown, which effectively banned sex between anyone not cohabiting. But in truth, this unhappy situation hasn’t so much prised horny young people apart, as exaggerated a divide that was already growing.

Covid hasn’t just heightened economic problems; it’s leaned heavily on existing social fractures – including what has been called the “sex recession”. And a fresh recent front in the ever-expanding culture war – concerning rabbits – sheds some light on that.

Lola Bunny was the extremely pneumatic cartoon star of the 1996 sport fantasy Space Jam, who wore a crop top and high-riding shorts that left little to the imagination. She was very much on the same page as The Caramel Bunny, a wide-hipped, long-eyelashed cartoon bunny from the mid-1980s, who was voted one of the top three sexiest cartoons of all time.

Between then and now, though, something changed radically. Lola has been reincarnated as a considerably less sexy bunny for the Space Jam sequel. The new film’s director, Malcolm D. Lee, has said the previous design was “not politically correct”. He added: “This is a kids’ movie, why is she in a crop top? It just felt unnecessary, but at the same time there’s a long history of that in cartoons. This is 2021. It’s important to reflect the authenticity of strong, capable female characters.”

The redesign has prompted a level of culture-war reaction out of all proportion to the seeming triviality of redrawing a 25-year-old cartoon character. The two sides have lined up in their standard formations, with Slate laughing at the conservatives for complaining, while millennial men who loved Lola the first time round clocked up millions of YouTube views slamming the change.

But Malcolm D. Lee is right to say the style of joyful, fecund horniness so richly symbolised by rabbits has fallen radically out of fashion. The old Lola represented the high point of a sex bunny trend that kicked off with Bugs Bunny in a horned helmet and pigtails, impersonating a seductive Valkyrie in 1957, hopped through the Sixties with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Bunnies, took in the ultimate cartoon bombshell Jessica Rabbit, and climaxed in the 1990s, with the Rampant Rabbit.

Since that high point, both sexy rabbits and the politics of sex have become steadily weirder and more antagonistic. There is a grim story to tell here about the future of desire in the post-pandemic era, and it’s one that can be traced through rabbit iconography: right from the sacred rabbits of Greek love goddess Aphrodite and the hare-card pre-Christian fertility goddess, Eostre, through to the Lola Bunny redesign. And it was in the convergence of commerce, sex and rabbits in the Rampant Rabbit, where things really started falling apart.

The Rampant Rabbit, an elaborate vibrator, caused shockwaves when it appeared — for no one talked much about masturbation in the 1990s. This Rabbit was an event, made famous by a Sex and the City storyline in 1998 in which Charlotte buys one and then refuses to leave her apartment because she’s too busy using it.

The image this presented, of limitless female pleasure liberated from the inconvenient necessity of sex with an actual man, resonated with all those late-teen and university-age girls born to second-wave feminist mothers and raised in the 12 years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. A popular joke at the time asked: “What’s that useless flap of skin called at the end of a penis?” and the punchline is: “A man.”

Women who took charge of their own orgasms with a Rampant Rabbit also embraced an aggressively sexualised “ladette” version of feminism, that framed behaving like men as sexual empowerment. Somehow being ogled was also, supposedly, empowering; Sirin Kale recently described how, when she started university in 2007, “every fresher had their photo taken; the pictures were pinned to a bulletin board […] older male students scrawled on the photographs of the girls, rating our attractiveness.” Kale looks back on those events now as negative, but I was there in the 00s and being ogled was supposed to be something women enjoyed.

But it didn’t take long for the downsides of this all-you-can-eat 00s buffet of sexuality to become apparent — especially for the women elevated as its figureheads. For with the arrival of mass social media, the machine rapidly became voracious, and devoured many of its most iconic figures. Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan are perhaps the quintessential icons of Noughties display-everything female sexuality. And Lohan’s mental health issues were a gossip-column staple for most of the mid-noughties, while a recent documentary has detailed the psychological abuse Spears endured in the public eye during this period. Small wonder, then, that Spears’s interpretation of the iconic sexy bunny took a darkly sadomasochistic turn, with shiny black PVC bunny ears and chained wrists.

Girls born since the turn of the millennium, though, have taken a new approach to the digital age’s relentless appetite for sexy young flesh, that’s paradoxically both less and more sexualised — or, perhaps, more resigned to being sexualised but a lot more controlling about who gets to do so than the “ladettes”.

For this generation, the sexy rabbit has both become a virtual costume that can be donned with the touch of a button, in the form of Snapchat bunny ears filters. In the explosion of “furry” subculture, it’s also become increasingly conflated with an individual’s own carefully curated online “self-identification”, powered by a so-called Tumblr feminism hyper-focused on the politics of image and identity.

It’s no surprise these girls do sex, and sexiness, in a bleakly net-native style. On the one hand, they’re hyper-politicised about sexualisation in images of girlhood, as well you might be if you’d grown up in a porn-saturated digital culture; surrounded from childhood by the pressure to self-represent, to control their representations and perfect themselves for representation. Such girls might well bridle at the bouncing 1996 depiction of Lola Bunny — after all, she just looks like every other image they’re tormented by on Instagram every day.

Equally, though, it’s not that these girls are categorically averse to sexiness. For as Tumblr feminism also asserts: “Sex work is work”. If you’re going to be ogled all the time by everyone, everywhere, online and off, why not monetise it? The informal objectification Sirin Kale experienced in 2007 is out; instead, in 2021, universities hold “Sex Week” events in which porn stars give presentations on how to make money charging people to cop an eyeful of you on OnlyFans.

Perhaps, then, the millennial men raging at the Lola Bunny redesign do have a point after all. But it’s not a culture war objection — more an existential wail at the ever widening gulf between the sexes. Charlotte’s withdrawal into her apartment with a Rampant Rabbit signalled the late-nineties idea that women no longer needed men for sexual pleasure. And today, under the intolerable pressure of social media objectification, women are increasingly withdrawing even their visible beauty — unless an ogler is willing to pay.

If we’re to take Lola Bunny as representative of a nubile young woman today, we could read her redesign less as a sign that she’s de-sexualised. She isn’t: she’s paywalled. Beneath the compression shorts and the practical sports bra, Lola is just as curvy as ever. But she’ll only put a more revealing outfit on for her simps on OnlyFans.

At the bottom of the sexy bunny rabbit hole lies a grim mess of over-exposure, hyper-stimulation, mutual suspicion and exploitation. No wonder young people were having less and less sex even before the pandemic struck. We’re entering a new normal where the whole terrain of normal, youthful horniness – once sacred to Eostre – has been privatised for paying subscribers.

For a generation of young, single people, even when the world does unlock, following the white rabbit will no longer lead to the sacred spring underworld of flirtation and desire. Instead, it leads to a minefield of microaggressions and vending opportunities.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.