Depictions of weasels in animation can be a controversial subject, but the way an animal is portrayed in media can be more influential than one may expect. Many people form opinions about mysterious and elusive predators like weasels at an early age from what they have learnt from cartoons or literature, and if there is a lack of interest in attempting to learn more about them, these same beliefs tend to stick with people through adulthood. So while animals in fictional media are not necessarily real, certain misrepresentations can result in lasting inaccurate or negative perceptions; especially when it comes to species that are already largely stigmatised and misunderstood. This article is primarily focused on weasels, since they tend to be the most controversially depicted mustelids.
Unfortunately, when it comes to most media, especially in the Western world, mustelids have not received the best representation. Badgers and other mustelids have had it rough at times, but weasels in particular were, and still are, nearly always typecast as villains and given wicked, misshapen, or brutish features, when in reality their faces could hardly give chills to the most timid of children. Of course, not everyone has trouble distinguishing fiction from reality, but we would be in denial to believe some of these depictions have not contributed to their stigmatisation.
Weasels have not been so “weasily identifiable”
Art and animation is, and should be a creative experience, but when attempting to portray a real-life animal, a reasonable degree of that animal’s anatomy should be present. This is because even if a real animal is portrayed as anthropomorphic, we cannot take away the fundamentals of what visually defines that animal. For example, giving a character the face, snout, ears, paws, and hind legs of a wolf and claiming it is a purebred ferret (just because it was given a mask or a ferret-like tail), will not exactly make it a ferret. Arguably, with the exception of external colouration, whenever too many key features of an animal are missing, the depiction is no longer stylisation but instead a misrepresentation. In this case it would be better to claim that the character is a hybrid or invented species.
By far the most common visual alteration comes from cartoonists giving weasels the facial structure of canids, rodents, and soricids (shrews). Although less of an anatomy issue, some have even been depicted with buckteeth; which is another strange feature, since mustelids are not rodents, and not a single one in existence has buckteeth. Unlike foxes, rabbits, lions, bears, and many other well-known or exotic animals, it is rare to find weasels depicted halfway accurate in Western media, and whenever we do it is a pleasant surprise. There is more to capturing the appearance of these mustelids than long torsos and necks.
They are often typecast as dimwitted miscreants
When it comes to their personality, weasels and other similar-looking mustelids are often generalised as unintelligent, thieving, insane, or irredeemable cowards, for no particular reason other than… well, they are weasels. Despite being members of the same family, otters (and badgers to some degree) seem to be the only well-known mustelids that are not broadly stigmatised, or portrayed negatively in animation. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that many animated films were adapted from classic literature, comics, and even folklore, so the typecast roles of weasels did not arise in one form of media.
Although the reasons behind the stigmatisation of weasels vary, it mostly stems from them being perceived as sneaky creatures that aggressively attack small mammals and chickens. However, this behaviour is not unique, and is shared by other, more respected predators such as bears, foxes, eagles, as well as some free-ranging dogs and cats. In addition, the expression “weasel out of” and the misnomer term “weasel word” has only needlessly contributed to their bum rap. Calling a deceitful or treacherous person a “weasel” is another well-known classic. Ironically, most of these terms and labels are projecting the habits of humans onto weasels, rather than the other way round.
Unfortunately, most forms of media will often fixate on the negative reputation of weasels, and rarely utilise or look into their other traits. Mustelids in general are stealthy and clever; like most other wild animals, this much is true if they are to survive. However, such traits do not necessarily mean they should be typecast as villains, as being stealthy and clever can open the door to other roles as well.
What gave rise to weasels looking like canids, soricids, and rodents?
As previously mentioned, it is the key visual features that are important for us to be able to represent a real animal. So why do so many creators choose to create a weasel character and then discard those features, if they are not interested in what weasels actually look like? Has the word “weasel” become more associated with a personality type and less about the animal?
While weasels given pointed ears, canid hind legs, or rodent buckteeth can certainly be difficult to identify, what is perhaps most baffling is the attachment of the elongated, dachshund-like snout. What gave rise to such an exaggerated feature?
One possibility for the origin of the elongated snout could be from early cartoonists using American mink stoles as a reference for drawing weasels. Since both the mink’s skull and lower jaw were removed, the head of these stoles were typically disfigured. With no bone structure remaining, the snout would be pinched and stylised into a long, pointed shape, followed by an addition of artificial eyes. Although not commonly seen today, these mink stoles were likely the only weasel-like thing the average person saw to use as a reference at the time. On the other hand, exaggerated nose and snout lengths have been traditionally associated with characters that were meant to appear dishonest, so it is hard to say if mink stoles were the only reason.
Whether or not the long snout originated with mink stoles, it still does not explain how this look became so popular. We believe (although they are not the first weasels to appear in animation) The Weasels in the 1949 animated film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad helped widely popularise the long-snouted weasel. While a great Walt Disney production, which eventually lead to the famous Toon Patrol gang in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, this highly rated film likely contributed to the continuation of this style by Disney, and similar variations by other Western animation studios.
Given that there was minimal knowledge of weasels at the time, and lack of easy access to photographs and professional illustrations, few living beyond the countryside knew what these animals looked like. So even though Disney’s weasels resembled round-eared, anthropomorphic dachshunds, this style over time managed to become widely accepted as the “weasel look”. There are other examples of weasels drawn with long snouts such as #1 (Cosgrove Hall Films), #2 (Sunbow Entertainment, Créativité & Développement/AB Productions), #3 (Film Roman), and #4 (Nickelodeon). We are not saying these companies necessarily copied Disney, but their designs have striking similarities.
For many, Disney was a large part of their childhood, and since they were the first company to really give weasels attention in Western animation, it is understandable how the look caught on. Perhaps the once renowned mink stole truly was the original reference back in the day, but it is unlikely artists in the 21st century are still relying on these garments to practise drawing weasels. Unless going for full-on nostalgia, the long-snout look seems dated when compared to how our perception of other animals have improved.
We cannot however, blame the mink stole for weasels and other mustelids being drawn with buckteeth—a feature that was prevalent in many cartoons, particularly in Nelvana’s 1999-2002 Redwall TV series. This dental mishap likely derives from a popular misconception that mustelids are rodents. Which is a bit bizarre in itself, given that mustelids (especially weasels) are renowned for hunting rodents. Nevertheless, portraying mustelids with buckteeth would be similar to portraying wolves or tigers with buckteeth—even if the rest of the character’s design looked decent, seeing large incisors on these predators would be difficult for most people to ignore.
Thankfully, deceptions of weasels in Western animation are starting to become more varied, but it is clear that they still have a ways to go before they are thought of as real animals that are genuinely complex, and not just a narrow personality type based on human-centric assumptions and colourful myths. In the 2016 film Zootopia, despite most animals in the film looking very much like their species, Duke Weaselton (yet another weasel typecast as a two-bit crook) carries on the standard of having to rely on his last name to even remotely tell he is a weasel, rather than a unique species of canid. It is true that he was only a tertiary antagonist, but given the supposed anti-stereotyping message of the film, it is a shame Disney did not take this opportunity to have a weasel rise above what is expected from his species’ personality, or at the very least, attempt to capture the facial structure of his species with a little more accuracy.
It may be a common presumption that toony characters hold an excuse for being far less recognisable compared to their real-life counterparts, but as demonstrated by Moody F. in this Zootopia-style drawing of a long-tailed weasel, she shows it is completely possible to depict a weasel in a toony style and still have it resemble its species.
In conclusion, we want to be clear that we criticise not to cause animosity towards certain characters or films, but to help bring attention to these less discussed issues so we may see future improvement. Whatever the reasons are for the stereotypical look and roles of weasels, we are not against enjoying a classic. We acknowledge and agree that despite our opinions these characters have earned their merits in animation history. However, we should still be willing to ask ourselves if it is time weasels deserve better than what they are getting. Given nowadays we have better access to both animal facts and photographic references, there is no reason why things cannot improve.
We have yet to see a mustelid-centred animated feature film
Felids, canids, fish, and even bugs have had their films, but will there ever be one about mustelids? We see so many remakes, sequels, and similar plots in animation these days featuring the same ol’ animal species, why not change things up with the diversity and unexplored world of mustelids? There are approximately 60 species to choose from!
There is a lot of amazing artwork of these animals drawn by independent artists online, yet this talent seldom makes it to the big screen. It is in our opinion that we are long overdue for a predominant mustelid animated film—one that features a variety of mustelid species, drawn by artists who understand both their anatomy and movements. A film with a storyline that can be appreciated by most ages, that stays mainly true to the nature of mustelids, while still giving the characters actual personality, instead of simply demonising or praising based on their species. It is unclear if the world is ready for such a film.