Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

Do people really have so much time on their hands?

Posted in Other general stuff about railways by Chairman Pip on 9 February 2010

I should have posted about this sooner, but events in the real world demanded attention. However, you may well have heard, back in December, of the statement made by Professor Shauna Wilton, an assistant professor of Political Studies at the University of Alberta Augustana. She watched 23 episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends with her daughter (which has been reported in the media as “a study”), and has come to the conclusion that the programme, and thus the books that it is based on “pushes a conservative ideology and relegates female characters to the back of the train”.

There’s a really clear social hierarchy, and everyone is looking down at the characters that are below them, and generally speaking, the political outlook is pretty conservative. The best thing that can happen to a train is to be praised by Sir Topham Hatt, and the worst thing that can happen is for him to be disappointed in them

She also comments on the lack of prominent female characters, stating that the top of the hierarchy is occupied by the steam locomotives, all of which are male, and that they look down on the diesel locomotives, and then that everyone looks down on the passenger coaches, that are usually female:

The gender roles were particularly interesting to me because I have a daughter who watches the show, and as the mother of a daughter, I want her to be watching shows with strong female characters in them. And female characters are pretty much confined to supporting roles in this show. Thomas has Annie and Clarabel. They chug along behind him and repeat what he says and cheer him on or express concern and worry if they don’t feel he’s doing the right thing.

All very worthy no doubt. But has Professor Wilton missed the fact that not only is she putting in what most people seem to believe is a serious social analysis of a children’s programme about railway locomotives that can talk, but that what the programme is based on is a series of books that were first published in 1945? I doubt very much that the Rev W. Awdry gave much thought to gender stereotypes or social hierarchies when he first wrote down his tales of the Island of Sodor and its railways.

As political scientists, we need to be thinking critically about it and not assume that just because it’s television for kids, there’s nothing in it. We need to look at it a little more deeply and be a little more critical.

Or, Professor Wilton, we could have a little more faith that the upbringing of children will teach them to judge people equally, based on their own merits rather than any perceived social hierarchy. In any case, surely Thomas the Tank Engine will show children the benefits of hard work and being good. The Fat Controller should not be looked on as an employer, but rather as a patriarch and the locomotives as children (given that very often that is how they act), and so when they do well he bestows a father’s love and praise, and when they do wrong he shows his disappointment, just like a father. Children are more savvy than you apparently give them credit for. Perhaps Professor Wilton should allow herself the opportunity to simply watch Thomas the Tank Engine as a parent, rather than as an academic, and accept it for what it is – an amusing and colourful distraction for children.

“Thomas the Tank Engine sexist, hierarchical: study”


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