06 Apr 2020

Rodent Book Club - The Rat: A Perverse Miscellany by Barbara Hodgson, 1997

This book is a pretty neat collection of rat representations in media and (mostly western) culture.

Despite having a clear ‘anti rat’ slant it’s very enjoyable to flick through, and thanks to the abundance of pictorial references, it’s an easy read. Hodgson doesn’t really write or synthesise any new information bar a few chapter introductions or context sentences, the bulk of the text is directly copy/pasted from any old book, clipping, play or reference that contained the word “rat”. 

Which is pretty cool! Everything from sculptures to old cigarette cards, movies to fables. It’s a coffee-table tour of cultural perception from a mostly western perspective, and it’s pretty overwhelmingly anti-rat. Phrases like “you dirty rat” and “like a drowned rat” are analyzed for their unanimously negative connotations, and it’s also explored that a lot of the use of rats in media has historically been to set the mood in horror scenes. 

Even the words Hodgson associates with rats, or as she puts it “this repellent rodent” are negative, cunning, voracious, lascivious, evil… In the preface she describes her experiences with rats. Once, on a picturesque holiday on a Greek island, she spotted a rat and was horrified. Another time on the banks of the Nile, she saw people exclaiming how cute two creatures were, and then rapidly changing to disgust when learning they were rats. That last one made me laugh, I’ve had the same experience bringing rats to agricultural shows. “Oh my god, a guinea pig, they’re so cute!” “It’s a rat actually.” “DISGUSTING! Eww!”

I actually found the book very valuable as a source of obscure references, it gave me an enormous amount of leads to follow up to learn more about the social perception of rats, and honestly, it really does seem like a pretty good representation of the popular attitudes towards them. You won’t learn very much at all about rats by reading this, but you might get a good laugh seeing what others think of them!

One sentence summary: The most well-filtered google search of the phrase “rats are gross” ever, it’s a tour of how much rats are hated and everything people do to express that.
Worth a read if: You are interested in a very western-centric tour of the cultural perception of rats, in the form of a coffee table book.

By Rachel Greenfield

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