Stereotypes of animals
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
When anthropomorphising a (non-human) animal there are stereotypical traits which commonly tend to be associated with particular species. Often these are simply exaggerations of real aspects or behaviours of the creature in question, while other times the stereotype is taken from mythology and the true origins are forgotten. Some are popularised or solidified by a single particularly notable appearance in media, for example Disney's 1942 film Bambi which portrayed the titular deer as an innocent, fragile animal. In any case, once they have entered the culture as widely-recognized stereotypes of animals, they tend to be used both in conversation and media as a kind of shorthand for expressing particular qualities.
While some authors make use of these animal stereotypes "as is", others undermine reader expectations by reversing them, developing the animal character in the exact opposite direction (e.g. a fastidious pig or a cowardly lion).
Many modern stereotypes of animals have a long tradition dating back to Aesop's Fables, which drew upon sources that included Ancient Egyptian animal tales. Aesop's stereotypes were so deeply ingrained by the time of Apollonius of Tyana that they were accepted as representative of various animals' "true" natures:
- "And there is another charm about him, namely, that he puts animals in a pleasing light and makes them interesting to mankind. For after being brought up from childhood with these stories, and after being as it were nursed by them from babyhood, we acquire certain opinions of the several animals and think of some of them as royal animals, of others as silly, of others as witty, and others as innocent." --Flavius Philostratus
It is important to note that many animal stereotypes reflect anthropomorphic notions which are unfair to impose upon actual animals in nature. Thus, while a shark is instinctively feeding in the way its nature intends, in folklore it tends to be classified as "cruel", a word which implies a conscious and immoral choice to cause unnecessary pain. Yet conscience and morality are metaphysical attributes which are imposed by humans and do not exist as such within the shark's world. Likewise, some stereotypes are based on mistaken or grossly oversimplified impressions, e.g. spotted hyenas are stereotypically portrayed as cowardly scavengers, but in reality they are efficient pack hunters with a complex social structure who care for their young.
Despite these considerations, the use of such animal stereotypes is generally much less problematic than it is for human stereotypes (to which some of the same issues apply), for obvious reasons.
Common Western animal stereotypes
- The bloodthirsty or evil bat
- Among 1.000 species of bats, only 3 feed on blood. This stereotypical image is based on vampire stories.
- Bats are often said to be blind, such as in the expression "as blind as a bat", when in reality bats are not blind, but have poor visual acuity.
- Another stereotype associated with bats is that the animal will fly into your hair. This is an urban legend since bats can navigate very well in the dark thanks to their echolocation system.
- The dumb bear
- The cuddly, sweet bear
- The aggressive bull who attacks everyone and everything with the color red
- This stereotype can be found in many comic strips and cartoons and is based on bullfighting where the bullfighter taunts the bull by waving a small red cape (muleta). This has led to the urban legend that bulls will attack anything in the color red. In reality bulls are dichromatic and attack the waving cape instead of the color. The reason those capes have the color red is its association with blood and the tradition itself.
- The cool cat
- The lazy cat
- The evil/villainous cat
- Many cartoons portray cats as mischievous, crafty, unreliable and antagonistic. Examples: Pegleg Pete, Tom from Tom & Jerry, the cats in An American Tail, Sylvester, Mr. Jinks, Lucifer
- A black cat is often believed to bring bad luck according to ancient superstitions.
- Witches are often accompanied by black cats.
- The cute kitten
- The loyal dog
- The dim-witted dog
- The vicious bull dog
- The stubborn or stupid ass
- The horny or virile donkey/stallion/bull
- The unforgetting elephant
- From the folk-saying "An elephant never forgets"
- The mice-fearing elephant
- The wily, cruel, cunning or intelligent fox
- Reynard the Fox, a character in stories from medieval Europe, is depicted as a trickster.
- In the fable The Fox and the Raven by Jean de La Fontaine the fox tricks a raven with a piece of cheese in a tree into singing so that he can pick up the cheese and eat it.
- Roald Dahl's book Fantastic Mr. Fox shows the fox as an intelligent saviour.
- The female hippopotamus who acts like a fat human lady
- The noble horse
- The virile horse.
- The comical / always-laughing hyena
- The cruel, bullying hyena
- The boxing kangaroo
- The suicidal lemming
- Lemmings tend to migrate in large numbers, which can include jumping off cliffs into the water and swimming great distances to the point of exhaustion and even death. However in these cases it's pure accidental and not intentionally trying to kill itself. Lemmings don't even deliberately throw themselves off cliffs. This stereotype was influenced by a Disney documentary, White Wilderness (1958) where the animals were chased off a cliff by the documentary makers, purely for some sensational images.
- The proud, brave, noble or royal lion
- From the assumed position at the "top" of the food chain, the lion is often referred to as the "King of Beasts" or "King of the Jungle", (even though lions do not live in jungles) and is frequently portrayed as the literal ruler of the other animals in a given territory
- Examples include The Lion King, Kimba the White Lion, the first movement of Camille Saint-Saëns' musical piece Carnival of the Animals, King Nobel in Reynard the Fox, King Franz Ferdinand in Alfred Jodocus Kwak, Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia series, King Richard in Disney's Robin Hood
- Many European regions and countries use a lion in their coat of arms or flag.
- The quiet mouse
- The heroic mouse
- Mice are often depicted as heroic characters who have to fight enemies bigger than they are. This is actually ironic, since mice are considered vermin by most people. Examples of heroic mice: Mickey Mouse, Reepicheep, Jerry (Tom & Jerry), Speedy Gonzales, Mighty Mouse, Stuart Little, the mice in Redwall, The Lion and the Mouse
- The blind or near sighted mole
- The slow-witted moose
- The greedy and/or filthy pig
- Both aspects are due to the natural pig lifestyle (when raised on a farm rather than a feedlot)—"greedy" from the way they devour any food put in front of them, "filthy" from the fact that a pig-sty is generally a soup of mud and feces which the pigs don't seem to mind at all (this also gives rise to the saying "Happy as a pig in shit").
- The stereotype may also derive in part from Judeo-Islamic cultures, whose concepts of kosher/halal teach that pigs are "unclean" for various reasons.
- Examples of greedy and filthy pigs: Napoleon and other pigs in Animal Farm
- Pigs are also portrayed as straight men or sidekicks (for example Porky Pig and Orson (U.S. Acres))
- The horny rabbit or hare - Following naturally from the phrase "(to) breed like rabbits". Another stereotype derived from the wild behaviour of rabbits during mating season is the expression "as mad as a March Hare."
- The hyperactive / fast-running rabbit / hare (Again, generally not distinguished from each other.)
- The smart rabbit or hare
- The criminal or scavenging raccoon
- From the bandit-like black "mask" over its eyes
- The evil or kleptomaniacal rat
- The funny monkey/ape
- The mischievous monkey
- The monstrous or brutish ape (usually a gorilla)
- The amorous ape who lusts for human women
- The smelly skunk
- The lazy sloth
- The sneaky and thieving weasel who always manages to flee.
- The cruel or evil wolf
- The honorable wolf
- The solitary or renegade wolf
- From the phrase "lone wolf"
- The stupid and or easily frightened chicken
- The cock/rooster who has delusions of grandeur or is vain
- The ominous raven or crow
- Ravens or crows often foretell death and destruction, as portrayed in Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven." Also, in Celtic and Irish myths, goddesses of war often appeared in the form of a raven or crow. The stereotype of ravens portraying death could stem from the fact that they are often seen feasting on the gore of dead soldiers after battle.
- The Afro-American crow
- The overconfident, arrogant duck who isn't as smart as he thinks.
- The child-stealing eagle
- Eagles are often depicted in stories as creatures who like to attack humans and especially children and then pick them up with their claws to feed them to their own children. This is a myth, since eagles can only lift up to 4 pounds and are more likely to attack other, smaller animals. (http://www.american-bald-eagle-photos.com/american-bald-eagles-photos-general-information.htm)
- The proud, noble eagle
- The thieving magpie
- The nervous ostrich
- Ostriches are often portrayed as being nervous and are widely thought to bury their heads in the sand at the first sign of danger. In reality this is not true; the ostrich is more likely to respond by fleeing, or, failing in that, delivering powerful kicks, easily capable of killing a man or a lion.
- The wise owl
- In Greek mythology, Athena is the goddess of wisdom and is regularly associated with the owl.
- Other examples: The wise owls in Winnie the Pooh, The Animals of Farthing Wood, Guardians of Ga'Hoole, Bambi and The Sword in the Stone
- Although owls are often associated with wisdom and intelligence this image is not timeless, nor universal. During the Middle Ages, owls were seen as dumb, stupid and evil helpers of witches. On many paintings of Hieronymus Bosch the bird can be seen as a symbol of stupidity and/or evil. The Dutch profanity word "uilskuiken" ("owl chick") is used to insult a stupid person and the Dutch saying "Wat baten kaars en bril als de uil niet zien wil?" ("What use are a candle and glasses if the owl refuses to see?") still reminds people of this totally opposite view of owls. In Asian culture owls are traditionally seen as dumb animals instead of symbols of wisdom.
- The talkative, annoying, and/or smartypants parrot/cockatoo (no distinction)
- The proud peacock
- The formal penguin
- The baby-delivering stork
Reptiles and amphibians
- The weeping and hypocritical crocodile
- Many political cartoons, legends and stories feature crocodiles who claim to be sad about someone else's grief and then cry fake tears as a result. This stereotype is based on the fact that in real life crocodiles can often be observed with teary eyes while they consume their dead prey. The reason for this behaviour lies is that crocodiles are unable to chew and thus forced to rip their food into chunks and swallow them whole. Since the glands that keep their eyes moist are right near their throats this eating habit actually forces them to produce tears. This observation lead humans to believe that crocodiles are crying about the death of the animal they hypocritically just killed themselves and created the expression "crying crocodile tears", which means that one shows emotions without really meaning it.
- The villainous crocodile
- Crocodiles are often cast as evil characters in stories, for example the crocodile in Peter Pan.
- The fearsome, terrifying Tyrannosaurus
- The vicious, cunning Velociraptor
- Examples: Jurassic Park
- Toads and frogs are often anthropomorphized into fat people.
- The evil or untrustworthy snake
Fish and sea mammals
- The man-eating whale
- The gentle whale or orca
- Examples: Free Willy
- The diligent ant
- The militant ant
- The thieving/ bothersome ant.
- Ants are often portrayed stealing food from picnics, kitchens, etc. Examples can be found in many cartoons, like Tom & Jerry.
- The cricket who plays violin
- Male crickets are known for the chirping sound they make. In some cultures this sound is seen as a sign of good luck, while in other cultures it is associated with bad luck. Some cartoons depict crickets as violinists because the movements they make to produce their chirping sound resemble someone playing a violin.
- The lazy / carefree grasshopper
- This stems mainly from a fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper, in which the ant works hard to prepare for the winter while the grasshopper wastes the summer and fall having fun, only to have to beg for food from the ant or starve. For this reason, grasshoppers are also sometimes characterized as social parasites (as in the Pixar movie A Bug's Life).
- Ants, like most invertebrates, are known for working together like an army. Some popular culture have the ants portray as military soldiers.
- The patient mantis
- Because mantises are able to wait for hours for food to approach them.
- The evil spider
- Spiders often scare people due to their strange appearance. Arachnophobia is still the most common phobia. Although all spiders are venomous, only a small number of them are dangerous for humans. In horror stories the giant spider is a popular monster, for instance Shelob, Tarantula, Arachne
- Rare examples of a positively depicted spider include Anansi, Itsy Bitsy Spider, Charlotte from Charlotte's Web and Miss Spider from James and the Giant Peach.
- The man eating monstrous giant squid who attacks and destroys ships
- The destructive termite
- Because of the termite's reputation of eating wood and wrecking homes and buildings, which is greatly exaggerated in cartoons
- The wanton and vicious wasp
- Wasps are often portrayed as deliberate stingers of humans.
Common East Asian animal stereotypes
Animal stereotypes in East Asian cultures (China, Japan, Korea, etc.) include:
- The loyal / savage dog
- While domesticated dogs were welcomed, wild dogs were dangerous to both humans and their cattle.
- The royal elephant
- Most notable in Thailand and India, elephants are symbols of royalty.
- The proud horse
- The thieving mouse
- As a mouse was a common pest, they were likened to thieves. However, in Japanese tradition, a mouse also guarantees a good harvest.
- The comical or lecherous octopus
- The stupid / rich pig
- The lucky / acquisitive cat
- The cute kitten
- The devoted / tricky rabbit
- The former is from a Buddhist story where a rabbit offered itself as a gift to Buddha by leaping into a fire. In Kojiki, a white rabbit appears as a trickster. This is also due to the mythology of the rabbit in the moon.
- In a Korean folktale, a wise rabbit rescues a man from a greedy, ungrateful tiger.
- The friendly snakeTemplate:Citation needed
- The proud tiger
- The cruel tiger
- The folktales about man-devouring tigers appear frequently in Korea. At times tigers can be gullible or loyal.
- The wise and old turtle / tortoise
- The protecting wolf
- The wolf protected Japanese farmers crops from raiders.
- The grateful/loyal magpie
- In Korea, a magpie chirping near one's house indicates that long-anticipated guests are finally coming.
- In one Korean folktale, a magpie sacrifices herself to save the man who rescued her chicks from a serpent.
- In Japanese folklore, the kitsune and fox represent the trickster, similar to the jackal in Africa, or coyote and fox in North America.
Indian animal stereotypes
India has a rich tradition of animal stories and beast fables, including one of the world's oldest collections of stories, the Panchatantra, and its later derivatives such as the Hitopadesha. Throughout these fables, the talking animals behave as humans (unlike the Aesop model where animals behave as animals), and, are used to invoke characters with stereotypical personalities. There is also a distinction between wild and domesticated animals. Some of the common stereotypes include:
- Lion: Is king of the forest, and demonstrates all the royal strengths and weaknesses. Is brave, noble and proud animal, but can also be haughty and foolish. Has a natural rivalry with the elephant.
- Jackal: Is greedy and cunning (akin to the fox in European tradition), and sometimes gets punished but often gets away. Is often a manipulative minister to the king.
- Hare: Is small and vulnerable, but compensates for it by being crafty, outwitting stronger rivals.
- Elephant (wild or domestic): Is noble, proud and strong, and an enemy of the lion, but like the lion can also be naive, and, when in rut, wild and unpredictable.
- Cat (domestic or wild): Is cunning and hypocritical, with a calm appearance hiding murderous intentions.
- Dog: Is considered unclean and impure, and is reviled—not a pet but a pest. Is considered to lack self-respect.
- Mongoose (domestic): Is a loyal and useful pet, best known for its natural enmity toward snakes. See The Brahmin and the Mongoose.