Thomas the Tank Engine: The popular children's show is sadly nostalgic for British imperialism.

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July 26 2011 10:07 AM

Thomas the Imperialist Tank Engine

The not-so-hidden subtexts of the popular children's show.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

There is something rotten on the Island of Sodor, home to Thomas the Tank Engine. Viewers won't find guns, violence, or anything even approaching a double-entendre. There's none of the blatant racism of early Disney Song of the South or religion delivered through talking produce, as in Veggie Tales. Yet something about Thomas and Friends gives liberal parents the creeps.

For example: In 2009, academic Shauna Wilton wrote that Thomas carried a "conservative political ideology." Her report was derided as whimsy-hating "political correctness" by conservative media outlets. But wait: Thomas espouses top-down leadership, is male-dominated, punishes dissent, and is uninterested in the mushy sensitivity of its PBS counterparts. (Thomas and his "friends" often "tease" like this: " 'Wake up lazy bones! Do some hard work for a change!") Its innate conservatism is as obvious as the liberalism of cooperative, solar-panel-building Bob the Builderand his band of hippie hammer-lovers. Given charges that Thomas is anti - Semitic and that Sodor is a fascist paradise, Wilton's assessment is mild. Obviously, it's foolish to claim that Thomas is a fascist. He and his friends are clearly imperialists.

How did I get here? Having failed to reach that perfect bar of parenting, no television at all until Harvard, the exhausted parent critic sits with a train-obsessed child and the TV. I'm overeducated and understimulated, with shelves full of long-ignored critical-theory books, trained in the reading of "texts" through Marxist, feminist, and postmodern perspectives. It's no wonder that the dormant critical theorist within me awakens when faced with the coded wonderland of children's programming. Hitchcock is well-covered territory, but Thomas and Friends presents a minefield of untapped deconstructing opportunities!

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It may be a few years before I lay out the particularities of British imperialism to my son (I think 5 is probably about right for Kipling criticism), but it's still important to instill basic skepticism in your young media consumer. Otherwise, you face the very real possibility that your toddler, raised in an environment full of labor abuses and pro-toadying propaganda, might one day look at you and earnestly promise to be "very useful"—the show's highest compliment for an engine. In our home, Thomas and Friends must rule Brittania no more, and some ugly truths about unjust train society must be told.

On the Island of Sodor, the sun has not yet set on the British Empire, and the consequences of defiance are illustrated in parables like "Hiro Helps Out." Hiro, Asian immigrant (he is voiced by Japanese actor Togo Igawa, and the images of his island home mirror traditional ukiyo-e woodcuttings)and onetime "Master of the Rails," here oversteps his authority. In an effort to assist Sir Topham Hatt, the "controller of the rails," who is oddly discombobulated, Hiro decides to give the other trains their orders himself. But initiative is not a virtue on the Island of Sodor, and stepping above one's station is a serious offense. When Sir Topham Hatt finds that Hiro has appointed himself middle-manager, he is furious ("I am controller of the railway!").

Hiro apologizes profusely, almost tearfully ("I thought I was master of the rails, but I am only master of the muddle"), but that is not enough. Hiro must go to each individual train to prostrate himself and explain that only Sir Topham Hatt gives orders. He apologizes to each train for giving them instruction, saying "I was wrong. Sir Topham Hatt didn't want that at all." Once he has completed his shame tour (one half-expects Hiro to commit hara-kiri than face the depth of his dishonor), Hiro chugs back to Sir Topham Hatt's side, where the benevolent master tells him he is "helpful," which in turn makes Hero "happier than he had ever been." To say this is a little conservative is like saying that Animal Farm is a little allegorical.

Yet the conservatism of Thomas and Friends is not the conservatism of America. Key to the "pick yourself up by your bootstraps" mythos in the United States is the notion that anyone can rise to the top with hard work and initiative. The Thomas series glories instead in true "white man's burden" style British imperialism. Our hero, Thomas, and his friends jockey for positions just below that of the bullying aristocrat Sir Topham Hatt but never seek to rise to his level. The stern, dour little Englishman in top hat and tails dangles meaningless honors like getting to "carry the most special special" to divide and conquer the trains.

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