Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
In malls across the country, kids are lining up for the annual tradition of the photo with the Easter Bunny. In recent years, another tradition has sprung up in parallel with this ritual. Thanks to internet sites and social media, it is also time for the annual sharing of awkward Easter Bunny photos. Pictures of overwhelmed little kids encountering the terrifying costumed rabbits fire about cyberspace to the amusement of viewers everywhere.
Why is the Easter Bunny upsetting these kids? Even if one allows for the fact that these pictures are being selected for their awkwardness and that this may not be a national epidemic of bunny terror, should not all kids be happy to meet a figure of holiday joy?
First and foremost, any costumed figure is inherently frightening to a small kid. As the late great Robin Williams frequently pointed out: “Mickey Mouse to a three-year-old is a six-foot [expletive deleted] rat!” Youngsters see the world from a really low angle. Ancient and deeply wired instincts to panic when a huge figure steps near are hard to overcome, particularly when parents have stepped away to get out of the photo.
Mickey Mouse is an interesting example, though, because children do encounter many gigantic licensed figures in their lives, particularly at amusement parks and festivals. Kids of all ages (heck, adults of all ages) eagerly line up for meet-and-greets and character breakfasts. Casual observation on my recent Disney trip suggested most kids were a little awed but largely okay after these encounters.
This brings up a second problem for the Easter Bunny. It may be odd to discover that Toy Story’s Woody or Wreck-It-Ralph and Vanellope are now much larger than they appeared on television, but these characters are not complete strangers. Kids have seen them before. Licensing and merchandising assures this fact.
There are, however, no standardized images of the Easter Bunny in popular culture. By contrast, consider the other great holiday photo figure, Santa Claus. Thanks to a highly successful holiday campaign by Coca-Cola in the 1930s, artist Harold Sundblom’s depiction of the plump, jolly old figure became largely fixed. That image has recirculated for decades ever since.
Aspiring Easter Bunny costume designers do not have a set model. As a result, Easter bunnies vary wildly depending on the imagination and skill levels of their designers. Many of these variations inadvertently hop into zones of oddness or true terror.
A comparison with Santa brings up a third problem for the photo shoot. From a child’s perspective, there is no purpose to meeting the holiday rabbit. Santa and the Easter Bunny are cultural holdovers from a time when Christian missionaries sought to evangelize by appropriating native cultural traditions. As the characters changed over time, Santa managed to hold onto one important trait. When a child meets Santa, that child is essentially imploring the god of toys to reward (supposedly) year-long good behavior. This gives a distressed child something to focus on to work through the fear.
The Easter Bunny began as a figure of fertility and reproduction, typically not subjects for childhood conversation. So at best, all a kid is going to get from that lagomorph are eggs and candy.
Said another way, there is nothing to talk to the Easter Bunny about– may as well freak out!