In 1981, Gary K. Wolf, a decorated 41-year-old Vietnam War veteran, published what would become a cult classic and his most famous work: Who Censored Roger Rabbit?. Seven years later, the Disney adaptation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, became a blockbuster hit — it’s credited for spearheading the ’90s “Disney Renaissance.”
Roger wasn’t the only tentpole on the rise. The voluptuous seductress Jessica Rabbit, voiced by Kathleen Turner, became an iconic animated crush object — captivating a generation of boys and girls who bore witness to her tight red dress and femme fatale demeanor.
“I created Jessica [Rabbit] to be the girl I would have dated if I could have dated a girl,” Wolf tells MEL.
“I’ve been told by Hollywood execs that if Jessica is my idea of a woman, perhaps I should stick to writing Turkish prison movies or war movies — anything where I don’t have to deal with real woman and real women’s issues,” he explains. “But I come from a small town in Illinois where the boys outnumbered the girls 35 to 1. Getting a date, especially if you were the captain of the checkers team, was virtually impossible.”
Jessica Rabbit may have been millennials’ original animated crush object, and Wolf says there’s reason for that. On why she struck such a chord with audiences, he says it was “her looks, obviously, but also her take-no-prisoners, independent attitude. She’s a woman for the times.”
“The movie was able to do something I couldn’t — show what she looked like,” Wolf tells MEL. “You could hear her voice and see how she moved. My book had to leave that to my readers’ imaginations.”
Though most of the internet accepts the actress and model Vikki Dougan to be the sole inspiration for Jessica Rabbit, Wolf says Jessica was based on a number of women — both real and animated. “Veronica Lake, Betty Grable, Ava Gardner. The glamour girls of my era. Also Red Hot Riding Hood, Tex Avery’s character,” he says. “I envisioned Jessica as Tinkerbell grown up and funky, [and] when I told this to Marc Davis, who designed Tink for Peter Pan, he told me that he based Tink on Marilyn Monroe. So there’s a direct link from Marilyn to Jess.”
With a pedigree like that, it’s no wonder that when the film released to LaserDisc, rumors spread about a potential Jessica Rabbit upskirt scene, leading to an uptick in sales two years after the movie premiered.
Even today, nearly three decades later, the YouTube clip of the “booby trap” scene has racked up over 1 million views:
One Jessica Rabbit fan, who referred to himself as “Dodgey” in an interview with MEL, became obsessed with finding that scene.
“My motivation was not so much Jessica Rabbit but trying to see cartoon nudity,” he says, “and it was to see if the urban legends being passed around sophomore year in high school were true about something ‘subversively snuck in’ a Disney venture.”
He continues that at the time, the concept of animated nudity was “this remote and distant rumor that seemed rather preposterous.” Erotic cartoons, he says, only existed in things like Playboy and Hustler, so the fact that an animated woman would appear naked in a Disney movie seemed far-fetched.
Dodgey admits he wasn’t yet aware of the 1981 movie Heavy Metal, which features a lot of cartoon nudity, but says in the days before the internet, “many cultural things, especially off-the-beaten-path stuff, were shoved out of the periphery of the mainstream culture a young man like myself was locked into at the time.”
Author Mari Ness, who’s written extensively on the sexualization of Jessica Rabbit, says the fact that her animators made her such a sexual icon — and that Jessica acknowledges this fact — is what makes her so complex.
“Her famous line — ‘I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way’ — turns out to be absolutely true,” she tells MEL in an email.
“Getting drawn to be bad has its consequences: Jessica faces constant sexual harassment at her job (itself not the most legal sort of place) and almost everyone, characters and viewers alike, initially assume that she’s nothing more than that.
“But as she insists, and the film slowly reveals, she’s far more: an intelligent, resourceful woman who just happens to be head over heels for, and completely drawn to, a rabbit — a rabbit she would do anything for. A rabbit that she loves because he makes her laugh.”
Jessica’s deeper complexities and reflection of how we see women in film didn’t quite rub off on millennials who became infatuated by her at a young age.
Ben, a 25-year-old in Ontario, tells MEL that when he first saw the movie, when he was “like 4 or 5,” he went up to his grandmother afterward and told her, “It made my penis big!”
“I was nearly 10 when I first saw it at the cinema,” says Jim, a 40-year-old in Brisbane. “I was beyond smitten. As a 10-year-old boy, I was like, ‘WOW!’ It was the first time an animated figure (and what a figure!) had captured my attention. Even at 40, I still have a soft spot for her.”
Jessica Rabbit “stirred some things deep in my soul,” Jim adds, “including the obvious: attraction to busty women. But the strangest was discovering a preference for redheads, especially pretty redheads. Thirty years later, nothing much has changed in that regard.”
“Seeing Jessica Rabbit on VHS was the first clue for me that I was a lesbian,” says Katie, a 26-year-old Michigan native. “Much to the chagrin of anyone who watched the movie with me, I would INSIST on rewinding and replaying Jessica Rabbit’s song again and again. At the time, I recall qualifying the repetition with ‘I just really like the song.’ But in reality, she was really the first character I was ever attracted to.”
Katie adds, “The day I came out of the closet, no one was really surprised, but the biggest reason for that was my crush on Jessica Rabbit. She definitely sparked the ‘awakening’ in many guys in our generation, but she really did a number on the lesbians as well. … I fell in love with Jessica Rabbit and still have a special place in my heart for her to this day.”
Brett, a 35-year-old in Ohio, has a similar story:
I was a nerdy kid growing up in rural southern Ohio, and if you didn’t have a crush on Cindy Crawford or Claudia Schiffer then you weren’t in the cool crowd… but I was probably around 10 years old when I watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.
When the jazz music started playing and Jessica Rabbit showed up on our 25-inch TV screen, I noticed a difference in the way the male characters were enamored with her, and I felt it as well. I believe this was one of the first exposures I had to a sexy-style character on film. She was a cartoon, but the movie’s human actors made it feel real to me. Especially the way the animators captured the voluptuous way her hips swayed when she walked and the click of her high heels.
“This crush on an animation led me to other cartoon crushes,” he adds, “One was Gadget from Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers, although I was more attracted to Gadget’s smarts than her mousy body. Eventually I grew out of this phase, but Jessica Rabbit stuck with me as my first cartoon crush.”
For what it’s worth, Wolf is more than okay with the generation of pervs that emerged from watching his creation. “I’m amazed at how Jessica has become a staple cosplay character at Comic-Cons — I heartily endorse that,” he says. “So long as the cosplayers stick to portraying her using costumes, makeup and, most of all, attitude.”
But, he cautions, “I’ve seen too many young women getting plastic surgery to look like Jessica. She’s not real, folks. She’s a cartoon character, [and] if you surgically alter yourself to look like her, you’re one, too. Have fun with Jessica. Portray her to your heart’s content. But after the show’s over, come back to being the the real, live, and much more interesting human being you are.”
It’s possible Jessica’s allure hasn’t faded at all — even as the next generation comes of age. Take it from Julie, a 26-year-old mom in Texas:
“I was recently watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with my 5-year-old son,” she tells MEL over messages on Reddit. “He was chatting away nonstop through the entire movie, and then Jessica Rabbit came onscreen. He went silent and his eyes got wide. I’m pretty sure that was the day he realised he likes girls.”
He didn’t forget her, either. While putting up Christmas decorations this past year, Julie’s young son “stumbled upon my old Jessica ornament at my parents’ house and was so excited. In an embarrassed way. He is going to kill me when he is older!”