Pacific Northwest Stories, which has expanded to become Public Radio Alliance, the same group that creates shows like The Black Tapes and Tanis, has recently come out with a new podcast called Rabbits. The podcast is only four episodes in and it is definitely addictive and interesting, but it also already has several issues that really bug me.
Spoilers for Rabbits below.
Our story begins when protagonist Carly Parker’s best friend Yumiko goes missing under mysterious circumstances. When the police are unhelpful, Carly starts a podcast to search for her friend. In her search, she learns more about an ancient and mysterious game called Rabbits. Rabbits is an augmented reality game that existed before anyone even thought about making augmented reality games. Those playing the game get wrapped up in riddles and conspiracies, and many involved in the game have ended up dead or have been mentally scarred by the game. But those who have won have been given riches and knowledge beyond belief. As Carly begins to suspect that Yumiko was playing Rabbits, she gets drawn in deeper to its web of dangers and conspiracy.
This is ultimately a gripping show in much the same way that The Black Tapes is, but Rabbits is a little more timely. In the wake of things like Pokemon Go and smart glasses, ARGs, which stands for augmented or alternate realty games, are becoming a big deal in our society. Augmented reality can also be more interactive than something like Pokemon Go. Viral marketing such as the type used for the Blair Witch Project is an example of augmented reality. The marketing team created the legend of the Blair Witch online before the movie came out. All the actors of the movie were listed as dead or missing on IMDb, and “real” missing persons flyers were posted of the actors in various locations. This is a form of augmented reality that asks us to suspend disbelief, to accept that things like the Blair Witch are real and to search for “real world” clues in order to discover more about it. Games like these have become increasingly popular and soon augmented reality will probably be a part of our everyday lives in some form.
Rabbits plays on both this idea and the fear of getting sucked into something you think is just a game, but is actually something dangerous. Carly even becomes upset when a hacker named Jones reaches out to her and outright states that she is playing Rabbits. Carly claims she never signed up to play the game, she was just looking for her friend, but Jones points out that the two might not be mutually exclusive. How Rabbits is an augmented reality game is so far not clear; clues pop up in the real world that lead to things for people to solve, but the point of Rabbits isn’t certain. It’s not clear what the winners of the game get, though speculation is everything from money, to ultimate knowledge and enlightenment. The real names of the winners are never revealed and people can’t always tell when the game starts and ends. Carly doesn’t even know if she is actually playing Rabbits or not, which is what makes the game so mysterious and creepy. There are only four episodes of Rabbits so far but already it causes the listener to question what is real and what isn’t. In that way it is well done and I would definitely suggest giving it a listen.
However, if you decide to listen to this podcast, you should be aware that there are some problematic elements when it comes to racial, queer, and feminist issues, as well as some issues that I just attribute to laziness. One of the problems with the Public Radio Alliance Podcasts is that they don’t tell you who the voice actors are so that the story seems more real. I think it’s also because they recycle voice actors as well, and with Rabbits that is just annoying, because Carly Parker sounds exactly like Alex Regan from The Black Tapes. There is even a joke in one of the episodes about the fact that several characters sound similar to each other. I don’t have a problem with recycling voice actors, but I don’t like it when characters sound exactly the same. For example, in Welcome to Night Vale, Jasika Nicole plays Dana Cardinal and in Alice Isn’t Dead she plays the narrator, Keisha. While it’s obvious it’s the same person, it’s clear that Jasika Nicole changes how she speaks for each character. There is a distinct difference in how Dana and Keisha speak. But if Carly and Alex are played by the same person, there is really no difference. I could have been told that “Alex” was working on another podcast along with The Black Tapes called Rabbits and I would have totally believed it was the same person, which leads me to my next issue.
Despite the fact that we don’t know who the real voice actors are, there are pictures of Alex on their website and she is portrayed as being white. There is also an artist’s rendering of Carly on the Rabbits website where she appears to be white. Because of this I tend to picture Carly as white. Now this may not actually be the case—Carly’s race is never stated after all—but because of how similar she and Alex sound, I feel it’s fair to bet she is meant to be white. This puts us in this weird position in the story where Yumiko, a woman of color, is a plot device used to get Carly involved in investigating Rabbits. Though the podcast is already four episodes in, so far we have never heard Yumiko speak in any way. The podcast does try to address certain racial issues: Carly becomes annoyed with the police, who suggest that Yumiko ran off on her own to escape her repressive parents/culture. Carly points out the obvious racism in assuming things like this just because Yumiko is Japanese. So there are some attempts to address racial issues, but ultimately Yumiko is still a plot device for our presumably white protagonist.
I also took issue with the fact that Carly begins talking about how beautiful and wonderful Yumiko was only to then quickly bring up that they both had had boyfriends in the past. While the two could be bisexual, the way things were set up I thought for a moment that Carly may have a crush on her friend, only to have the show do a sort of “no homo” moment almost immediately after.
And finally there is the continuing anti-sex work storyline in the show. As Carly begins to explore more about what happens to Yumiko, she discovers that Yumiko posted partially nude pictures of herself on an escort site. Yumiko appears to have been working as an escort but also may have simply been posing as one. For example, Yumiko meets one john only to ask him “how many steps to the lighthouse”, so it seems she may have been using the escort website as a way to get information for the game Rabbits. None of this is an issue, but what is an issue is how offended Carly appears to be about the fact that Yumiko may have actually been an escort. I can understand being shocked that her friend was keeping something like this from her, but she seems to think it’s very important to prove that Yumiko was never a prostitute and even gets angry when people imply otherwise. It’s made very clear that Carly views being an escort as disgraceful and is offended when anyone claims that Yumiko may actually be an escort to any degree. No one challenges Carly’s perception on this either, so the whole narrative just comes off as very anti-sex work and anti-sex worker.
I’ve had the pleasure of listening to a lot of diverse podcasts like Alice Isn’t Dead and Welcome to Night Vale and I tend to hold other podcasts to the same standard, and Rabbits was a real let-down from that perspective. Rabbits is definitely an interesting podcast but it’s certainly not very progressive, and falls into many of the same traps that more mainstream pop culture does. If you are looking for a gripping and intense podcast, then check out Rabbits, but if you are looking for something more progressive in its storytelling, then maybe skip it.