Thomas the Tank Engine, it appears, has become as politicized as everything else about modern parenting. Earlier this week, a writer and social researcher named Tracy Van Slyke wrote a hit piece in The Guardian on the No. 1 blue engine on the Island of Sodor, making some excellent points about the classist, authoritarian, unrepentantly greenhouse gas–spewing land Thomas and his friends inhabit — all while largely missing the point.
The news hook — such as it is — for Van Slyke's anti-Sodor screed is that the actor who voiced the U.S. versions of Thomas and his best friend, Percy, for five years declined to renew his contract amid accusations of low pay and intimidation from HiT Entertainment, the company that owns the Thomas franchise (and Bob the Builder and a handful of less popular shows).
Van Slyke's critique isn't about actors' pay or corporate greed, though; it's about Sodor and its inhabitants, a motley collection of color-coded steam and diesel engines, cranes, and other vehicles; farmers, children, and industrial-age blue collar workers; and an overclass of wealthy managers and aristocrats, with the main railway run by Sir Topham Hatt, the Fat Controller.
And here's where she is right: the world of Thomas & Friends is deeply retrograde and anti-democratic. It celebrates logging and mining and the burning of coal and diesel; values efficiency and following orders above individual initiative and entrepreneurialism; has only a handful of female engines and characters; and is subject to the whims and fancies of Hatt and his titled peers, the Earl of Sodor and the Duke and Duchess of Boxford.
The highest praise for a Sodor engine is being "really useful," and the worst thing is "causing confusion and delay." There is a strong competitive spirit — the engines want to be the fastest and most useful — but it seems driven at least partly by the (apparently unfounded) fear that underperforming trains will be sent to the smelting yard of banished from Sodor. Sir Topham Hatt may be an "imperious, little white boss" whose attire suggests that he's "the Monopoly dictator of their funky little island," as Van Slyke says, but he's mostly a benevolent despot.
The rest of Van Slyke's critique reads like a parody of postmodern literary criticism. Sodor "seems to be forever caught in British colonial times," she writes, and "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."
Well, yes, Britain was a colonial giant back in 1945, when the Rev. Wilbert Awdry, an Anglican minister, published the first Thomas book, based on his memories of childhood. And not much has changed on Sodor since then: the cars are still vintage-looking, like Cuba with aristocracy; the main form of transport still seems to be steam engines; and Sir Topham Hatt hasn't aged much in the last 70 years. Sodor is behind the times on social and environmental issues? Maybe that's because Thomas apparently lives in the early- to mid-20th century. Please, let's next criticize the characters of Downton Abbey for not driving Priuses.
Van Slyke hates Thomas & Friends — "That theme song makes me scream," she says — and that's her right, as a critic and a parent. But to point out the obvious, she isn't exactly the target audience of the Thomas canon. Besides, what children's cartoon could stand up to a rigorous critique of this sort?
My goal is not to rebut Van Slyke, though. Her young son "thankfully never went through a manic train fascination like so many other children," Van Slyke says. But my young sons are ardent fans of trains, and Thomas. And after hours of grudgingly sitting through videos of life on Sodor, I just might be, too.
I'd like my sons to grow up to want to be useful and take pride in their work. I would prefer they not turn out to be blindly obedient grunts — a caricature of the Sodor engines — but at least for now I'm more than happy when they listen to the Sir Topham Hatts of our household. I value friendship and loyalty and admitting when you make a mistake, and I'd like my children to, also.
Developmentally, children do better when there are clear rules that are enforced consistently. They like things to be fair. Well-defined boundaries tell them where they can play freely and push up against.
If you look at Sir Topham Hatt literally, sure, he's a "controlling autocrat," a throwback to the age of Winston Churchill (Winston, in fact, is the name of his rail car). But I doubt many kids will see him that way, just like they don't see Santa Claus as an authoritarian toy-factory owner with a slave workforce of little people. If they see the Fat Controller at all — the Thomas stories are mostly about the engines — he's the rotund father figure who fairly metes out rewards and punishments and loves his engines.
Look, Thomas & Friends isn't my favorite children's show — check out Peep and the Big Wide World on Netflix, or the goofily operatic Wonder Pets at Amazon Prime. But in a world of jerky, psychedelic, fast-paced, me-first, violent, materialistic children's fare, I'll allow stodgy, anachronistic old Thomas into my living room. And yes (sigh), I'll buy the overpriced trains, too.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 13 Urban Outfitters controversies
- This is how the U.S. thinks China could invade Taiwan
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Can we lead spiritually fulfilling lives without religion?
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- Surviving a plane crash
- Obama knows he can't really 'defeat' ISIS. Americans need to wake up to that reality, too.
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- Jason Segel's 6 favorite books
Subscribe to the Week