Thomas the Tank Engine as a vehicle for Ideology?

by Anna Blanch on February 15, 2010

It is not difficult to imagine a mum sitting next to her three year old son and watching Thomas the Tank Engine. But when you’re Canadian Political Scientist apparently the research side of your brain doesn’t switch off…
Professor Shauna Wilton, department of political sciences at Alberta University, Canada, found that the show does portray some positive values, such as contributing to the community, tolerance of others and good communication but objected the reinforcement of social hierarchies, the oppression of women characters and those workers who show dissent or object to the status quo.Wilton has said that was inspired to carry out her study after watching Thomas videos with her three year old daughter and being concerned at what she saw. The Herald Sun reported that “Professor Wilton presented her findings at a conference and says there should be tighter controls of what is broadcast to children”. There is no indication in the article what kind of conference this “research” was presented at or the sponsoring body.

THOMAS the Tank Engine stories have been slammed by a Canadian academic for being too conservative and under-representing women.
The cheeky little train and his friends live in a world blighted by a “conservative political ideology” and a rigid class system that stifles self-expression, according to startling new academic research.
Professor Shauna Wilton also found that women are under-represented in the stories and what few female characters there are tend to have “secondary” roles or be bossy.


She was left feeling “uncomfortable” by the way the colourful steam engines are punished if they show initiative or try to change their rank or role. […] Any attempt by the downtrodden workers to break out of this controlled hierarchy to gain individual power, show initiative or dissent is met with punishment, usually because it goes wrong, Professor Wilton found. […]

It seems that she used a form of structural criticism to analyse the 48 stories combined with aspects of Marxist criticism. I don’t think her argument is particularly innovative but I will say that I am somewhat impressed by how she harnassed the mainstream media. Indeed this was a story in a major Australian newspaper about a Canadian political scientist’s research on a British children’s cartoon and it for this reason that I think it is worth discussing.

Any thoughts?

[Photo Credit: BrandChannel ]

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  • Sam Van Eman

    It's funny. I so often play critic that I get to hear folks say, "What's the big deal? It's only _____!" Of course I know how they feel because I want to say the same thing here: "It's only Thomas! Leave him alone."

    I remember the first time I had this response. It was when I read Neil Postman's criticism of Sesame Street in Amusing Ourselves to Death. (Can you say "sacred violation"?)

    If everything is tainted with sin, then I suppose everything needs a critic. It's Thomas's turn.

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  • Goannatree

    Sam, i know what you mean. That's why i didn't say "what's the problem?" After all, i think examining Ideology in Children's lit is actually long overdue! especially in terms of educating parents about aspects they may not notice. I was interested in the way this scholar harnassed the media given that this is actually not particularly innovative, even for Thomas!

  • Sam Van Eman

    Maybe it's because it's Thomas. Widely (perhaps universally) accepted and endorsed by parents, especially moms, and here's a mom pushing back.
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  • GNA

    Excellent blog post and comments.

    I agree with both your points about an ongoing examination of discourse in media (e.g., kid lit.).

    I wanted to offer up a "tally ho" to initial comment made by Sam.

    I too am the one at the table who gets the "What's the big deal? Its only ____." comments from friends and family. I often think their response is more about my almost non-stop desire to have "serious" conversations rather than chat about the latest movies, fashion bits, etc. (Not that I'm above those types of chats.) I find that when I'm surrounded by the folks I find most interesting I want to engage in thought-provoking dialog-sometimes they have an alternative agenda, like having a beer.

    It is indeed difficult at times to reel in my enthusiasm about critiquing and deconstructing EVERYTHING. This is either an outcome of doctoral studies or a lifelong pleasure (for me) and pain in the rear for my comrades.

    Peace. GNA

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