Along with being blown up, whacked over the head, dropped from a height, and compressed into a tiny ball, Bugs Bunny can now claim to have been tried on charges of sexism in a Canadian quasi-judicial tribunal.
The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, the industry self-policing group that rules on all complaints against TV and radio stations, yesterday released its ruling in what might be called the Woman Vs. Bugs Bunny Case. Anyone who has watched Mr. Bunny's cartoons will know the outcome. He got his fur singed, but he miraculously managed to escape.
Our tale begins in July 1998, when a Toronto viewer was watching The Bugs Bunny & Tweety Show on Global Television. It was the "Bewitched Bunny" episode, a Looney Tunes version of the Hansel and Gretel tale, in which Bugs rescues children from the evil witch and then explodes a magic powder grenade, transforming the witch into a female bunny, with whom he cavorts.
In the final shot, Bugs seems to have an attack of his generation's periodic misogyny- he turns to the camera and utters the offending line: "Ah, sure, I know! But aren't they all witches inside?"
The viewer, horrified, wrote to Global demanding redress: "Televising this anti-woman cartoon demands that you personally offer a televised apology to women viewers of Global Television."
Charlotte Bell, Global's Vice-President of Regulatory Affairs, wrote back denying that there was anything sexist about the tale. The viewer then filed a formal complaint with the Broadcast Standards Council, incorporating the Global executive into her analysis:
"This cartoon... gives a wrong idea of women to impressionable children: women are all evil inside... This means I am a witch inside, Charlotte Bell is a witch inside, and Gretel of the cartoon is a witch inside."
Eleven months and three days after it received the complaint, the Council reached its conclusion: Bugs was truly a wascally wabbit, but he didn't break any rules.
"There is an undeniable innuendo in the closing line... which some may find offensive," the Council wrote yesterday. "That being said, the Council is not of the view that a breach of one of the broadcast codes that it administers is entailed. In the first place, the line is a throwaway and is not reflected, as to its substance, in any other moment of the episode. It is, in a sense, an 'out-of-the-blue' comment."
It seems that Bugs (who has appeared in other cartoons as a female and as a male wearing dresses) was simply trying to assert his heterosexuality, and his tongue carried him a little too far.
In the view of the Council, Mr. Bunny was simply overplaying his butch role: "It cannot, in fact, be seen as a serious comment in the sense that the line is uttered in the context of a happy couple walking arm-in-arm into the sunset."
The unanimous ruling was made by a six-person panel that included two former television station managers, a lawyer and former Member of Parliament, a feminist media activist, a film producer, and a television producer.
They made the decision at a meeting in February in which they watched the Bugs Bunny cartoon after having dealt with a number of other complaints filed last year. Council chairman Ron Cohen acknowledged that the time delay between complaints and decisions has grown, in part because of the enormous volume of complaints received about the Howard Stern radio show in recent years. "There's certainly a little bit of catch-up to be done," he said.
In the next few weeks, the Council will rule on another complaint involving allegedly offensive material in a cartoon. The decision on South Park will address complaints about far trickier material than the Bugs Bunny decision, and will likely be watched closely by broadcasters who air the show.
Bugs Bunny has had his paws slapped in the past for unacceptable hairy behavior, although not in Canada. A number of Bugs Bunny cartoons are not in circulation because they contain images of blacks and other minorities that would not be considered acceptable today.
In this case, though, it appears that the rabbit has escaped certain punishment by using the old I-was-only-joking defence.