The bunny is having its book cover moment. If you don’t believe me, head to your closest bookstore and look for recent award winners: you’ll find Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny, recently shortlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature, cozied up next to last year’s winner for fiction, The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty. In between, you might see Rabbit Cake, Cursed Bunny, Hell Bent, Bunny, Some Trick, and Wow, No Thank You, with space reserved for the forthcoming The Book Censor’s Library.
Not all of these books actually deal with the leporid, but all of them, in some way, are invested in the cultural connotations of the rabbit. The western imagination often associates rabbits with fertility and lust, as in, “to f*** like rabbits.” But, as I discovered when I chatted with rabbit owners, lovers, and interpreters, it’s the bunny’s associations with femininity, creativity, and anxiety that makes her an especially resonant symbol of the 2020s.
Time periods often become associated with animals. Consider the twee owls of the 2010s, immortalized on so many ModCloth prints and chunky costume jewelry. The 2010s owl was a nostalgic callback to the midcentury owl, a kitsch symbol related to the environmentalist movement. Similarly, the playful, gregarious dolphin became a common motif in girl’s bedrooms of the early 2000s. If there’s one animal that might emerge as the preeminent symbol of the pandemic era, the rabbit is as worthy a contender as any.
It’s the bunny’s associations with femininity, creativity, and anxiety that makes her an especially resonant symbol of the 2020s.
The rabbit’s association with fertility is based in biology—a rabbit can have as many as twelve babies in a single litter, and they can produce three to four litters in a year. That reproductive metaphor is central to Annie Hartnett’s Rabbit Cake, about a young girl dealing with the loss of her mother. “Rabbit Cake is about grief and how it can multiply and expand in weird ways.” Annie told me, “The rabbit is the perfect symbol for that.” As writer Vera Blossom put it, the sexuality associated with rabbits is distinctly feminine: “It’s not virility, which we might associate with animals like bulls. It’s not the sperm of the male rabbit that creates abundance, but the mysterious power of the female rabbit to create so many babies.”
Hence Playboy bunnies, hence Lola Bunny, hence terms like “snow bunny,” “buckle bunny,” and “beach bunny.” The bunny, Vera points out, is a crepuscular animal, i.e. a creature most active during the twilight hours. Their association with the evening, as well as their penchant for sitting twitchingly still makes them, according to Vera, “as psychic as you can be without actually being psychic. If we follow the rules of yin and yang, these traits are associated with the dark and feminine yin.”
Maybe the rabbit’s connection to a spirit world is why we pull them out of hats with the tap of a magic wand. Dream interpreter and Internet semiologist Autumn Fourkiller confirms the cultural ties between the rabbit and the feminine: “The rabbit, according to some religious traditions, is seen as an unclean animal. This is what lends it power as a sexual symbol. It’s not just fertile within a traditional heterosexual marriage, it’s an animal without sexual inhibition.” As an animal that is often preyed upon, the rabbit’s connection with the feminine feels unfortunately apt.
It’s unsurprising that most of the books listed above explicitly invoke the dark, feminine yin Vera referred to. Bunnies feel like an appropriate mascot in a literary culture increasingly fascinated by grisly female novels, where bookfluencers shill skincare in the same breath that they recommend novels by Donna Tartt and Ottessa Moshfegh, where the word “horny” appears in headlines for The New York Times. Autumn also brought up the Christian symbolism of the rabbit as a symbol of rebirth—that a rabbit’s ability to reproduce themselves relentlessly is more than just proof of fertility. It’s proof of their ability to survive.
The rabbit as a symbol of resistance feels connected to another potent symbol associated with rabbits, that of the trickster. Br’er Rabbit, the trickster figure of Black Southern folklore, has roots in an oral tradition that can be traced through back through the trans-Atlantic slave trade to African storytelling. Br’er Rabbit is theorized as a symbol of resistance for Black enslaved people, a hero that used his intelligence to make up for his limited power. Autumn confirmed that the hare occupies a similar space in Cherokee culture as a wily trickster.
The trickster rabbit archetype that uses its wits to solve real-life problems feels quite distinct from the symbol of a semi-psychic feminine bunny. But these seemingly disparate symbols share a fidgety self-awareness, and are married in perhaps the most famous rabbit in pop culture: Bugs Bunny, the gender-bending trickster demigod inarguably bestowed with material cleverness and cosmic self-awareness.
The rabbit’s penchant for silent observation is why they can make good companions. I talked to rabbit owner Emmanuelle Maher, who explained that their rabbit, Peter, often feels more like a “tender roommate” than a pet. “Our love is cultivated by existing in one another’s presence,” Emmanuelle wrote to me, “The bathroom falls under his jurisdiction and so most of our coexistence revolves around me wiping my ass as he stares blankly in my general direction.” Mary Oliver’s “Sometimes” comes to mind: “Instruction for living a life:/Pay attention./Be astonished./Tell about it.”
What better metaphor is there for a writer than the always-watchful rabbit? And in particular for female, femme, and queer writers, who spend our time in the public always creating while always watching for predators. Again, I return to the rabbit as a symbol of resistance and survival: “Rabbits aren’t as timid or fearful as you might expect them to be,” Annie said to me of their childhood rabbit, “They can actually be quite brave.”
The rabbit’s connections to feminine creativity, survival, and quiet observation make it an apt symbol for contemporary literature.
Rabbits’ symbolic connection to womanhood is brought to the fore in the way the rabbit holds so much space in the cultural imagination while still being devalued. In Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch, the titular hutch refers not to an actual rabbit warren but to a run-down apartment complex with little privacy. On the first page, a teenage girl dies, or, as Gunty puts it: “On a hot night in Apartment C4, Blandine Watkins exits her body. She is only eighteen years old, but she has spent most of her life wishing for this to happen.” Invocation of The Virgin Suicides aside, Blandine’s death immediately calls to mind the symbols of sacrifice and mysticism that we’ve come to associate with rabbits. In the same paragraph, Gunty refers to some of Blandine’s spiritual obsessions that will define her short life: “It’s like your soul is being stabbed with light, the mystics said, and they were right about that, too.”
Rabbits do appear in minor roles in Rabbit Hutch: they’re one of the animals Blandine’s three neighbors begin to sacrifice when they all fall in love with her. “You think they’re silent creatures, rabbits, until you try to kill them,” one of the rabbit-killers says to a police officer investigating Blandine’s death. But though they’re not a major character, rabbits feel like an especially potent and important symbol for the novel. Not just for Blandine, whose strange allure and mystic fascinations are central, but for the entire complex of neighbors who live and die pressed up closely to each other.
The first epigraph in Rabbit Hutch is a quote from Michael Moore’s documentary Roger and Me, (1989) from a woman in Flint, Michigan who sells rabbits as “pets or meat.” Her explanation that male rabbits in close proximity will kill each other resonates throughout the novel, a harbinger of Rust Belt practicality and a clarification of why it matters that the Rabbit Hutch is known by that name. There are many metaphors one could use to describe an apartment where everyone lives on top of each other, but unlike a can of sardines or a nest?—pile?—of rats, a rabbit hutch conjures strange, mystical desperation.
There’s no single thread tying together these bunny books, some of which feature literal rabbits and some only metaphorical. But the rabbit’s connections to feminine creativity, survival, and quiet observation make it an apt symbol for contemporary literature, and for a literary culture increasingly attuned to women’s stories. These book-cover-bunnies are not helpless objects of subjugation; they’re resonant figures of rebirth and regrowth after lifetimes of survived violence and cruelty, after the last three years of mass illness and mass death.
So if you’re dreaming of rabbits, take note from the little critters and pay closer attention to the worlds that surround you. “Rabbits make their moves in deceptive ways,” Autumn told me. “If one is trying to get pregnant, a rabbit can be a good omen. If one is struggling financially, a rabbit can represent a turning of the table: better days ahead. But if one is in bed with their new paramour, and they dream of a rabbit, their guard should be up. I’m not suggesting an immediate break-up. Just, you know, some caution.”