Depictions of weasels in media can be a controversial subject, but the way a real animal is stereotyped 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, literature, or passed down rumors, 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.
To be clear, creators can of course draw and represent real animals however they please—some people will hastily emphasise this right in defense 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 typecasting them a particular way. This article primarily focuses on weasels, since they tend to be the most controversially depicted mustelids in media.
Most of us are familiar with the romanticised and clichéd fairy-tale view of nature: All the cute woodland 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 animas by “wickedly” hunting them. 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 have not received the best representation. Species of badgers and other mustelids 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. 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, 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 invented species.
By far the most common visual alteration comes from cartoonists, artists, and illustrators 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.
They are often typecast as dishonest and 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 Western media. Popular classic children’s books like 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 “cute” small mammals and birds. However, this behaviour is obviously not unique to weasels, and is shared by many other, often more respected predators such as bears, tigers, eagles, free-ranging dogs and cats, and (would you believe it) 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 treacherous person a “weasel” is another well-known classic. Ironically, most of these terms and labels are projecting the bad habits of humans on to weasels, rather than the other way round. Why can’t nowadays being called a weasel more appropriately mean, “You may be small and on your own, but you do not let that discourage you from being ambitious”?
Unfortunately, most forms of media will cater to the public’s negative perception 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. 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? Has the word “weasel” 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, dachshund-like snout. Most people would never accept canines being drawn like weasels, so how did we get to weasels being drawn like canines?
One possibility for the origin of the elongated snout could be from early cartoonists and illustrators 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 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. 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, 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 “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 necessarily saying these companies copied Disney, but that their designs have 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 when compared to how our perception of other animals have improved.
We cannot however, blame the 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 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. 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 is Duke Weaselton in the 2016 film Zootopia. Despite most animals in the film looking very much like their species, Duke (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 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 any better, and he was meant to represent a black-footed ferret—a seldom recognised and endangered species. Unfortunately, no matter what the circumstances of the real animals, they are often all characterised the same.
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 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 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 cartoonists who researched 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.