August 28, 2005

Which It's Happy Bunny are you?

I first saw the new antihero last year on a waitperson's chest (slogan: "Cute but psycho"), but I didn't know her name then, or even that she was a nameable phenomenon. A few days ago, courtesy of a junior-schooler excited about her new t-shirt (slogan: "not listening") I learned that it's "Happy Bunny". Wikipedia shows Happy Bunny in the (literal) mug shot linked on the right.

But actually, it's not Happy Bunny, it's It's Happy Bunny, even in subject position: "Does It's Happy Bunny dislike Boys?? Of course not. It's Happy Bunny dislikes everybody." Likewise after which, as in the numerous "which IT'S HAPPY BUNNY are you?" quizzes.

Joanne Jacobs reports that

Some blunt-spoken Happy Bunny messages, including "You're ugly and that's sad" and "It's cute how stupid you are," wouldn't make the cut at Highland Park High School.

"We consider that harassment, and we just don't allow it," Principal Jack Lorenz said.

Thought the target demographic is very different, this reminds me of the BOFH phenomenon -- both BOFH and IHB involve openly flaunting well known but traditionally covert hostility.

IHB slogans like "I think I gave you crabs" hint that the original It's Happy Bunny target might have been a bit older and more cynical than the group that has responded is. And indeed this article quotes IHB's inventor, Jim Benton, confirming this:

When Benton originated It's Happy Bunny, he expected the products bearing his artwork -- including a handful containing anti-boy phrases -- to appeal to young women ages 16 to 26. "It actually turned out to be much broader in appeal than we thought," he says. In the Bay Area, for instance, It's Happy Bunny can be found in shopping malls at Claire's, a nationwide retail chain that targets its accessories to girls ages 7 to 12.

IHB's role in validating adolescent female hostility is none of our business here. Instead, I want to make a linguistic point -- phrasal names like It's Happy Bunny introduce into English, in a small way, the phrasal names that are dominant features of many other cultures and languages. The most common source for this kind of thing in English has been bands whose names are sentences like They Might Be Giants or Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The ease with which such phrasal names enter general use seems to show that the difference in this respect between English and (for example) Yoruba is more a matter of general cultural choice than of linguistic structure.

[As far as I know, IHB consumers are all female, but there seems to be some uncertainty about the gender of the bunny itself.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 28, 2005 03:05 PM