Thomas the not-so-innocuous engine

Sat, Dec 12, 2009, 00:00

Conservative class warrior, sexist, colonialist, obedient pawn of a sinister overlord – toot toot, sounds like Thomas the Tank Engine, according to a Canadian academic’s investigations

DON’T BE FOOLED by the chubby cheeks, friendly grin and jolly tooting whistle. The apparently innocuous stories of Thomas the Tank Engine, it has been claimed, actually promote a rigid class system that stifles self-expression. And they’re sexist too. Canadian academic Prof Shauna Wilton was troubled by the ethos of the television show – based on the 1940s books by Rev WV Awdry – while watching with her three-year-old daughter, Kate, so she decided to investigate further.

After ploughing through 23 episodes, Wilton concluded that the Thomas stories “represent a conservative political ideology that punishes individual initiative, opposes critique and change, and relegates females to supportive roles. Any change is seen as disrupting the natural order of things.” She also discovered that eight of the show’s 49 characters are female, all of whom perform supportive roles.

This sort of analysis is guaranteed to antagonise those opposed to “political correctness”, and the stream of fulminations against “leftie lunacy” and “blinkered feminist harridans” has quickly gathered pace, alongside much praise for Thomas’s dignity, discipline and work ethic.

But is Thomas the Tank Engine truly peddling harmful right-wing rhetoric? And even if it is, has the average pre-schooler got sufficient semiological skills to pick up on it? Or do the insidious messages seep in as she munches her cornflakes in front of the screen?

Despite Thomas’s popularity among the very young, many parents seem to find him intolerable – and often for just the reasons Wilton has outlined. It’s evident that they’ve been watching carefully, and they reserve a special loathing for the little tooting train.

“Thomas the Tank Engine, take your idiotic, chubby, eyebrow-less face and your inane little stories about you and your boy pals and go jump,” snarls one mother who’s clearly seen one too many re-runs of Thomas Puts the Brakes On.

“I hate Thomas,” says writer and father Chris Bunting. “These stories, written in the 1940s by an apparently rather crusty old vicar, seem to me to constantly harp on about how all the little engines should be obedient and ‘really useful’ to the corpulent rich man who runs absolutely everything on the island of Sodor. There are some really quite nasty punishments handed out to anybody who doesn’t conform.”

“Who the heck is Sir Topham Hatt and why is my child learning about colonial paternalism and the overlords of the British class system?” expostulates yet another jaded parent.

It’s true that when it comes to full-throttle locomotive action, the female characters don’t get a look-in. While blessed with obvious intelligence, Annie and Clarabel are coaches – passive, and forever destined to be shunted back and forth along the tracks, with nothing better to do than coo over the pretty countryside.

But Prof Wilton herself seems taken aback by the force of the global backlash against her comments. “This is not an attack on Thomas,” she says. “I started doing this research because my daughter really enjoyed the show. She still watches it and plays with the toys. All my research is suggesting is that, as parents and as political scientists, we should pay attention to what is contained within these shows and talk about it. Beyond the sex, violence and inappropriate language that appears on our televisions, shows contain many other messages that parents should be aware of. Children are often sidelined in the study of politics because they aren’t full political actors yet, but they are the citizens of tomorrow – the world view they establish today will matter in the future.”

As a way of countering the implicit political values in TV shows, Wilton encourages her daughter to create different, more empowering scenarios when she plays with her Thomas train set.

But it’s only if your pre-schooler starts channelling the autocratic spirit of Sir Topham Hatt that you know you’ve really got trouble.