The Rat Trope

For this assignment, I chose rats as my trope. When first looking over the description of this assignment, I began to think about images that I have seen in the media and which were the most impactful. It was at this time that I distinctly remembered being in my modern American history class here at NCSU. In this class, I was challenged to look at various political cartoons throughout American history and describe what I believed was being portrayed in these cartoons. One of the most impactful images that I remember seeing was one where rats were swimming in from the Atlantic Ocean, each rat having vague human characteristics, and my class began to discuss how these rats were being portrayed as immigrants coming from Europe. I clearly remember this class discussion, but I more so remember the strong emotions that I had tied to this image. Media and tropes have a strong impact on how we understand and process information. My experience with that political cartoon inspired me to find more examples of rats in the media and what else they could possibly represent. In my post today, I will dissect three pieces of media that display rats as well as the topics of immigration, imperialism, and socio-economics/socio-politics.

Trope 1: Medium = Billboard Add

This example is a billboard ad in Baltimore put up around 2019 by PETA. PETA stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Upon first glance, the rat in this ad represents a “poor guy just trying to survive”. This rat is juxtaposed with a “rich pest” which at first glance is a white man sitting on a pile of cash. I had to do some research to better understand the meaning of this billboard ad because I did not fully understand it at first. According to CBS Baltimore, the “rich pest” displayed on the left is actually supposed to represent Jared Kushner – Donald Trump’s son-in-law. Jared Kushner owns many real estate properties in Baltimore that were, apparently, at the time rodent-infested. PETA put up this billboard in an attempt to publicly call to action Jared Kushner to humanely deal with the rodent infestation in his properties. The rat on the right represented two things in this ad – the renters who had Jared Kushner as their landlord, and the physical rodents themselves. A statement by the PETA president says it all “If over-privileged landlords neglect humane rodent control, renters pay a price and rodents—who are smart animals and good mothers and who can certainly suffer—pay the highest price of all: being killed for just trying to survive.” I’m glad I picked this example because it shows the depth of an image and how a trope, such as the rat in this image, can represent multiple things at one time.

Trope 2: Medium = Political Cartoon

This example is a political cartoon that was posted in The Washington Post on July 29th, 1898. This image has a lot to dissect, but for starters, there are five rats and one large cat. The rats each represent a European country – Russia, France, Austria, Italy, and Germany – as written on their backs. The cat represents the U.S. as it is covered in stars and stripes like the American flag and has “U.S.” written on its back. The cat has a wheel of cheese in its paws with the “Philippines” written on it representing, at the time, the territory of the Philippines. The five rats have a small banner held up that reads “We have decided that the United States cannot hold the Philippines”. So, looking at this image as a whole, it represents the efforts made by these five European countries to withhold the Philippines from the U.S. in the fight for imperialism. This cartoon was clearly made by the American people as the fight between a cat and a mouse typically ends with the cat being victorious. Also, the posture that the cat has along with how large the cat appears shows dominance and confidence over the rats that are also looking down and appear much smaller in size.

Trope 3: Medium = Propaganda (Warning)

This example is a form of propaganda used in Nazi Germany during WWII. Although this image is difficult to look at, it has very strong social, political, economic, and emotional ties which shows just how powerful a trope can be. In this example, the rats represented Jewish people. The Nazi German standing in this image was spraying rat poison onto the rat to murder/”exterminate” them. This propaganda was posted all over Germany and it was being used to further encourage Nazi Germany in their “extermination” of an entire people group. The title of this piece is “When the Vermin are Dead…” and from what I could collect this piece was tying the murdering of Jewish people to a greater and more successful future for the German nation. The tree was meant to represent the German nation given that trees growing beings.


  • CBS Baltimore. (2019, July 31). PETA’s new Baltimore Billboard says there’s two types of Rats: The ‘rich pest’ AND ‘poor guy just trying to survive’. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from
  • U.S. National Archives. (2021, January 06). Who’ll Bell the Cat? – U.S. National Archives public domain image. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from
  • “When the Vermin Are Dead…,” Der Stürmer Antisemitic Cartoon. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2021, from