Thursday, June 24, 2010

Creature Feature: Lemmings.

A while back, there was a 7-Eleven radio commercial that went something like this: One lemming approaches another lemming with a cup of 7-Eleven's delicious coffee. They get into a conversation about how much better and cheaper 7-Eleven's coffee is VS gourmet coffee like Starbucks's and Caribou's. Lemming #1 asks why Lemming #2 is still buying the overpriced drinks. The answer?

"We're lemmings."

Luckily, I was aware of exactly what a lemming was and why it mattered in this situation. Lemmings (which comprise the whole tribe Lemmini) are rodents native to the northern tundra. They, along with ostriches, chameleons, and porcupines, have one of the most misrepresented and false reputations in the wild animal world.


To call someone a 'lemming' implies that they are extreme conformists, and go with the flow so readily that they would literally jump off a cliff just to fit in. Here's the Urban Dictionary definition:

"A member of a crowd with no originality or voice of his own. One who speaks or repeats only what he has been told. A tool. A cretin.
"Ya think he'll do it?"
"He's a lemming, he'll do anything he's told."

This is largely thanks to White Wilderness, a documentary released in 1958 by Disney. Since the migration of little rodents living in the Arctic tundra apparently was not interesting enough, Disney filmed them 'jumping' (that is, being thrown) off of a cliff. Repeatedly. They do not commit suicide; a few stray lemmings may get knocked off en route, but this is definitely not intentional.

Disney also faked the whole 'mass migration' by filming only a handful of lemmings moving about in Alberta, Canada - an environment with no native lemmings, by the way.

There are a number of things wrong with the lemming myth outside of Disney's movie:

1. Why would a real creature commit suicide, let alone en masse? Sure, a few mythical creatures have shown suicidal tendencies (the Greek sphinx and supposedly the Persian simurgh among them), but in real life, the kamikaze gene feels out of place. Would we still have lemmings if they were all so suicidal?

2. Sheep would be more independent than lemmings according to the modern media. Sheep are herd animals. Rodents are not. Although lemmings do occasionally migrate, it would involve a LOT more than the dozen or so lemmings that Disney used.

3. Lemmings can swim. It's not exactly suicide if they're jumping off a cliff into the ocean. That would be more properly called an Olympic dive. Notice that all the lemmings in the film, despite being thrown off of a cliff by Disney filmmakers, are fairly cool with being thrown into the sea.

If this clip does not make lemmings sound like rodents BORN to be in a Linkin Park video, I don't know what does.

Stick with the classic sheep, an animal that does indeed move in herds and has a fairly compliant nature to begin with, as a way of insulting someone for following the crowd. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some gourmet coffee to buy.

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