More Bad News for Talking Steam Engines

Thomas the Tank Engine made the news again this week, and not in a good way. Thomas is a series of TV episodes about talking steam engines. With faces on them.

A couple of months ago a friend and I were discussing it, so I pulled up something I’d written in grad school about it:

the stories emphasize the importance of responsibility, discipline, order, respect for authority, and work ethic. The highest compliment that [the controller] Sir Topham Hatt bestows, for example, is to announce in utilitarian fashion, “You’re a really useful engine.”

This time it’s a political science professor named Shauna Wilton at the University of Alberta in Augustana who’s built up a head of steam about the program. In a story in the Toronto Star, Wilton says Thomas broadcasts a “conservative political ideology that punishes individual initiative, opposes critique and change, and relegates females to supportive roles.”

“The female characters do tend to be a bit sidelined,” Wilton told the Star. “The show comes out of a particularly historical time period when society was hierarchical and there was a blind following of authority. I want my daughter to think for herself.”

Since then she’s received 30 angry emails she’s received from Thomas fans, who think she’s anti-Thomas. Being an academic, Wilton’s response is nuanced.

“My daughter loves the show and loves playing with trains. There are a lot of really positive themes in Thomas, but parents should be aware of the messages that are there.”

Well, sure, that sounds about right. But The Star needed the a quote from the pro-Thomas lobby, so they hauled Britt Allcroft, the show’s former producer, out of the shed for a helpful non sequitur.

[She] dismissed the allegations back then, saying, “Thomas and friends are neither male nor female. They’re magic.”

Riiight.

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