Essays · Movies

Why Do We Want Children to Root for Vermin?

Yes, rabbits are vermin. And I will fight you on that.
Petter Rabbit
By  · Published on February 9th, 2018

As a society, we seem to have a thing about bombarding our children with animal-themed content starting more or less in their infancy. I, for example, do not know how knowing various farm animal sounds helped my early development into a human being, but I digress. Then, moving past the songs and the toys and the preschool activities, once you turn on the TV, children’s programming is anthropomorphized animals galore—Looney TunesTom and Jerry, whatever the 2018 equivalents of those cartoons may be. Even once you get to children’s content starring people, there is still a huge and often talkative animal presence. Just look at Disney’s princesses. The vast majority of them have animal familiars that do their bidding—which, in retrospect, makes them all witches (but again, I digress).

Then, once you get to the target age of about twelve or so, the prevalence animal-centric content takes a serious nosedive. It doesn’t disappear entirely, but it goes from being a predominant force to something of a niche item. It’s more than a bit weird, but still, that’s not really what gets to me.

What gets to me is the vermin.

Why, in giving children so many animal protagonists, do we so frequently give them vermin protagonists? Lions—kings of the jungle, sure. Cats and dogs—beloved pets. Dinosaurs—really damn cool (and also extinct). Clownfish—you know what, they’re colorful. And then there are the rodents. Ever since Mickey Mouse took over from Felix the cat as the most iconic animated character, there has been a surplus of cartoon rodent-heroes, and most of them in content geared towards children. Tom & Jerry. Pinky and the Brain. The mice-friends in Cinderella, who are the only members of her animal squad important enough to be named. The Great Mouse Detective. The Secret of NIMH. Ratatouille. Looney Toons. Peter Rabbit. 

Steamboat Willie

And yes, I realize rabbits have not been classified as rodents since 1912. But they are still literally the closest you can get to being a rodent without being a rodent according to current classifications, and they are also vermin, and since I am not writing for a biology class, I have made the executive decision that this is close enough.

But rabbits aren’t vermin! you might insist. While admittedly they do indeed have an aesthetic advantage over, say, rats, they are nonetheless vermin. Just ask a farmer. Or the nation of Australia. Basically: grow a garden. Put hours upon hours of hard work over weeks and months into this garden. Watch your lettuce plants get decimated by a family of rabbits and then get back to me about whether or not you consider rabbits to be vermin. And if there are any of you out there who would genuinely still be left with nothing but goodwill towards rabbits in your heart, congratulations. You are a better person than I am and not the target audience of this piece. This piece is for grumpier, pettier people like myself. The adults who were once children who got irritated with Tom and Jerry after watching two episodes and realizing that Tom was never going to finally get rid of that smarmy little rodent once and for all, the way nature and the domestication of the house cat intended.

Look, I don’t have any answers here, though I have spent a good deal of time pondering this question. And really, at the end of the day, the prevalence of vermin-heroes is not exactly the world’s most pressing concern. It doesn’t really need an answer. But it’s a bizarre and consistent enough trend that it’s worth at least giving it some thought.

When you have a documentary about cats, it’s Kedi, and it’s a heartwarming and entertaining meditation on the meaning of life (that was totally snubbed for an Oscar nomination). When you have a documentary about rats, it’s Rats (2016), and it’s a literal horror movie. Yet, when children’s programming presents a cat-and-mouse chase with literal felines and rodents, it’s almost always the rodent they are supposed to root for.

And if you take a moment to really think about it, that’s pretty damn weird.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.