In Lola Bunny’s debut in 1996’s Space Jam, the blond-banged bunny bursts through the doors of the Looney Tunes gym. Sultry jazz plays as if Barbara Stanwyck just showed up in Double Indemnity. Bugs Bunny’s jaw drops and his eyes bulge. He is looking at the sexiest bunny he has ever seen.
Lola has an exaggerated hourglass figure, wears short shorts (speaking from experience, these are not great for playing basketball) and a crop top (also not great for basketball). Tweety, who is a baby bird, calls her “hot.” Lola’s features—like her bunny butt and her bunny boobs—are put into focus every time she’s onscreen. Her pinup, Marilyn Monroe–inspired silhouette is exaggerated both on and off the court. After Lola dunks on him in their first meeting, Bugs Bunny—and I promise this is the only way I can put it—stiffens.
Women have been hypersexualized in the media for centuries, and that includes animation—going as far back as the 1930s with Betty Boop, a caricature of a Jazz Age flapper who resembles both a baby and a grown woman. Disney adopted its strategy for female character design as early as Pinocchio in 1940: Cleo the fish has large doe eyes, curled eyelashes, and luscious lips, features that are still typical for the studio’s modern animated female characters from Aladdin’s Jasmine to Frozen’s Elsa. The most notable, hypersexualized female animated character is Jessica Rabbit of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (being adjacent to rabbits is crucial for sexy cartoons, apparently). Lola Bunny and Jessica Rabbit were created from the male gaze for the male gaze, during a time when the entertainment industry assumed the majority of its audiences were white, straight, and male—even when it was obvious that those audiences were under 13 years old. However, it should be noted that both Lola and Jessica—and even Jasmine and Elsa, and many other Disney princesses—have a slightly and perhaps accidental feminist layer to their no-nonsense, independent personalities, although it is masked by egregious stereotypical characterization.
But historical context alone doesn’t explain the actual phenomenon, the decades upon decades of real-life humans growing helplessly attached to, and helplessly horny for, a cartoon—and in Space Jam’s case, a cartoon rabbit. As it’s become clear, the original Lola Bunny represents far more than patriarchal animation. She represents something burrowed deep in the male psyche.
In March 2021, a redesigned Lola Bunny for Space Jam: A New Legacy (in theaters July 16) made its debut in Entertainment Weekly. The new Lola Bunny (voiced by Zendaya) looks more like an animated bunny in a practical basketball uniform than a pinup girl. Her figure and her body language is not exaggeratedly feminine or sexy. She isn’t turning any Looney Tunes into an ironing board. A New Legacy director Malcolm D. Lee told Entertainment Weekly that the sexualization of Lola Bunny in the original Space Jam was “not politically correct” and “unnecessary.”
“This is 2021,” Lee said. “It’s important to reflect the authenticity of strong, capable female characters.”
But surprisingly—or not, if you merely consider the universe in which we live—not everyone agreed with Lee’s decision to remove a sex object from a kids’ movie. The redesign spurred what I am hesitant to call “controversy” from men online who were mad that Lola Bunny no longer exemplified their ideal basketball-playing, sexy animated bunny woman. Lola Bunny became a top trend on Twitter; The Cut ran a story with the headline “Lola Bunny’s Less Sexualized Look Divides the Nation”; Insider called the meltdown “the latest culture war.” For days that felt like weeks, the Lola Bunny discourse was inescapable, even for people not extremely online. In a now-deleted tweet, conservative radio host Jesse Kelly wrote that he could almost hear the new Lola Bunny “scolding me to wear a mask as she drives by in her Subaru.” Scott Greer, a former editor at the right-wing Daily Caller, talked about the redesign on his podcast Highly Respected, saying, “I truly know the depths of human sorrow” and “nothing is safe.” (This backlash also spurred a different backlash, as backlashes tend to do: Some people thought that Lola could be a strong female bunny with her original boobs, because boobs are not bad or scary. To those people, I say, I think it has been a while since you have seen Space Jam.)
Suddenly, with one character redesign, a hidden but surprisingly large corner of the internet came out of the shadows. Even before the controversy, a community that is relentlessly obsessed with Lola Bunny has existed online, mostly centralized on a subreddit with 21,800 members called LolaBunnyNSFW. (If you go to the site, do not open any of the posts, I am begging you.) But the advent of A New Legacy turned the subculture from private and fawning to public and frothing.
In the face of all this, it’s worth asking: Why? Kathleen Gannon, a mental health counselor specializing in expressive arts therapy who wrote a thesis on parasocial relationships with fictional characters in therapy, says that men are so attached to Lola Bunny for one main reason: nostalgia. Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, commonly with fictional characters or celebrities, and “relationships with characters from media is part of forming an identity during childhood,” Gannon says. The original Space Jam came out 25 years ago, at a time when many of today’s adults were “forming an identity,” as it were. Those bonds made by children, teens, or young adults in the ’90s were fundamental, and thus remained firm long after the credits ran on Space Jam. And so, when Lola returned this year in her new form, it triggered a parasocial breakup for so many, Gannon says, resulting in the same genuine feelings of anger, betrayal, and loss that you’d experience from a breakup in real life. Zendaya herself expressed a similar theory in a recent interview with EW, saying, “She’s special to a lot of people and their childhoods and they’ve been able to grow up with her, so I get that sense of protection.”
Though while nostalgia and sexual awakenings play a key role in the development of parasocial relationships such as the ones the angry men online have with Lola Bunny, societal expectations for women established by the media—including hypersexualized characters such as Lola Bunny and Jessica Rabbit—are a major factor as well. Gannon compares the Lola Bunny vitriol to the collective disdain that developed toward Miley Cyrus in the early 2010s. Then in her early adulthood, Cyrus moved on from the kid-friendly Hannah Montana persona and became a sexually confident pop star. Her performance at the MTV VMAs and her music video for “Wrecking Ball,” in which she sings on a wrecking ball naked, sent the nation (primarily the conservative crowd) into a tizzy, mirroring the Lola Bunny discourse. The transformations of the women (or rather, the woman and the cartoon rabbit) themselves are the opposite, but the animosity remains the same: Women are expected to be one thing, and when they change or evolve people feel like they’ve been personally slighted.
No matter what the Lola Bunny redesign looked like—even if the only change was the color of her shirt—Gannon believes people would’ve been pissed off. “People have a real connection to characters,” she says. “The anger people have with that is because they changed from what was their original concept of the character. Like, ‘This isn’t the same, it’s different. Why is it different?’ That’s where the anger comes from.” So while many men are oddly and fiercely attracted to Lola Bunny, it’s not as simple as that: Lola is different, and in a different movie than the one that introduced them to the character they (in some cases literally) love. That changes everything about their relationship with her.
The IP fest that is Space Jam: A New Legacy might not be groundbreaking cinema in the way that, say, Casablanca is—even if there is a scene in the movie where Yosemite Sam “plays it again.” But the respectful redesign of Lola Bunny could pave the way for animated female characters to become more than a mere fetish. From there, perhaps it’s a domino effect: If no one grows up with an unhealthily, absurdly sexualized animated character, then there’ll be nothing to correct 25 years down the road, and from there, no one to get viscerally upset about a kid-friendly rabbit basketball player.
Carrie Wittmer is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with bylines in Vulture, Consequence of Sound, and Harper’s Bazaar. She tweets at @carriesnotscary.