Leave Thomas the Tank Engine Alone
by Benjamin Studebaker
A recent article on The Guardian‘s website by one Tracy Van Slyke has stirred up controversy among parents and culture critics as to whether or not Thomas and Friends is a suitable television program for children. Van Slyke slates the show, claiming that it’s authoritarian, sexist, anti-environmentalist, and even racist. Van Slyke says that she is thankful her son “never went through a manic train fascination like so many other children.” I’m 22. I don’t have any children. But Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends originally came out in the 1980s–unlike so many of the people writing about this show, I remember what it’s like to have “manic train fascination”. I still have the old episodes on VHS, I still have my wooden magnet trains, and once in a great long while, I even get them out and play with them. So here follows a defense of Thomas from someone who knows what it’s like to be a kid who loves Thomas and loves trains.
Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends wasn’t just one of the shows I watched, it was my favorite show. I had the books, the tapes, the trains, train whistles, train hats, I even went as a train for Halloween in 1995:
I’m on the right, as James the Red Engine (my favorite). My little brother, who was too young to walk around, was my tender engine. He sat in a little red Radio Flyer wagon, and I pulled him around the neighborhood.
In the 1990’s, Thomas was a little different. There was no CGI and they used the old classic theme song:
The narrators who told the stories and voiced all the engines were different too–I remember Ringo Star, George Carlin, and Alec Baldwin. Long before I knew about the Beatles or Carlin’s work as a comedian, they were my train guys. Whenever I hear those voices, I think of the trains first. To this day, whenever I put on a British accent, I can’t quite shake the Ringo influence.
I still remember many of the stories. I could tell you what happens when Henry went into the tunnel, and didn’t come out again for fear that the rain would spoil his lovely green coat of paint with red stripes. I could tell you about the time they rescued Oliver, the Great Western Engine, from the scrapyard. I could even tell you about how Peter Sam lost his funnel and eventually got a new one. I had all the wooden trains, and I loved them dearly:
Suffice it to say, I know my Thomas. So let’s take a closer look at what Tracy Van Slyke has to say about 4-year old me’s favorite show. As far as I can tell, there are five main critiques here:
- The Sir Topham Hatt Critique: The railway is run by Sir Topham Hatt, a capitalist autocrat, therefore the show has a pro-business, pro-authoritarianism message. When Hatt tells the trains to be “really useful”, he means “really useful to him”.
- The Pink James Critique: She doesn’t like the story “James Painted Pink”, because James gets mocked by the other engines for being pink, because James’ character encourages vanity, and because all the girls love pink James.
- The Gender Balance Critique: There are very few female trains compared to male trains.
- The Green Critique: Steam engines and the industries they service are dirty and should not be portrayed in a positive light.
- The Race Critique: Because the good steam engines puff out white smoke and the bad diesel engines puff out black smoke, the show has racist undercurrents.
You can read her full piece at the link here. Let’s take each critique in turn.
The Sir Topham Hatt Critique:
It is without a doubt true that Sir Topham Hatt looks like monopoly man:
This may sound odd to people who didn’t grow up with the show, but when you’re a kid, you don’t make the connection that the engines should listen to Sir Topham Hatt because he is a businessman, or because he is their boss. Instead, you make the connection that the engines should listen to Sir Topham because his orders are good and because when they are not followed, bad things happen. When Sir Topham Hatt tells an engine to do something, it is not “to satisfy his whims”, but because that action is good for the engine, for the railway, but most importantly, for the island of Sodor. Sir Topham Hatt works because his directives are associated with the good writ large. When you’re a kid, he represents your parents or your teachers, not your employer. He provides boundaries and direction, and his orders are only legitimate insofar as they really are good for the engines, the railway, and Sodor. The engines have even changed his mind before (e.g. “The Deputation“).
What Sir Topham Hatt taught me was that the purpose of life was to help other people, to make the world a better place, to be “really useful” to society. When an engine puts himself before the railway and the island of Sodor, when he refuses to be useful and instead causes “confusion and delay”, everyone loses, not just Hatt. To this day I think it is important for me not merely to be personally happy, but to contribute something, to be “useful”. This is, if anything, a collectivist sentiment, an idea that there is something bigger than me that I have a duty to contribute to. The notion that people should seek mere personal self-enrichment without regard for, or even at cost to, wider society, is a notion that Thomas has inoculated me against. What makes Thomas’ work worthwhile is not any payment he receives, but the benefits he confers on passengers, on his fellow engines, and on the island as a whole.
But you don’t have to take my word for it–George Carlin, who was famous for his healthy skepticism for authority figures and institutions of all kinds, narrated the show and praises it:
The morals of these stories were never jammed down the kids’ throat. They weren’t blatant. They weren’t in capital letters. They were gently massaged into the framework of the show…it was fun, and they’re out there, and I have them, and they’re good.
The Pink James Critique:
“James Painted Pink” is from a little bit after my time:
But one thing that has always been true of James is that James is very, VERY proud of his red coat of paint. Indeed, James was my favorite because he was red, my favorite color. James gets made fun of for being pink not merely because he’s pink but because he’s not red and because he has a reputation for vanity. When James ruined Sir Topham Hatt’s new hat, Hatt threatens to paint him blue. This is because James’ worst nightmare is to be any color besides red. At one point in the show, James is asked why he is red. He responds:
I am a splendid engine. Ready for anything. You never see my paint dirty.
James’ sense of self is clearly tied up in the color red. Van Slyke claims that James’ vanity is not considered a defect, and is perhaps even tacitly encouraged, but this isn’t true. There is a long, splendid tradition of James telling other engines he’s better than they are and then ending up in trouble (“Dirty Objects“, “James and the Coaches“, etc.) When you’re a kid, colors matter. Red was always my color, and blue was always my brother’s. I always wanted to have a red toothbrush, a red cup, red clothes, and so on, while my brother always wanted to have blue (once he was old enough to express a preference). Our color preferences helped our parents keep track of whose stuff belonged to whom. When red is your favorite color, you develop a certain attitude toward pink. Pink could be red, you see, but there’s just too much white in it. Pink is a missed opportunity for there to be more red in your life. To have to be pink rather than red? It’s such a shame, because you’re so close, but yet so far away. If your favorite color was blue or green or something else, you just can’t understand. For the kids who love James, seeing James in pink is just not right.
Why is it only girls at the end of the story who like James’ pink coat of paint? Because, in practice, the kids watching Thomas are going to school in a world where hospitals and parents have decked baby girls out in pink and ingrained in the heads of boys that pink is a girl color, and because many boys want to differentiate themselves from girls (and vice versa), pink ends up being the least favorite color of many boys. This holds true to some degree even among adults–survey data shows that adult men don’t like pink or purple. Now, would it be a better world if pink was not associated with girls from birth such that boys felt like wearing pink was rejecting boyishness? Sure. Indeed, it would be a better world if boys could reject boyishness outright without being teased. But we don’t live in that world, so when the show gives practical advice to boys wearing pink, it says “hey, a lot of people may make fun of you, but perhaps some the girls will think it’s cool and want to be your friend”. Thomas and Friends is helping kids deal with teasing in a world where teasing already exists independently of the show. For the show to just pretend that wearing pink will be a non-issue when in practice, unfortunately, it won’t, would do children a disservice. It would set them up to fail.
The Gender Balance Critique:
It has always been true that Thomas has very few female engines. A handful have been added over the years (included Emily, the lone prominent female character), but when I was growing up, there were only two–Daisy and Mavis. Mavis was tom-boyish and Daisy was high maintenance. There’s no doubt that the show is behind on gender balance, but there’s a simple explanation–it’s adapted from The Railway Series, which was first published in 1945 by the Reverend W. Awdry, who wrote the stories for his son, Christopher, who had the measles and needed cheering up. Awdry based the stories on his childhood. He was born in Britain in 1911. While that explains the imbalance, Van Slyke might claim it does not excuse it, and perhaps she would be right about that, but as a child, I don’t remember gender really coming into it very much. These are trains. What would the difference be between a male train and a female train? Aside from the names (and, in the case of Daisy, some unfortunate, garish makeup), there really wasn’t anything about most of the trains that really marked them out as one gender or the other. If you changed half the engines’ boy names to girl names and everything else proceeded as usual, I don’t think a newcomer to the show would experience it any differently. That said, if, at this point, the show were to change the names of the most prominent engines, I guarantee that many of the kids watching would not be happy, and not because they’d be upset that the names had been feminized, but because they’d be upset that James was no longer James and Gordon was no longer Gordon. When you’re a kid, you get used to things being the way they are. So if the show is to achieve balance, it has to slowly introduce more female trains, and because the show already has so many, many trains, this is difficult to do while still finding screen time for everybody’s old favorites.
The Green Critique:
The trains run on steam because Thomas is set in early 20th century Britain, and because children love steam engines. Why do children love steam engines? Because you can sort of see how they work–there’s a firebox, a funnel, a boiler, you can see how the wheels are turned, and the coal is carried in great big tenders. The trains carry logs and rocks and mail and all sorts of things, because those are purposes for which people used trains in early 20th century Britain and because what else would the freight trains carry? Fairy dust? There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that all of the objects we use ultimately come from the earth, provided that this is accompanied with a sense of care for the environment, for sustainability. Does Thomas meet that criteria? Absolutely:
In “Henry’s Forest”, Henry’s favorite forest gets destroyed during a storm. The dead trees are hauled off to be turned into manufactured goods, and Henry worries about the animals that once lived in the forest. Sir Topham Hatt decides to replant the forest, much to Henry’s delight. It’s a wonderful story of environmental rebirth and sustainable logging.
The Race Critique:
Van Slyke implies that because the steam engines puff white smoke, they’re to be affiliated with white people, and because the diesels puff black smoke, they’re to be affiliated with black people. If you know something about how steam engines operate, this falls down quickly. Steam engines puff white smoke because for the most part an efficiently run steam engine is not puffing smoke at all–it’s puffing steam. When steam engines are puffing black smoke, it means that too much coal is being inefficiently exhausted. The diesels’ exhaust is black because diesels of this vintage tended to have sooty, black exhaust.
These are the kind of bad cultural critiques that give many left-wing causes their reputation for being whiny and nit-picky. Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends is a show about working together for the common good, about teamwork, about putting the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few (or the one). Those are the messages you come away with as a child. Are we supposed to dismiss all of that and throw it away because there are too many Jameses and Gordons and Henrys and not enough Jessicas and Gabriellas and Hannahs? Should we throw out everything else with a similar gender imbalance? The Lord of the Rings? Star Trek?
Surely not. Van Slyke may not get the appeal of Thomas. She never went through a “manic train fascination” of her own. But many children learn a lot of wonderful things watching Thomas, including autistic children, who associate with Thomas far more strongly than any other children’s character. As Britain’s National Autistic Society puts it, “Thomas can be a friend in a world with few friends.”
Rarely have I seen a piece written by someone who is ostensibly left-wing that is so uncaring, judgmental, dismissive, and crude as this Van Slyke piece. It saddens me that in a world with rising inequality, climate change, poverty, violence, and many other scourges, we have good, well-meaning, university-educated people coming out and writing self-important, trite, smug cultural critiques instead of trying to help anybody live a better life. These writers are more interested in demonstrating how culturally aware they are than they are in being “really useful” to anybody, least of all the marginalized and suffering peoples they claim their writings serve. This is not to say that people shouldn’t write about politics (if I were saying that, I’d be a gross hypocrite), but it is to say that when we write about politics and society, we need to constantly ask ourselves a few core questions: is this writing really useful? Does it contain an argument that, if followed, would help anyone? Can it make the world a better place for people? If the answer is “no” and you find you still want to write it anyway, perhaps you should take a look at that episode of Thomas when Gordon got all self-important and fell into that ditch.