Thomas the Tank Engine (Deconstructed)

At Slate a certain Jessica Roake has made the case that the Thomas the Tank Engine series is laced together with British imperialism.

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 Friendsgives liberal parents the creeps….

For example: In 2009, academic Shauna Wilton wrote that Thomascarried 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 Builder and his band of hippie hammer-lovers. Given charges that Thomas is anti-Semiticand 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….

Since the company HIT entertainment took over the Thomas franchise in 2003, it has revamped the show’s original model-train style and done away with the incongruous narration of liberals George Carlin and Alec Baldwin. (Please imagine Alec Baldwin saying, “You’re just a small green engine with ideas above your station!”) The new Thomas is a CGI’d, multiple voice actor extravaganza with nary an iconoclast narrator in sight, and the cast of trains has diversified a bit. There are more female and foreign engines, the narratives have softened, and Sir Topham Hatt occasionally smiles. But once you have engaged in Thomas cultural criticism, there’s no going back. It’s nearly impossible to listen to lines like “being strong was only good if you were also really useful, and he had to be really useful” without hearing something sinister. Cast off your shackles and rise up, little engines! Down with Topham Hatt! Sodor revolution now!

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Matt

    Well, bust my buffers. The author has caused nothing but confusion and delay.

  • http://www.deltatwins.com Bob

    I guess it’s time to burn our vast collection of wooden trains and tracks…

  • John W Frye

    I have seen these horrible imperialistic effects on all my grandchildren! What am I to do?? Thomas has so betrayed me and my family.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephanie.seefeldt steph seefeldt

    i just bought 4 more discounted Thomas outfits for my guy at Walmart. So does that mean I’m doubly cursed? egads. We are a proud Thomas family through and through. So there.

  • http://www.citysoul.org.au Tim H

    Wow you found one child’s program laced with British Imperialism…. Now if only we could find a cartoon or film or TV show which sniffed of US imperialism – oh hang on, wait – thats the only narrative you’ve got!

  • P.

    I think someone had a little too much free time on her hands.

  • http://www.simotasia.com Collin Simula

    My son loves trains.
    This is a show about talking trains.
    My son is three. I don’t even think he is listening to the words of the show, let alone taking in conservative British imperialism.

    As a good ole liberal, even this kind of political correctness makes ME cringe.

  • John M.

    My four year old grandsons don’t give a rip, and neither does their grandpa!

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I listen to American Family Radio so I know what the lunatics are hearing and they regularly rail against Sesame Street. I shake my head…

  • http://randomthoughtsbychris.blogspot.com Chris

    I’ll confess, I’ve worried about the “I need to be useful” thing before, as an artist (which can be and oft is argued as a “useless” profession) AND as the father of a child who is learning to cope with Autism, it bugs me a lot.

    On the one hand, I think I agree with @Collin on #7, it doesn’t really seem to matter that much, it’s just a bunch of talking trains, but on the other hand, ages 2-8 are some of the most formative years for a child, and this sort of thing does work itself into unconscious cultural language that can resurface YEARS later, even if the child doesn’t immediately understand what they’re watching … it can make some things seem perfectly normal to us because it’s built into the basic framework of our culture, our set of assumptions, because that’s what we’ve always heard.

    Just playing devil’s advocate, hopefully my kid won’t feel insecure and knows how much her parents love her and how smart she is, but … still …

  • http://natomaschurch.wordpress.com Mike

    Since when is “working hard” a predominantly conservative value? No one worked as hard as my Fabian socialist grandfather.

  • Robert

    I had them all when I was little, in the late 1950′s, when British imperialism was still alive, and if not well, then at least struggling on. I remember there was one story where one of the engines went down the wrong line, and through a disused tunnel. He came out ‘as black as a n*****’, and nobody said anything till years later. Eventually the author discovered it was offensive, and altered it. Allegedly, he was extremely upset by this, and he may well have been. There was zero awareness back then.

  • http://julieclawson.com Julie

    Is it really that hard for us to accept criticism that when people try to point out the values that are shaping our children all we can do is mock it? Is thoughtful engagement with culture that off-limits?

    My three year old loves Thomas. But I still think it’s important as a parent to understand the worldviews that mold his understanding of other people and cultures. I don’t ban Thomas, but do make comments and ask my kids thoughtful questions when the values I see taught in the show undermine Christian values of loving and respecting others.

  • Mark Pike

    The Roarke story is the dumbest thing I have heard in a long time.

  • JohnM

    I must say I’m much relieved by the consensus expressed on this topic here in THIS particular forum. It’s gratifying to learn even good ole liberals have their limits :)

  • DLS

    Just imagine how many hours this would’ve been discussed on The Daily Show or Colbert had it been a conservative writing it. This apparently isn’t as funny.

  • http://www.christusvictoratonement.wordpress.com Ryan Mahoney

    Thank you for ruining reading time before bed. :)

  • Randy

    @Chris #10: I have been bothered most by the “useful” theme of Thomas. I’ve had to have conversations with my 5 year old that usefulness is not the most important virtue, and that we are often called by God to do “useless” things for the good of others. I don’t ban Thomas, because my 3 year old son loves trains, but as with all media, discussion and analysis, even for ones as young as this, is key.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I just think Thomas is a terrible, annoying show. I’m glad my son never got into it. Unfortunately, he does occasionally watch the annoying, always-yelling Dora. Seriously… Why is she always yelling?

  • http://www.baggas.com Baggas

    Alec Baldwin was in Thomas the Tank engine?? I must have missed those episodes. I only ever saw it narrated by Ringo Starr, and then some other guy with a similar but slightly milder accent. Did Alec put on a British voice or did he do it in his normal voice?? because there would be something seriously amiss with Thomas the Tank engine narrated in an American accent.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    @JohnM (#15)- Consensus? Sorry, no. We’re not all in agreement here. Some of us do actually see the value in being discerning about what our kids watch. And some of us are in fact troubled by the kinds of anti-Christian messages promoted in shows like Thomas. You may not be, but no, we don’t all think concerns like these are just about “silly liberals” going to far. The condescending dismissal of our concerns by you and others here is uncharitable and beneath the dignity of this website, which usually is a place for more intelligent discussion of important issues like these.

  • Tony Springer

    #20
    Baldwin played the Conductor in the motion picture version, also starring the electrifying Peter Fonda (each without accents). The movie showed the secret Grand Old Portal between our world and Thomas’s world.

  • http://www.spirithome.com/grace.html Bob Longman

    Tie her to the tracks!

    (oops… wrong animation; for some reason I’m stuck on Snidely Whiplash today…)


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