The Rat Trope in Media

In this example from Ephriam S. Well’s Rough on Rats (1886) advertisement, the trope of a rat represents death, impurity, racism, and eradication. There is a large dead rat at the top of the image and a very stereotypical and racist depiction of an Asian man eating the rat. This imagery is based on anti-asian sentiments in 1886 and the thought that they would eat “disgusting” animals such as rats. Wells decided this would be a good negative image to convey the dirty and undesirableness of rats. This ad is of course, for rat poison which sends the message that rats are dirty, disgusting, and should be dead. Not only is the rat viewed in a derogatory way, but it is being used to cast a derogatory light on Asian people. The time period has definitely changed the gaze. At the time of release, it was unfortunately culturally acceptable and popular. Today, most would view it as racist, offensive, and the particular poison inhumane to rats. However, our view that rats are dirty and need to be gotten rid of persists. Personally, this advertisement makes me cringe. It is blatantly racist and offensive and rats being “gross” helps further this negative agenda.

Generally, rats dirtiness is the go-to trope, which makes the following example of Mickey Mouse an exception to this trope, yet a very well known exception. Rat’s stand for dirt and dishonestly in the english language when calling someone a rat. They stand for dirt and the poor during the Black Plague and they continue to stand for dirtiness and low socioeconomic status, just as they do in this poster. It is interesting that Mickey Mouse represents an expensive entertainment company, and vacationing at Disney is a symbol of wealth, yet rats are generally used to show poverty.

In this example from Walley Dean’s A Fun-Filled Visit to Disney Work with Mickey Mouse (1972), the trope is a mouse/rat and the trope represents joy, wealth, childhood, and escapism. In this particular case, a very famous cartoon mouse, Mickey, is used to market a theme park through a children’s book. The mouse’s posture appears friendly and his hand position is inviting. He is a cartoon that appears nonthreatening and would appeal to children. The medium suggests it is for children as it is the cover of a children’s pop up book and is drawn in the cartoon style. The book title uses words such as “fun-filled”. The context of the work adds to the meaning as Disney World is known as “the happiest place on earth”. It is also known to be expensive, a way to escape the unhappy realities of life, and a utopian society. The interpretation is very much the same now as it would have been in 1972, disney is an exciting and magical place, and Mickey is a kind figurehead of the happy place. However, the use of a mouse contrasts greatly with many other tropes of mice and rats. Mice are often thought of as dirty, causing the Black Death. We seek to kill them with mouse traps and poison, or use them to test products we would never dare test on humans. So, it is a very interesting contrast that a mouse is used in such a famously positive context. Current cultural and political perspectives shine a less favorable light on the Disney company, but nevertheless the theme parks, movies, and merchandise are as popular as ever, with Mickey Mouse being the iconic representation of all things Disney. This is in stark contrast of the previous example.


In this example from Steve Cutt’s Rat Race (2017) used as a blog header, the trope is rats again representing something undesirable, the monotony of capitalism and a system of poverty. This is a third unique way rats are used in a trope to symbolize the “rat race”. While we think of rats as disgusting and undesirable creatures we compare our own mundane lives to theirs. This, to some affect, humanizes the rats. The quantity and color of the hundreds of rats really serves to show this mundane never ending cycle of the rat race. If one rat is disgusting and sad, hundreds must be exponentially more impactful. As this is a modern piece the interpretation probably hasn’t changed drastically. However, with the Covid-19 pandemic, people have been able to escape this “rat race” and work from home or start a small business. An example of this would be starting a blog, and this image is being used as a blog header. Overall, there is still a negative portrayal of rats in this piece, but it is a different more human experience related portrayal. I think this is a testament to how society continues to have a negative view of rats but now generally believes rats should be treated humanely in contrast the advertisement prior. Once again the rats are also used to represent a lower socioeconomic class, the workers, not the wealthy business owners.

Works Cited:

Cutts, Steve. “Rat Race.” Geeknack, 2017, 

Walley, Dean. “A Fun Filled Visit to Walt Disney World with Mickey Mouse.” Main Street Gazette, 1972, 

Wells, Ephriam S. “Rough on Rats.” Memories and Miscellany, 1886,