We all know Thomas the Tank Engine, right? Cute little train with a smiley face? If you have kids under five, he’s probably been zooming around your living room for a couple of years as a character on TV, in books, printed on your kids’ pyjamas and, oh yeah, an actual toy train set.
Kids love trains. Thomas is a train. Ergo, kids love Thomas. That’s pretty straightforward.
But how well do parents really know Thomas and his friends? Not well enough, says Jessica Roake on Slate. Underneath their perky exterior lies a spooky Imperialist agenda.
Roake is the first to admit she’s got too much time on her hands. She writes:
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!
Roake taps those deconstructing opportunities with the vengeance of an educated adult forced to watch toddler TV all day. I feel her, I really do.
And it’s hard to argue with her conclusion: Thomas and Friends is based on stories written in post-war Britain, by a dude nostalgic for the British Empire of his youth. It’s hardly surprising that the bones of those themes can be found in its modern incarnation.
I think you have to be looking for them, though. I’m not worried that Thomas will inspire my kids to grow up and become colonialist powers, any more than I’m worried he’ll inspire them to grow up and become trains. You could argue that hidden messages aimed at toddlers are more insidious than the more blatant kinds of conservative propaganda. But really? My kids never paid enough attention to the insipid Thomas stories to be much influenced by them. They took their little wooden trains and ran into worlds of their own imagination. Worlds that more closely resembled the ethics of the home they’re growing up in than the vestiges of mid-century British imperialism on the Isle of Sodor.