Content warning: discussions of sexual assault
Who Framed Roger Rabbit remains a masterpiece in modern animation, and its deft use of practical special effects offers escape from today’s CGI-obsessed hellscape. Disney’s 1988 film is based on Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 pulp mystery novel, Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, and the movie adaptation differs in many respects from Wolf’s story, including in its depiction of Jessica Rabbit, wife to the eponymous cartoon character. The film crew, which included writers Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman and director Robert Zemeckis, reversed the character’s moral compass. Wolf’s Jessica was morally dubious and ambitious at all costs, while the animated Jessica became a level-headed, ride-or-die hero. Her visual redesign also transformed her into the red-haired dame who breaks every man’s heart with a song and a wink, invoking the sultry lounge singer of classic detective stories.
The filmmakers intentionally designed her to be the embodiment of the male gaze, particularly as it appears in comics and cartoons. Jessica Rabbit’s duality comes from the fact that she looks like the duplicitous femme fatale, when in fact her character refutes that, explicitly and implicitly. This is best summarized by her iconic quip, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”
Jessica Rabbit is held up as a subversive, feminist response to femme fatale characters and to the male gaze in animation. That being said, the general perception of her story overlooks the dark side of sexuality and exploitation, especially as her story, when considering how it’s laid out in the film, perfectly captures the Hollywood stories that shaped the #MeToo movement.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit operates on the conceit that humans and cartoons live in the same world, side-by-side. The toons work in entertainment, filming ‘cartoons’ on live studio sets, and the barriers between human and toons stem from discrimination. The toons have to work for less pay, and segregation further isolates them from equality with humans. For example, Jessica Rabbit sings at a club that she cannot patronize herself.
The racism allegory is pretty obvious. The misogyny in the setting, however, does not garner the same recognition, even though it’s acknowledged in the story. Indeed, misogyny and racism work in tandem to kick off the plot. R. K. Maroon owns Maroon Cartoons, the studio that employs Roger Rabbit, Jessica’s husband. Our main protagonist, hardboiled detective Eddie Valiant, enters the story when Maroon hires him to follow Jessica. Maroon blames her rumored adultery for distressing Roger, affecting his ability to act. Eddie is tasked with photographing her in the act.
Eddie does get pictures of Jessica playing ‘pattycake’ with Marvin Acme, a jokester known for his empathy towards toons. While the pictures show Jessica and Acme playing actual pattycake, the sexual meaning comes across loud and clear for the adults watching. Roger breaks down when Maroon and Eddie show him the pictures. Then, Acme’s subsequent murder sets up the titular framing of Roger Rabbit. When Jessica reappears in Eddie’s office, she confronts him about his involvement and sets the record straight, explaining:
“Maroon wanted to blackmail Acme. I didn’t want anything to do with it, but he said that if I didn’t pose for those patty cake pictures, Roger would never work in this town again. I couldn’t let that happen. I’d do anything for my husband Mr. Valiant. Anything.”
Here the filmmakers reveal their self-awareness about Jessica’s design and subvert her characterization. Femme fatales are known for their treacherous nature, an emasculating trope that embodies men’s fear about powerful, feminine women in control of their sexualities. Jessica’s complexity, on the other hand, balances her survival instincts alongside a bone-deep loyalty to her husband. This is the part of the story that viewers remember and which the film reinforces as Jessica’s story ends with her reuniting with Roger, their love reaffirmed and her promising to bake him a carrot cake. The story never gives the couple a moment to breathe however, so Jessica never has the chance to tell Roger the truth, the actual reason why she played pattycake with another man. No one thinks about the cost of that loyalty.
Rewatching Who Framed Roger Rabbit recently helped me to understand that Jessica Rabbit is, as laid out by the subtext of the film, a rape survivor.
To be clear, I wouldn’t expect a kid’s movie, particularly a kid’s movie by Disney, to unpack sexual trauma, even in metaphor. Especially when the sexual trauma isn’t the main focus in the narrative, as the runtime has only so much space. In my series on Warrior Nun and trauma narratives, I discussed the difficulties in scripting trauma plotlines within a larger story, as the pacing needs to slow down a lot so the characters can process everything. That being said, it’s still important to consider a story, its structure, and how it reflects society. And in this story, pattycake as a metaphor for sex means that Maroon coerced Jessica into having sex with Acme. That’s rape by proxy.
At face value, it can be difficult to equate ‘playing pattycake’ to sex, but the filmmakers communicate that affectively enough for adult viewers. From the dialogue to the spurned husband trope, and the whole set-up when Eddie takes the pictures, it reads as the love-done-me-wrong, cheating storyline common in genre stories. The movie then drops the metaphor when Eddie confronts Maroon, as he calls the conspiracy a “story of greed, sex, and murder.”
Jessica’s storyline resonates for all women in the workforce, as women’s safety always hinges on protection from sexual abuse, especially protection from more powerful authority figures who would exploit their positions. Maroon threatening Jessica by threatening to ruin Roger’s livelihood echoes the numerous stories of women whose bosses either threatened them directly or threatened their loved ones. For example, in 2018 Ashley Judd filed a lawsuit against convicted sexual predator Harvey Weinstein. Her lawsuit stated, “Weinstein used his power in the entertainment industry to damage Ms Judd’s reputation and limit her ability to find work,” in retaliation for not submitting to him sexually. High-level figures in an industry exploiting their subordinates for sex, one way or another, reflects a particular intersection of misogyny and capitalism.
In addition, Jessica’s story reminds me of Megan Fox’s reflection on her experiences filming Jennifer’s Body. While Megan Fox’s mistreatment from industry men, most notably Michael Bay, and the media predate the #MeToo movement, her experiences come from the same overarching issue. (Hint: it’s patriarchy.) In Jennifer’s Body, an indie band tries to murder her character for fame, in the veins of a traditional virgin sacrifice to the devil. Fox said this about the experience:
“Recently, I realized that in filming that scene where they sacrifice me, that for me, that was really reflective of my relationship with movie studios at that point. Because I felt like that’s what they were willing to do, to literally bleed me dry. They didn’t care about my health, my well-being, mentally, emotionally, physically — at all. They were willing to sacrifice me physically as long as they got what they wanted out of it, and it didn’t matter how many times I spoke up and said “I’m hurting. This isn’t right. I need someone to protect me. This is going on. Someone needs to listen.’ It didn’t matter at all. And so in that moment, they kind of were a representation of what I was dealing with that way.””
In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the capitalistic elements receive more focus in the story as Maroon’s motivated by greed. Eddie uncovers that Maroon’s conspiracy hinges on his real estate deal with Cloverleaf Industries, a transit company run by Judge Doom, the movie’s main villain. (Doom plans on destroying Toon Town, thus exterminating the toons, so as to lay down a freeway.) Maroon attempts to defend himself, saying:
“The truth is I had a chance to sell my studio, but Cloverleaf wouldn’t buy my property unless Acme sold them his. The stubborn bastard wouldn’t sell, so I was going to blackmail Acme with pictures of him and the rabbit’s wife. Blackmail, that’s all. I’ve been around toons all my life. I didn’t want to see them destroyed.”
When he confesses his crimes, he barely mentions her. Maroon inadvertently reduces Jessica to a sex object, because in his mind, she is a tool in his blackmailing scheme, and ultimately a stepping stone to line his pockets. He’s a lesser villain in terms of the plot, and indeed, Doom murders him in the very same scene so as to prevent him from revealing the whole truth to Eddie. He’s not going to be given the screen time to face the full weight of his crimes. But inconsistencies in the presentation of Jessica’s relationship with Acme, as evidenced by certain details in the pattycake scene, reveal the filmmakers’ blunder when trying to subvert misogynistic tropes.
The story drops the pattycake plot, for the most part, after Jessica reveals the truth to Eddie and then later saves him, revealing her heroic nature. Her relationship with Acme only comes up again when she and Eddie discuss Acme’s missing will, as Acme had wanted to give it to her for safekeeping. And as I mentioned earlier, she never tells Roger the truth, so viewers don’t get closure on that narrative (which again makes sense because Disney’s primary audience is children, who are likely going to miss these nuances). Watching the movie as an adult, however, I sympathize with Jessica, whose reputation had just been tarnished as the papers had revealed the pattycake affair to the public at the same time Acme is murdered, with one of the pictures even being published.
Her involvement with Marvin Acme hovers between consensual and non-consensual. She only references ‘posing’ with Acme when Eddie photographed them together, but the dialogue from the actual pattycake scene contradicts that. The writers do not make it clear whether she carried on a consensual affair with Acme, excluding the forced pattycake interaction, or whether Maroon forced her to fake an entire relationship with Acme. This is because the writers use dialogue rife with sexual tropes for the pattycake scene, specifically tropes associated with married couples. In the scene, Acme ‘convinces’ her to play pattycake in the vein of a husband convincing his wife to join him in bed:
“Marvin: Come my dear, Jessica. I’m over here. I’ve got everything you need, right here, on the bed.
Jessica: Oh, not tonight Marvin. I have a headache.
Marvin: But Jessica! You promised.
Jessica: Oh… alright. But this time take off that hand buzzer.”
Their conversation implies that this relationship has been going on for some time, one that has been going on long enough for a pattern to take shape. And Jessica complaining about a headache as the reason for not wanting to play ‘pattycake’ recalls the frigid wife trope. The filmmakers used traditional sex dialogue so they could make the twist about Jessica’s character all the more surprising, but they leaned into the wrong storytelling elements. By implying Acme and Jessica were a long-time couple, they created space to downplay how long Maroon exploited her and/or contradicted her character, for, if it were a consensual relationship, she would be going against her vows of love and loyalty to Roger. Because of how the filmmakers subverted the femme fatale, explaining her sexual betrayal as an act of loyalty to her husband born from coercion, they accidentally created a cheating narrative and a rape narrative, with the latter taking precedence as it fits more with her established characterization.
And Jessica’s story does have potential for subversion, as so often (male) writers create rape stories for feminine female characters so to punish them and/or harden them, turning them into an Ice Queen. (Game of Throne’s Sansa Stark remains a prime example of this trend in media.) Jessica’s trauma doesn’t transform her into an Ice Queen nor does she seek gratuitous revenge. The potential for subversion falls apart because the story doesn’t explore her feelings about being sexually assaulted. Her perspective on Maroon’s abuse never enters the conversation.
When #MeToo erupted throughout Hollywood, and other industries, it not only shined a light on the rampant misogynistic abuse, particularly the sexual abuse, but it also reframed the stories we already heard via rumors, tasteless late-night jokes, and oft-forgotten exposés. If Who Framed Roger Rabbit were made today, I wonder how it would have interpreted Jessica Rabbit’s character and if filmmakers today would be more cognizant of the unfortunate implications in her story.
The film celebrated its thirtieth birthday three years ago, barely post-#MeToo and before the Trump administration elected Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Maybe conversations about gender politics and specifically about how Jessica Rabbit fits into them will evolve by the movie’s fortieth birthday. In no way I am advocating for her to be reduced to a rape victim. Rather, I believe it is important to acknowledge the totality of a female character’s identity and how her experiences impact her, for better or worse.
As the film tells us, albeit clumsily, Jessica is a survivor of sexual abuse. That does not diminish her accomplishments within and outside the movie. Rather it complicates a thirty-year legacy that includes being ranked at #6 on Empire’s list of fifty best animated characters. And Disney is getting better with its portrayal of Jessica Rabbit. Only three weeks ago it updated its Roger Rabbit ride in Disneyland. The ride had featured Jessica tied up in the trunk of a car, leading Roger to rescue her. Now she will be a private detective determined to clean up the streets of Toon Town, taking that surprising heart of gold to the next level.
Now that is a ‘girl power’ reboot I can get behind!
Images courtesy of Disney, Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, and Silver Screen Partners
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