"Thomas the Tank Engine had to shut the hell up to save children everywhere"
Classism, sexism, anti-environmentalism bordering on racism: any parent who discovered these hidden lessons will be glad the show’s star just quit
Tracy Van Slyke
July 22nd, 2014
There are many terrible children's programs through which parents must suffer during their child's young life. For every Sesame Street, there is an annoying Caillou or an acid-trippy Yo Gabba Gabba. But Thomas and Friends is – or was – the one show with enough subversive messages to make me turn it off for good.
My son, now three-and-a-half years old, thankfully never never went through a manic train fascination like so many other children. But once in a while, he'd get a bug in his brain to watch Thomas, and every time I sat and watched with him, I winced and groaned almost as much as Percy.
When I heard the news this week, that the voice actor behind Thomas's incessant whinging quit the series because he was underpaid, I remembered all of the reasons that I cut my kid off from the show in the first place.
Thomas and those friends are trains that toil away endlessly on the Isle of Sodor – which seems to be forever caught in British colonial times – and, on its surface, the show seems to impart good moral lessons about hard work and friendship. But if you look through the steam rising up from the coal-powered train stacks, you realize that the pretty puffs of smoke are concealing some pretty twisted, anachronistic messages.
For one, these trains perform tasks dictated by their imperious, little white boss, Sir Topham Hatt (also known as The Fat Controller), whose attire of a top hat, tuxedo and big round belly is just a little too obvious. Basically, he's the Monopoly dictator of their funky little island. Hatt orders the trains to do everything from hauling freight to carrying passengers to running whatever random errand he wants done, whenever he wants it done – regardless of their pre-existing schedules.
Inevitably, the trains get in a fight with or pick on one another (or generally mess up whatever job they are supposed to be doing) until Hatt has to scold one of them about being a "really useful engine", because their sole utility in life is their ability to satisfy his whims. Yeah, because I want to teach my kid to admire a controlling autocrat.
But there was one particular episode that caused me to put the brakes on Thomas for good. It revolved around James, a red engine who is described in the opening credits as "vain but lots of fun." (Wait, it's OK to be vain if you can show others a good time occasionally? Great – that's going in my Parenting 101 book.) In the episode "Tickled Pink", poor vain James, is ordered by Topham Hat to get a new coat of paint. But while James has only had an undercoat of pink slathered on, Topham Hatt interrupts and demands that James go pick up Hatt's granddaughter and deliver her and her friends to a birthday party right now.
James is mortified that he has to travel while pink and proceeds to hide from all the other trains along the way. When he's caught, the other trains – including Thomas – viciously laugh and mock him.
"What are you doing James? You're a big pink steamie," says Diesel, the bad-boy engine. (For the record, all the "villains" on Thomas and Friends are the dirty diesel engines. I'd like to think there was a good environmental message in there, but when the good engines pump out white smoke and the bad engines pump out black smoke – and they are all pumping out smoke – it's not hard to make the leap into the race territory.)
But once James gets back on the rails and picks up Granddaughter Hatt and her friends, all seemingly ends well because the girls love pink.
Well guess what? It's not OK. You think a little boy watching Thomas is going to file away the lesson that pink is OK for boys? No, what kids remember is that James was laughed at, cruelly, over and over again, because he looked different and was clad in a "girly" pink color.
And that's not even to get started on the female trains. Well, actually it's hard to get started on them, because they barely exist. Take a quick scan of the more than 100 trains and characters in the Thomas universe – it spans multiple books, toys and continents in addition to a TV show – and you can quickly count on two hands the number of lady trains that populate is Isle of Sodor. Emily – the only lady train to get name checked in the opening credits and the only one who regularly hangs out with the boy trains – is said to "know her stuff." That's the sole description of her personality. What does that even mean?
Last year, the British Labour shadow Transportation Secretary even called out Thomas for its lack of females, saying that the franchise setting a bad example for girl wannabe train engineers everywhere.
At first blush, Thomas and his friends seem rather placid and mild. And there are certainly a lot worse shows in terms of in-your-face violence, sexism, racism and classism. But looks can be deceiving: the constant bent of messages about friendship, work, class, gender and race sends my kid the absolute wrong message.
And really, that theme song makes me scream. Thomas can just go bust my buffers.
Island of Sodor...a model of "imperialism"?