In the history of brands, there are few as successful as the Playboy bunny.
It’s an instantly recognisable logo: the perky little bunny with bright eyes and erect ears. It’s everywhere; stretched across t-shirts, and stuck onto car rear ends. In December this year, the brand is gaining some cultural credibility with the “Year of the Rabbit” auction at Christie's New York. The auction, presented in conjunction with Playboy, features bunny art and playgirl photography including contemporary works by Dali and Wesselmann, photographs by Ritts and Newton and past icons of Playboy pages like Marilyn Monroe.
The bunny brand has long topped the charts in controversy. Feminists of the 1970s loathed it. Gloria Steinem famously went undercover in underwear as a bunny in a Playboy club as a participant observer journalist, later using the material in the movie A Bunny’s Tale. The bunny signified oppression of women as poor dumb animals, caught in the spotlight of the male gaze.
In vain, over the years, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has protested the bunny’s innocence. In The Story of Playboy, a recent British documentary, Hefner somewhat disingenuously declared himself a feminist. The magazine magnate argued that through his championing of centrefolds he had liberated women into sexual freedom and expression. Today, judging by how many young women as well as young men display the bunny logo, it would appear Hugh Hefner had a point. Like its fellows in Richard Adam’s Watership Down, the Playboy bunny has crossed a dangerous road - the gender divide. Young women, appearances suggest, embrace the bunny, and wear it with pride as a badge of playful sexual freedom.
Well, not so fast. It is a rabbit, after all. And a rabbit has much stronger symbology than Hugh Hefner’s appropriating of it. The contemporary wearing of the Playboy bunny may indeed be read as a symbol of youth and sexuality. But the rabbit is also an ancient symbol of fertility. Anyone who has ever had a pet rabbit in the family knows that “breeding like rabbits” is a not just a cliché. Try stopping a female rabbit who wants to reproduce. She’ll find a way, even without Hugh Hefner to help her.
The fecundity of the rabbit has long made it a cross-cultural good-omen signifier for prosperity and progeny. In Eastern symbolism, being born in the Year of the Rabbit is considered lucky (giving “getting lucky” a whole new meaning). In Western culture, too, the rabbit has been held to have magical properties. The Celts honoured the hare as a symbol of female spiritual and sexual power, linked to powerful pro-maternal Goddess worship.
The rabbit also augurs the unexpected. The magician’s trick of pulling of a rabbit from a hat represents more than a mere sleight of hand - it captures the element of surprise the cute creature symbolically represents. Dreaming of a rabbit is said to indicate good news to come, while some more literal dream interpreters suggest that a woman who dreams of rabbits can expect a pregnancy.
In a surprising feminist twist, wearing the Playboy bunny can be read as tapping into a form of ancient female power, far older and wiser than Hugh Hefner ever understood. Ironically, it may turn out to be a badge young women can display with pride. As many commentators and researchers have pointed out, there have been grave costs for young women growing up in raunch culture, and they have had little choice but to buy into it. But perhaps, at a deeply symbolic level, girls aren’t being duped. Perhaps there is something else going on, in the unexpectedly subversive shape of a rabbit.
“Men have always hated us,” says the rabbit Hazel in Watership Down. “No,” Holly replies, “They just destroyed the warren because we were in their way”. The Playboy bunny’s new gender wide popularity may prove prophetic. Rather than reflecting raunch culture, its ubiquity reveals a return to retro values - and to the warren. Amidst warnings about the biological costs of delayed parenthood, demographers predict that young people from generations Y and Z will make different choices from their predecessors about the timing of having children. They’re not as likely to wait to start families. More than rabbits may yet come out of the hat.
It’s time for a re-frame. The not so innocent rabbit with its come hither look is not all it seems. As Playboy brand artworks go under the hammer at Christie’s, it’s got to be asked: who’s the bunny?
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