Weasel Stereotypes in Media

What looks like a weasel and what reminds us of one can be two different things

Portrayals 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. Some people form oversimplified beliefs about lesser-known animals like mustelids at a young age as a result of what they learnt 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 can persist into adulthood. For example, while better known than most mustelids, some adults still believe that rabbits mainly or exclusively eat carrots, bears honey, monkeys cultivated bananas, and elephants peanuts due to one or more of the aforementioned factors, 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 will hastily emphasise this right in defence of artistic license whenever concern is raised over how animals are portrayed in media, often at the expense of critical thinking. The irrelevant argument over rights or personal taste deflects attention away from discussing the consequences of frequently misrepresenting animals. Some animals continue to be needlessly killed or have gone nearly extinct in part because of misrepresentation seeded through media—a hard to swallow truth for some adults whose understanding of wildlife is at best non-existent, and at worst, limited to primitive Disney-like fantasies of intrinsic “good” and “evil”. When it comes to adult fans of typically demonised animals, we find opinions on this issue can largely differ depending on if said fans genuinely have an interest in learning about the real animals, or are only captivated by how they are stereotyped or made out to be in media.

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 moralistic 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 (particularly in the Western world), mustelids that are not otters have not received the best representation. Weasels in particular 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 or a bit unperceptive to believe some of these depictions have in no way contributed to their stigmatisation. They are not like dogs, cats, or popular zoo animals that many of us can see or interact with. If not from media, rumours, or the occasional pet ferret (ferrets of course being about as dissimilar to wild weasels as dogs to wolves), what other manner of exposure to weasels would the average person have to form preconceived notions about them?

It is worth noting that some mustelids—such as the European badger and even some species of otters—are in reality vilified by a proportion of the public in some Western countries, despite often being portrayed more positively in popular fiction than weasels. So while negative stereotyping of animals in media can contribute to false perceptions, the reasons behind their stigmatisation can vary.

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 animals than long torsos and necks, and we typically find Eastern European and Japanese creators more often than not acknowledge this.

They are often typecast as untrustworthy miscreants

When it comes to their personality, weasels and weasel-like mustelids in popular media tend to be typecast as unintelligent, thieving, insane, or irredeemable cowards—for no particular reason other than… well, they are weasels. We are taught to not trust them unlike other wild animals that have our best interests at heart. With these mustelids, 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.

An example of attributing negative human behaviour to weasels. This advertisement is trying so hard to do so that it does not even make sense in context. Larger image

Although the reasons behind the stigmatisation of weasels differ depending on culture, it mostly stems from them being perceived as sneaky 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. Even in the circumstance of hunting a single prey, when an otter for example catches a fish it is usually still perceived as gentle and sweet, but when a weasel catches a chipmunk it tends to be labelled “vicious” and “bloodthirsty”, or as anthropocentric and nonsensical as “evil” or “murderous”. What is most ironic, is that even some fans of weasels or other mustelids will regurgitate such sensationalist language to describe them, yet naively wonder why their beloved animal continues to be stigmatised by the general public.

In addition, the expression “weasel out of” and the misnomer term “weasel word” has 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. Rather than own up to our own species’ shortcomings, most of these terms and labels are projecting the bad habits of humans to weasels rather than the other way around.

An example of attributing negative human behaviour to weasels. This advertisement is trying so hard to do so that it does not even make sense in context. Larger image

Unfortunately, most forms of media will pander to the public’s negative or limited perception of weasels and rarely utilise or look into their other traits. Wild 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 visually represent a real animal. So why do so many productions choose to create a weasel character and then patently discard those features, if they are not interested in what weasels actually look like? Is it due to using poor references, pandering to expectations, “stylisation”, or has the word weasel simply become more associated with a personality type and less about the animal? Some of these productions manage to make rhinoceroses look relatively accurate, so we find it hard to buy the excuse that it is because weasels are too difficult to depict.

While weasels given tall and pointed canid ears, canid hind legs, and rodent buckteeth can certainly be difficult to identify, what is perhaps most baffling is the attachment of the elongated shrew-like or particularly 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 stoles of North American minks as a reference for drawing weasels. Since the mink’s skull and lower jaw would be removed, the head of these stoles were typically disfigured. 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 difficult 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 being 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.

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 some of these canid-looking weasel 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

As demonstrated by Moody F. in this Zootropolis-style drawing of a long-tailed weasel, they show it is completely possible to depict a weasel in a toony style and still have it resemble its species. Larger image

Thanks to online art communities, portrayals of weasels in Western media are starting to become less stereotypical. However, 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, and later a 2022 spin-off in Zootropolis+. Despite many animals in the productions 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 in the main film, but given the supposed anti-stereotyping message of the film, it is unfortunate Disney did not allow his character to develop beyond a typical untrustworthy weasel, 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 portrayed much better, and he was meant to represent a North American polecat (a.k.a. black-footed ferret), which is an endangered species. Alas, no matter what the circumstances of the real weasels, they are often all characterised the same in popular media and lack character development.

As demonstrated by Moody F. in this Zootropolis-style drawing of a long-tailed weasel, they show it is completely possible to depict a weasel in a toony style and still have it resemble its species. Larger image

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. The problem is not so much accuracy as it is a lack of wholesome variety.

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. Everyone makes mistakes or has their preferences, but given that nowadays we have better access to both animal facts and photographic references, there is no reason why our overall portrayal of these animals cannot evolve.

We have yet to see a mustelid-centred animated feature film

Felidscanids, 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 studied 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.


Commonly Misidentified and Misclassified Species | Surplus Killing: The Myth of Mustelid “Bloodthirst” |
Weasel Stereotypes in Media

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