I'm a horror-movie fan, and I've seen some vile stuff – spilled guts, popped-off heads, that sort of thing. But the scene I find hardest to watch in all of cinema comes from The Muppet Christmas Carol. Kermit, bopping around London in his top hat, sings the final, hopeful notes of One More Sleep Till Christmas. A shooting star passes. Then the camera lowers onto a tiny bunny, shivering violently under a pile of newspaper. I feel racked with the need to hug him, and the more I watch, the more gruesome the details appear: the way he sniffles his pink nose, the way he winces, the fact that Kermit could totally have seen him as he walked offscreen.
"Inside the Muppet Company we love to hate Bean Bunny," director Brian Henson says in the DVD audio commentary, "which to some fans out there will sound terrible." It helps to understand that Bean Bunny's cuteness is his shtick. The Muppet first appeared in The Tale of the Bunny Picnic, a 1986 TV movie in which he plays a daydreaming runt whose lettuce patch is attacked by a dog. ("No one ever said being a bunny would be easy," his mom says.) Bean is nervous and undersized, but he saves the day through compassion, and the dog and the bunnies end up pals.
The Tale of the Bunny Picnic is a kids' special – it doesn't quite jibe with overall Muppet sensibilities. Neither does its star, who continued to pop up in Muppet projects nonetheless, taking a regular role on The Jim Henson Hour in 1989 as the cute one. "That's his job. You see, the rest of us got sick of being cute, so we hired him to do it," Scooter explains in The Muppets at Walt Disney World. "The Muppets always hated cuteness," Muppet legend Frank Oz said to the site Celebuzz in 2012. "As a matter of fact, Jim built a character called Bean Bunny, so the audience could think he's cute and take the onus off the others."
"The idea was he was so cute and sweet and sappy that we would never do that in the Muppets," Brian Henson continues. "And he was so obnoxiously sweet that everybody didn't like him." In a three-part series on "the rise and fall of Bean Norman Bunny," the Jim Henson blog A Much Deeper Level claims: "Having grown tired of his 'cute' shtick, any excuse would be made by the producers to deliver abuse to the poor bunny. He would become the punchlines of scenes, literally. He would get smashed by doors, trampled on, or eaten whenever he made an appearance in a future filmed Muppet event." The writer compares his career arc to that of Britney Spears.
Cute does strange things to people. Researchers from Yale have found a correlation between cuteness and aggression (or "faux" aggression, as researcher Oriana Aragon stressed in the Huffington Post: "There does not seem to be a conscious intent to do serious harm to these little ones.") As LiveScience reported in 2013, from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference in New Orleans, Aragon and her co-researchers, including Rebecca Dyer, initially recorded verbal responses to pictures of cute, funny and neutral animals. They found that the cute animals inspired more of a "Grrr!" reaction. When they performed a similar experiment using bubble wrap instead of verbal measurements, they found that subjects viewing cute pictures popped more bubbles.
"Every time I see something cute, i just wanna squeeze it to death because of its cuteness," reads a posting on IsItNormal.com. "I never really hurt them … but subconsciously I do. I think." The comments are largely sympathetic and mostly benign, with the odd "seek help immediately" and the odder "me too, and I've killed strays." One user claims a cousin was arrested for hugging a kitten to death. Over all, users gave it a rating of 64-per-cent normal. "I love animals and would never hurt them BUT I was watching a video on YouTube of a baby rabbit eating a flower and as I was watching it my mind just said 'Kill it,'" reads a reply from Foxie913. "I don't know why my brain thinks that when I would never physically harm the animal."
Upon further study of contradictory responses – tears of joy, say, or nervous laughter – Aragon hypothesized that "dimorphous expressions of emotion" might be a natural way of mitigating overwhelming feelings and restoring equilibrium. Over at IsItNormal, which has no affiliation with Yale, or, to my knowledge, any research institution, some respondents blamed a latent predatory instinct for the poster's problem. "I think it would only be psycho if there weren't all the other stuff in our heads keeping it in check and even bringing us to the opposite conclusion," said one user, Melody, who once had the urge to "squeeze [a kitten] in a fatal way."
I think of evil as a substance, which you can have a little or a lot of, and contain poorly or well. I can't bear to see Bean Bunny suffer, but when I was 10, I made a brief habit of turning my neighbour's hamster on his back – he just looked so cute when he squirmed. That was the year I became a vegetarian. I haven't touched meat since.