by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Those among us who were worried that we had finally reached Peak Nonsense were thrilled last week when a trailblazer named Tracy Van Slyke pioneered a newfangled extraction method and wrote up her findings in the Guardian. In one of the corners of silliness that had hitherto been unreachable to the rest of us, Van Slyke uncovered the contention that Thomas the Tank Engine was not a sweet and benign television show, beloved worldwide by parents and their offspring alike, but instead a dangerous source of “subversive messages” from which “children everywhere” must be “saved.” Thomas and his friends, Van Slyke griped, “toil away endlessly on the Isle of Sodor — which seems to be forever caught in British colonial times”; they are overwhelmingly male, which sets “a bad example for girl wannabe train engineers”; and they are ruled by a fat, “imperious, little white” man called Sir Topham Hatt, who acts as the “Monopoly dictator of their funky little island.” All in all, she deduced, the program is a hive of “classism,” “sexism,” and “anti-environmentalism bordering on racism,” and “the constant bent of messages about friendship, work, class, gender and race” are all but guaranteed to send her “kid the absolute wrong message.” “Look through the steam rising up from the coal-powered train stacks,” Van Slyke opined, and you quickly “realize that the pretty puffs of smoke are concealing some pretty twisted, anachronistic messages.” Okay then. …
… For the sake of time, we might dispense with what is actually “obvious” at the outset: that the characters in Thomas the Tank Engine don’t have “pre-existing schedules,” because they’re trains, and even anthropomorphized locomotives are ultimately at the mercy of those driving them; that Hatt “orders” them about because he’s the controller of the railway, and . . . again, because they’re trains; and that Hatt is “white” because the show in which he stars is set in the 1940s on a British island that is nestled in the middle of the Irish Sea somewhere between western England and the Isle of Man. Today, the Isle of Man is almost exclusively white; in 1945, when the first Railway Series book was published, the Isle of Man was actually 100 percent white. Likewise, in 2014, England is 85.4 percent white, and western England much more so than that; in 1945, England was almost completely white. It would have been extraordinarily odd if the Fat Controller — a man in charge of a transportation system on a fictional island squeezed in between the two places — had been from Nigeria.
Still, what seems to vex Van Slyke more than anything else is that the trains’ sense of self-worth is in some way contingent on the Fat Controller’s opinion of them. “Inevitably,” she writes, “the trains get in a fight with or pick on one another (or generally mess up whatever job they are supposed to be doing) until Hatt has to scold one of them about being a ‘really useful engine.’” This is problematic, she suggests, “because their sole utility in life is their ability to satisfy his whims.” One wonders how well she understands children. Hatt is intended to be not the hero within the books but instead a facilitator for the other characters’ antics. In consequence, his being reasonably strict serves not as propaganda but as a useful and extremely common literary means by which the characters with whom the children identify — the trains, invariably — might get into mischief. Van Slyke is correct when she intuits that the trains are pleased when they are praised by Hatt. But she misses that they also derive pleasure from being a little naughty — from rebelling against his master. Thomas, Awdry explains in the second book, is “a cheeky little engine” — one prone to push at the rules. Without those rules, there is no rebellion.