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Subverting tropes with Jessica Rabbit

Contributed by
Jun 21, 2018

Based on the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit by Gary Wolf, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is well-known for being both a classic blockbuster movie and a groundbreaking work of animation.

Production on the film was almost halted several times due to the escalating budget. Against all odds, it was finished, and released in 1988 to huge box office returns. Using cels and optical compositing and employing more than 300 full-time animators, the amount of work that went into creating the movie is staggering, and today it is rightfully acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of modern American cinema.

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit takes place in 1947, in a world where cartoons, or "toons," exist alongside real humans. Private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired by Roger Rabbit's boss, Maroon, to find evidence that Roger's wife Jessica is cheating on him. Trying to track Jessica down, Valiant hits up the nightclub where she performs. She sings a Peggy Lee staple before retiring to her room, at which time Valiant catches photographs of her “playing patty-cake” with Marvin Acme, owner of the Acme Corporation. After Roger is shown the photos, Acme is found murdered. All blame is directed towards Roger, who turns up at Valiant's house begging for help.

We discover that although Valiant was once a prominent supporter and defender of toons, alcoholism took hold after his brother was murdered by one. After years of refusing to take on toon cases and falling into obscurity, he agrees to help Roger out of obligation and perhaps a bit of hopefulness. He has a few interactions with Jessica in which her sexiness is played for comedy. When Valiant pensively accuses Jessica of betraying her husband, she utters the famous line, “I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way.” 

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Jessica Rabbit is undeniably great. She never loses sight of her goals, and she speaks nothing but logic to the madness going on all around her. When Valiant repeatedly calls her out for being just too darn sexy and mysterious, she always has a solid defense of her actions. She's easily the smartest character in the movie, and her cool demeanor under pressure is inspiring—as is her commitment to her husband Roger, who she loves for very non-shallow reasons. 

Due to her peek-a-boo hairstyle popularized by Veronica Lake in the very early 1940s, most assume that Jessica was based on Lake, but some argue that the animation was inspired by Vikki Dougan. A redhead with a penchant for wearing backless dresses, Dougan appeared frequently in gossip columns alongside various beaus (including Frank Sinatra for a brief time). Later, she seemed disappointed that she was only known for her iconic dresses and then men in her life, when she'd genuinely wanted to be an actor.

That tinge of bitterness at being considered nothing more than a sex object informed Jessica Rabbit, regardless of whether or not her character was based on Dougan. While likewise jaded over her time in Hollywood, Veronica Lake's story veered significantly before she was even out of her 20s. One thing both Lake and Dougan have in common, however, is that they're known more for a distinguishing physical staple rather than for their personalities or acting chops, which is true of Jessica Rabbit as well. On the other hand, Jessica's slight sneer and half-closed eyes are unmistakable Lake trademarks, so it's likely a combination of both women that inspired the film version of this character.

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The male characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit are, for the most part, unquestionably sleazy towards Jessica Rabbit—and many reviewers have blamed Jessica for that, claiming that she's a sexist caricature used to further the plot. In truth, Jessica is based on the cliché of the femme fatale, specifically as it appeared in detective stories from the '30s and '40s by authors like Dashiell Hammett. The true origin of femme fatales in art dates back further than it would even be possible to pinpoint, but early examples would include Lilith, Helen of Troy, and the Visha Kanyas.

Since our known beginnings, there have been myths of the jaded woman who ensnares men to drain and murder them. The entire subgenre of film noir features a long list of female characters that exist just to be so sexy that it drives men to commit murder, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit utilizes many noir tropes. Popularized by films of the '40s such as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Lady From Shanghai, among many others, the untrustworthy, murderous, yet somehow tragic and beautiful wife has been parodied ad nauseum for decades at this point.

The downside of the femme fatale is that she's almost always one-dimensional. Despite her exorbitant history in literature, theater, art, music, and film, it's very seldom that the character gets a deeper personality or a more detailed backstory than what has been described above. The femme fatale only exists to ruin the men around her, and we never truly seem to learn how she became so cruel or why exactly it is that she seems to hate men so much. The reason many take issue with the trope is that it's shallow, and it has served to villainize women who were in control of their own sexuality with no end in sight.

Besides that, the novel really does minimize Jessica's autonomy and ride the femme fatale stereotype to the end. She shows up using sex as a literal bargaining chip, and her character is deeply shamed for it — both by the author and the other characters, who refer to her only as a sex object. She betrays her husband and she's willing to use and throw away anyone who gets involved with her. The audience is not intended to side with her. The book leans with heavy satire on the tropes it utilizes, and doesn't grant its characters as many humanizing traits as the film does. Jessica and Roger are perhaps the two characters that suffer the most from it, which Jessica displaying an exceptional level of callousness and Roger playing a pathetic patsy.

The Jessica Rabbit of the film, however, is not a parody or a satire; she's the subversion of a trope. It's clear by her second appearance onscreen that she isn't who everyone thinks she is. She immediately has a deeper characterization than most femme fatales are ever given. The idea that she's only bad because that's what everyone thinks she is is compelling, as she does everything she can to protect her husband throughout the film. Her heroism is surprising, and it helps to make the movie more interesting.

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The mix of animation into the story of Who Framed Roger Rabbit led to a lot of kids watching the film at what might have been too young an age. Valiant's alcoholism, the obsessively dark overtone, the burnt-out and jaded toons, and the several murders that occur in the film were all probably a little much for young audiences. While many elements are questionable, like the wolfish reactions from many male characters to Jessica being played for comedy, Jessica is just about the least problematic character in the film.

It's not Jessica Rabbit's fault she's living in a trashy pulp fiction world, but while Who Framed Roger Rabbit is far from flawless, Jessica Rabbit is significantly more feminist and more of a role model than she's ever really been given credit for.

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