Depictions of animals in media can be a controversial subject, since the way a real animal is often portrayed can be more influential than one may expect. Many people form oversimplified beliefs about lesser-known animals like mustelids at an early age because of what they saw or heard from cartoons, literature, or passed down rumours, and if there is a lack of interest in attempting to learn more about these animals, these same beliefs tend to stick with people through adulthood. For example, while better known than most mustelids, many adults still believe that rabbits exclusively eat carrots, bears honey, monkeys cultivated bananas, and elephants peanuts because of how they were portrayed in children’s media, when in reality they either do not eat these foods in the wild or cannot survive on them alone.
To be clear, creators can of course represent and depict real animals however they please—some people will hastily emphasise this right in defence of artistic license whenever concern is raised over how animals are portrayed in media. The problem is this argument is often a diversion from the subject and can even a bit short-sighted, since few people critically consider or acknowledge the potential consequences of either frequently misrepresenting real animals, or stereotyping them a in particular way. This article primarily focuses on weasels since they tend to be the most controversially depicted mustelids.
Many of us are familiar with the romanticised and clichéd fairy-tale view of nature: All the “cute” woodland prey creatures just so happen to get along, sing, and frolic in the woods together (sometimes accompanied by an innocent fair maiden), while for whatever reason there is only one predator in the entire forest that is terrorising the animals by “wickedly” hunting them, usually to no avail. Meet the character that is often meant to represent the scapegoat or embodiment of everyone’s problems: a lone carnivore that needs to eat to survive.
When it comes to most media (especially in the Western world), mustelids that are not otters have not received the best representation. Badgers and other species have certainly had it rough at times, but weasels in particular were—and still are—nearly always stereotyped as bullies or evil villains, and given wicked, misshapen, or brutish features, when in reality their faces could hardly give chills to the most timid of children. Obviously not everyone has trouble distinguishing fiction from reality, but we would be in denial or a bit unperceptive to believe some of these depictions have in no way contributed to their stigmatisation.
Despite the classic joke, weasels have not been so “weasily identifiable”
Visual art 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, if one were to give a character the face, snout, ears, paws, and hind legs of a wolf, yet claim it is a purebred ferret (just because it was given an elongated body or ferret-like facial mask), given the predominant wolf features, the character would not physically represent a ferret. 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 seem more reasonable to claim or admit that the character is a hybrid or original species.
By far the most common alteration comes from visual artists 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 dogs, cats, 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, and we typically find Eastern European, Russian, and Japanese creators more often than not acknowledge this.
They are often typecast as evil, dishonest, or dimwitted miscreants
When it comes to their personality, weasels and other similar-looking mustelids in cartoons and literature are often generalised as unintelligent, thieving, insane, or irredeemable cowards—for no particular reason other than… well, they are weasels. We are rarely given a motivation behind their deeds and they are commonly deprived of character development. Despite being members of the same family, otters (and badgers to some degree) seem to be the only better-known mustelids that are not broadly stigmatised or portrayed negatively in Western media. Popular classic children’s books such as Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows may have contributed to our more modern weasel antagonist, but it is worth remembering that some negative portrayals of weasels in literature and animation were adapted from folklore and even mythology, so their typecast roles were likely occurring well before the 20th century.
Although the reasons behind the stigmatisation of weasels differ depending on culture, it mostly stems from them being perceived as sneaky and “bloodthirsty” creatures that prey on small mammals and birds—occasionally engaging in surplus killing. However, these behaviours are undoubtedly not unique to weasels and is shared by many other, often more respected predators such as bears, lions, free-ranging dogs and cats, and even us humans.
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 cowardly person a “weasel” is another well-known classic, so they are contradictorily associated with both feistiness and having a lack of courage. At the end of the day, most of these terms and labels are just attributing the bad habits of humans to weasels rather than the other way around. They are frequently on the receiving end of humanity’s habit of ascribing our ever-changing, usually double-standard sense of morality to wildlife.
Unfortunately, most forms of media will pander to the public’s negative perception of weasels and rarely utilise or look into their other traits. Mustelids in general are feisty, stealthy, and clever—like most other wild animals, this much is true if they are to survive. Such traits however, do not automatically mean they should be typecast wickedly if they are predators, as being stealthy and clever can open the door to other roles as well. Ultimately, much of the public has been conditioned to believe that domesticated animals, charismatic megafauna, and “cute” wild prey are the only animals that have struggles in the real world—the latter perception in part being informally known as the “Bambi effect”.
What gave rise to weasels resembling canids, rodents, and shrews?
As previously mentioned, it is the key anatomical features that are important for us to physically 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? Is it due to wilful ignorance, pandering to expectations, using poor references, or has the word weasel simply become more associated with a personality type and less about the animal?
While weasels given tall and pointed feline ears, canid hind legs, and rodent buckteeth can certainly be difficult to identify, what is perhaps most baffling is the attachment of the elongated Borzoi-like snout. Most people would never accept canines being depicted like weasels, so how did we get to weasels being depicted like canines?
One possibility for the origin of the elongated snout could be from early cartoonists and illustrators using North American mink stoles as a reference for drawing weasels. The head of these stoles were typically disfigured since the mink’s skull was removed. With little to no bone structure remaining, the snout would be pinched and stylised into a long and 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 both human and non-human animal 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, particularly in animation. 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. This production eventually lead to the famous Toon Patrol gang in the highly rated 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which 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 a lack of easy access to photographs and professional illustrations, it is likely that few living beyond the countryside knew what these animals looked like. So even though Disney’s weasels often resembled round-eared anthropomorphic dachshunds, this style over time managed to become widely accepted as the “toony” weasel look, though we would argue it is not so much a definitive toony style of weasel as it is Disney’s style. There are other examples of weasels given long snouts from other productions such as #1 (Cosgrove Hall Films), #2 (Sunbow Entertainment, Créativité & Développement/AB Productions), #3 (Film Roman), and #4 (Nickelodeon). We cannot say for certain if these studios referenced Disney, but their character designs undoubtedly share striking similarities.
Disney was a large part of many people’s 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-snouted look seems dated and a bit out of touch compared to how depictions of other animals have improved over the decades.
We cannot however, blame the North American 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 often renowned for hunting rodents.
Nevertheless, portraying any mustelid 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. As for these canine-looking mustelid villains, is it not possible to try a little harder to make them look “intimidating” without completely altering their species’ anatomy?
Things are improving, somewhat
Thanks to online art communities, depictions of weasels in Western media are starting to become less stereotypical, but it is clear that they still have a ways to go in the entertainment industry before they are widely regarded as real animals that are genuinely complex, and not just a label or narrow personality type based on human-centric beliefs and colourful myths.
Perhaps the most modern example of a weasel being stereotyped in animation is Duke Weaselton in the 2016 film Zootropolis (a.k.a. Zootopia). Despite many animals in the film looking very much like their species, Duke (yet another weasel typecast as a two-bit crook) carries on the tradition 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 unfortunate Disney did not allow his character to develop beyond 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. Another weasel in the film named Travis was not depicted much better, and he was meant to represent a North American polecat (a.k.a. black-footed ferret)—a seldom recognised and endangered species. Unfortunately, no matter what the circumstances of the real weasels they are often all characterised the same and lack character development.
In conclusion, we want to be clear that we criticise not to cause animosity towards certain characters, books, 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 history. However, we should still be willing to ask ourselves if it is time weasels deserve better than what they are getting. Obviously everyone makes mistakes, but given that 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 70 distinct 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 that are drawn by cartoonists who researched both their anatomy and movements. A film with a storyline that can be appreciated by most ages and 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. Books like A Stoat Called Longfellow, The Wainscott Weasel, and the Welkin Weasels series would make excellent adaptations. It is unclear if the world is ready for such nuanced to positive literary depictions of mustelids on-screen.