Why Thomas the Tank Engine is a Commie Plot

I have all these deep thoughts I’ve been thinking about the post I wrote last week, combined with even deeper thoughts sparked by a comment thread happening on that silly Walk Feminine post. But all these deep thoughts are still percolating in the realm of thoughtful thinking and haven’t actually transformed into words with syllables, much less a coherent grammatical structure, so today I’m going to tell you why you should immediately stop letting your kids watch Thomas the Tank Engine.

Here’s a hint:

I’m so not even kidding, y’all. Thomas the Tank Engine is totally a commie plot.

Listen, I used to be just like you. Another college-educated young mom (or dad, which I never was, but something something inclusive language) who thought that Thomas was not only harmless (no violence!) but also not irritating (no songs that make you suicidal! (I’m looking at you, Little Einsteins)). Plus it taught the kids morals, right? I mean, some engine or other was always doing something naughty and having to learn not to do that naughty thing, so, morals.

Actually, I was so pro-Thomas that when I was pregnant with Charlotte, the Ogre and I took Sienna to see Thomas the Tank Engine Live! in Las Vegas.

I was so excited as I watched Sienna drink her Sprite in big gulps, her eyes getting wider and wider as the audience filled up and the lights dimmed, until finally I thought they would pop right out of her head when the stage lights blazed and the curtain came up.

The first 30 seconds were all I had hoped they would be. There was a giant, life-size Thomas, and all these pinstriped, dancing conductors, and they were all merrily singing –

“Wait, what?” the Ogre whispered. “What the crap? Why is the chorus repeating how useful Thomas is?”

I looked at him, a little stricken, recognizing the beginning of an I-read-too-much-into-everything-and-ruin-everyone’s-fun-because-that’s-what-I’m-paid-to-do-and-I-like-it-that-way academic fit. “Oh, you know. I mean, that’s what the show’s about, because they’re trains, so they have to do what they’re built to do. And since they’re trains, their goal is to be useful.”

The Ogre’s beard glowered as he answered, “that’s *redacted* communism.”

Oh crimeny, I thought, this is awful. Now he’s totally going to ruin this whole thing by seeing Red Ivans behind every train in Sodor. Curse you, literary theory! Curse you forever!

To his great credit, he held his tongue and even managed some smiles for Sienna, who was visibly transported by the endless chorus of “Thomas is a Really Useful Engine.” But his beard continued to glower in disapproval.

When we got home, he said, “no more Thomas.” Having learned by now that arguing with an academic is a Sisyphean blunder, I got all whiny and morose and pouted for a week. Which was clearly my only option.

But during that week, I actually thought about how much I myself recoiled at the live dramatization of usefulness as the highest virtue. It never bothered me too much in the show, but if I’m being honest, I never paid that much attention to the show. Sienna liked it, it kept her occupied, and the snatches I caught in between dusting and ironing* weren’t actually enough for me to grasp the nature of the show.

So I watched a few episodes on my own. And I. Was. Horrified.

The argument I made to the Ogre held no water against the rampant communism happening in Sodor. And furthermore, the idea that because the show is about trains it must necessarily focus on virtues specific to trains is patently absurd, and antithetical to one of the principles of children’s literature.

Why do we anthropomorphize anything? It’s not to teach our kids more about the thing that we chose to anthropomorphize, otherwise The Lion King would have ended with Simba eating Timon and getting gored to death by Pumbaa, while Sarabi turned over her lady-lion-bits to Scar and then hunted him up a nice hyena. (Preferably the one voiced by Whoopi Goldberg.)

We anthropomorphize things for a zillion reasons, but I believe the main reason is to teach us more about ourselves. To reveal aspects of human nature by putting it in a different context.

Let’s be very clear about this: there is no reason to give Thomas the Tank Engine and all his friends human characteristics, emotions, motivations, and even faces except to teach small children something about being human. And what they are being taught, episode after wretched episode, is that the highest good is usefulness.

And not even general, across-the-board usefulness. Not success, to put it another way, or even achievement. Rather than encourage children to reach beyond their boundaries and try something difficult, Thomas teaches kids that trying something you’re not already good at (or that you weren’t “made for”, in the language of Sodor) is inherently wrong. A common motif is some poor engine or other wanting to try and do something different, something he sees another engine doing…but because he’s not made for that task, he fails horrifically. He’s not useful, because he’s attempting to accomplish a task he isn’t suited for. In the end, the engine usually learns the important lesson that he should not try to overcome obstacles, but should accept his limitations as absolute.

This is pretty horrible stuff to teach kids. I’m not even going to go into the fact that the useless engines (mostly composed of engines who step out of line or who are dumb and get lost a lot) get scrapped. Yeah, for real. Scrapped. Here’s an idea for Lego: an Island of Sodor Scrap Yard, where your son’s lazy Daisy can be dismembered and compressed. I mean, this is a kids’ show, and the moral of every story is “do exactly as you’re told or you will be recycled and replaced.” Communism aside…really?

If I haven’t convinced you get that Thomas the Tank Engine is evil incarnate, here’s a little gem of a plot point, especially for parents of pretty pretty princesses. In “The Sad Story of Henry,” a train who is thrilled with his pretty green paint with red stripes runs into a tunnel to hide from the rain, so it doesn’t ruin his paint. He refuses to come out, even after the rain stops, because he doesn’t want his paint to get ruined. Finally, Sir Topham Hatt (whose real name, by the way, is the Fat Controller) orders the tunnel to be bricked up with Henry still inside.

Not sadistic enough for you? Sir Topham Hatt leaves enough room at the top for Henry to see all the other engines being useful and happy, but he runs out of steam so he can’t talk to them, and the soot from the tunnel ruins his paint. And that’s how the episode ends.

As the wife of an academic, I’m wary of people who are constantly reading “feminism” or “Marxism” or “queer theory” or, God help us, “post-colonialism” into every nook and cranny of human existence. But in this case, there’s no reading into anything. Thomas the Tank Engine is communist propaganda at it’s boldest, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed. I think the only reason it took me so long to see is that non-Disney children’s cartoons just aren’t the place where I expect to encounter indoctrination. To that end, I developed this handy-dandy checklist for all discerning, non-communist parents.

A Really Useful Communist Propaganda Check-list

☑ Utter disdain for aesthetic concerns
☑ Ruthless suppression of individualism
☑ Public humiliation
☑ Solitary confinement
☑ Utter neglect of physical needs
☑ Consistent elevation of the common good over the dignity of the individual

You’re welcome. I’m working on developing one for feminism next, along with female exploitation (hint: this one will include a single box labeled “Was it made by Disney?”), just as soon as I get this tinfoil hat off my head.

It seems to be stuck.


*This is clearly a gross exaggeration. I never iron. I suppose maybe she watched it while I dusted once, but I’m pretty sure the rest of the time I was reading Twilight. Again.


  • Donalbain

    Oh yeah? But what about the evil commie NHS that totally killed Stephen Hawking? Eh? Answer that!

    • TheodoreSeeber

      When did Stephen Hawking die? First I’ve heard of it.

  • Jim

    I like the checklist; reads like ‘After the Ball’.

    Reminds me of how Catholic Answers and the post-Mother Angelica EWTN leadership treats their forum users and fellow Catholics who express interest in the Faith.

    ☑ Utter disdain for aesthetic concerns
    ☑ Ruthless suppression of individualism
    ☑ Public humiliation
    ☑ Solitary confinement
    ☑ Utter neglect of physical needs
    ☑ Consistent elevation of the common good over the dignity of the individual

  • Josh

    Wow. The intellectual ruler carriers are slapping some serious wrists on this one. It almost feels like Shea’s combox.

    For your next installment, I recommend deconstructing Wonder Pets. It’s environmentalist misanthropy made cute.

    • Alexander

      I just love the stories. It’s like insulting a good friend. I respect her opinions and we don’t need to have the same conclusion. However I truly love the series of works and am challenging her assessments.

  • david

    Stirred up quite the storm here. ;)

  • RPS

    I think that’s a pretty weak argument. I think the complete opposite is true. at least with the latest incarnation of Thomas and his friends. The criticism that I have about the class struggle has to do with the portrayal of the real Sodorian proletariat: The Diesels. They are depicted as greasy, dirty, crude and living in squalor, like an underclass. I think the message of “being useful” is just a passive way of saying “do your part.” That is the goal of the bourgeois Steamies. They want for nothing: they are well fed, cleaned, and housed by nameless, faceless servants Trying to be useful appears to be just a way to seek Sir Topham Hat’s approval. Thomas and his friends are usually tripped up by things like pride, fear or disobedience. They show their usefulness when they help their friends, overcome an obstacle, or find an alternate solution. However, one of the main criticisms I have is that there are never any hard consequences for screwing up. Everything turns out well in the end even if you screw up. Perhaps that is too strong a message for my two year old.

  • William Tzu-wang Tai

    Riiiiiigggght… a communist plot….. Like the author of the series wasn’t having a terrible time back in WWII (you know, trying to avoid the communists I’m sure), on top of his son having the measles back in 1943. So, what did Reverend Wilbert Awdry do? Told stories to ease the pain of his son, Christopher Awdry about some trains with faces living on the fictional Island of Sodor. Then after WWII ended, this is how the story of Thomas and Friends came to be.

    Ok, maybe if you watched the HiT series (Seasons 9-16), yeeeeeaaaah, those episodes were terrible, but overall, the stories aren’t so bad.

    Oh and in the story involving the story with Henry, it was a two-parter. It’s not like they left him to rot in the shed! He was left there like if you put a kid on a time out because he was complaining or whining about something so trivial. The sheer fact that seeing the show live in Las Vegas was a terrible idea. You do realize that even a kids show like that would be botched up if it’s in a place like ‘sin’ city? This article is just overblown and ridiculous…

  • Almario Javier

    Uh, Calah is not a left-winger. Or a right-winger. Or much of anything ideologically where Catholicism does not intersect.

  • Lynn

    I saw two episodes, and then I was done. Not enough to do much real social commentary, but it drove me nuts that they were all so cranky and grumpy. Bah.

  • Rexeljet

    Right, hold on a minute. Let’s think about this for a moment.

    Thomas and his friends are railway locomotives.

    The personalities of the characters are a metaphor “explaining”, if you like, the way that steam engines all have character and the fact that they often seem to have minds of their own. For example, if an engine breaks down in a tunnel, then it may be represented in Thomas & Friends as an engine stopping in the tunnel so as not to get his paint wet.

    Regarding anthropomorphism, Thomas and his chummies are not the same sort of anthro as, say, Spongebob or Mickey Mouse. Those two characters are basically human characters who just so happen to be drawn as non-humans. Thomas and his friends, on the other hand, are exactly what they are drawn as- railway engines- the only difference being that they can think (and speak) for themselves. They’re also responsible for when otherwise unexplainable things happen to them.

    At the end of the day, railway engines were built mainly to transport things, whether that be coaches full of passengers, trucks full of goods, or something else. First and foremost, they have to be useful at what they’re doing. If they aren’t useful, then there’s no point in them existing.

    Then, you mention the sad story of Henry. You proceed to make the exact same mistake as every other person out of the loop who mentions this story- ignore the story that directly followed it- Edward, Gordon and Henry. The page you linked to even has a link to the perishing episode.

    And this links to what I said earlier about TTTE ‘personifying’ railway engines. This was based on a real life event where a locomotive broke down in a tunnel and was abandoned. The Sad Story of Henry was just a retelling of that, but the engine in question was given a personality.

    There’s also the stuff that other people have said regarding the true moral of the Thomas stories.

    If you’re going to rant about this sort of nonsense, at least pick a story like “Bad look out”. You’ll love that one. An engine falls down a mountain and his manager ends up using him for spare parts for the other engines.

    Then there was Misty Island Rescue. This was perhaps the most morally inept, family unfriendly story in the entire franchise. And yet none of you type of people bat an eyelid at it!

    Seriously, if you’re going to write something, think it through before you publish it.

  • Silvia Aldredge

    Thomas the Tank Engine is a Communist plot because all of your money will be re-distributed to the glorious workers paradise in Guangzhao where the things are manufactured…