There are many ways in which short What’s Opera, Doc? is a masterpiece. Where most of Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes shorts intentionally injected the Warner Brothers-owned music from their various films in an attempt to promote sales of said music, What’s Opera Doc? instead is likely how many of us recognize Wagner pieces from The Flying Dutchman or anything from the 17-hour Ring Cycle.
It’s also, even with a wink and a nod, one of the few Melodies classics that has a mostly tragic ending, creating a vague memory from collective childhoods that can only be described as “a real sense of a major bummer.” I have very distinct memories of how sad this particular short made me as a kid, to the point where even now as an adult, when I hear the music used it and think “Kill the wabbit!” I find myself squirming the same way I did as a kid when I believed that Bugs Bunny was actually killed at the end of the cartoon. I can almost feel the carpet on the floor of my childhood family room as I pulled my knees close to me in anxious fear.
Despite the ending, as a young closeted trans girl sitting on that floor in the ‘80s, I’d always get excited to re-watch this short whenever it would run. Even knowing of the demise of my hero, I also knew that before it happened I would get to live ever so briefly in the world of Bugs’ turn as Brünnhilde.While it was no rare thing to see Bugs Bunny “put on a dress and play a girl bunny,” to quote Garth Algar, and while such a thing was something I was always mesmerized by, there was something particularly special about the Opera version. While Bugs’ drag antics would run the gamut from full en femme to just being Bugs in a dress, there was something about the Brünnhilde depiction that really emphasized the beauty of the portrayal.
She’s first introduced atop a hillside, bathed in light and riding a massive horse, and presented as a figure of beauty. The balletic dance that she engages in with Fudd’s Sigfried is actually graceful and pretty. This entire section of What’s Opera Doc? Is played with a lighthearted sense of sincerity the likes of which usually is not seen in the vaudevillian tradition of drag as a means of escape that this and other similar Bugs performances draw from. While Bugs is Brünnhilde she’s not drawn so as to immediately elicit laughs, instead she’s drawn to really resemble a female character. Rather than looks, the humor of the scene still mostly draws from the sung lyrics, like the playful confidence in which Brünnhilde, upon being told of her beauty, responds, “Yes I know it, I can’t help it.” (Okay, so maybe the horse is a bit of sight gag.)
It was utterly heartbreaking for me when the wig and hat tumbled down the stairs, not just because I knew Bugs would be killed soon, but because of the shattering of the fantasy that it represented. It was like all the times in years to come when I’d have to wash off my makeup, hide my wig and stash of clothes and continue to let the world call me by the boy’s name my parents had given me.
Like most cartoons of this era, What’s Opera Doc? has some elements that were fine for the time but now stand out as clear stereotypes. As an adult looking back, I can see that the storyline of What’s Opera, Doc? resembles one of the destructive stereotypes of trans women, that we present as we do as a deception to trick straight men, a fear which often is used to justify our murders not unlike Fudd’s rage in the short itself. And yet it’s interesting that in the tragic ending of the piece, Fudd recognizes what he has done, and even carrying the “dead” body of Bugs back up the hill, realizes that this is still his Brünnhilde, which frankly is a pretty damn progressive moment for a cartoon made in 1957.
Given the outrage last year when Disney made the fairly impotent move of coding LeFou as slightly more gay in the live action remake of Beauty and the Beast, it’s kind of fascinating that a mainstream cartoon depicting such fluidity of love and gender was not only made when it was, but was so widely loved that it is repeatedly recognized as one of the greatest cartoons of all time, and the first cartoon selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.
But I had none of those thoughts as a kid. Back then I just got to imagine that maybe just maybe with the right work, I too could be a beautiful lady. Of course, I later discovered I’d rather be carried off by Honey or Lola Bunny than Elmer Fudd, but the idea of becoming my own Brünnhilde with the ease that Bugs did still enthralled me. My own journey would not be so swift; it would entail a bit more soul searching, some ill-conceived attempts to "trick" puberty, some prescription hormones, a heck of a lot of legal paperwork and at least one surgery. But my ballet had the exact same choreography.