Thomas and his Friends, the Patriarchy

Today Piglet and I went to the library. The reason for this was that I had a book on helping child language development which was due back (having been barely touched.  I have resigned myself to the fact that Piglet’s vocabulary is likely to consist of no more than “ball” and “A-DA” for some time to come, as I have written about here).  However, while we were there I availed myself of the opportunity to look like a shining example of motherhood by reading books to Piglet and successfully not allowing him to pull piles of them off the shelves or rip out any flaps that happened to be lurking inside.  I steered him towards Charlie and Lola, which turned out to be a bit too long to hold his attention, and after briefly being interested in some books with pictures of animals in, he settled on several of the apparently limitless collection of books known nowadays as Thomas and Friends.

I’m assuming that the words “tank engine” were removed simply because no one knows what a tank engine is anymore, since there is barely a person still living who remembers steam trains when they were actually a thing, right?

However, despite the removal of “tank engine” from the title, very little else appears to have changed in the past 60 years in Thomas-Land, also known as the Isle of Sodor.  Based on the Thomas books I have seen so far (I admit I haven’t seen the TV series in a while), let’s take a closer look at the evidence.

1.) Thomas and his Friends are all steam engines.  And unlike Real Life present-day steam engines, they are not lovingly restored museum pieces that run on special lines a couple of times a year staffed by enthusiasts.  They do ACTUAL REAL WORK, like pulling passengers and freight around the Isle of Sodor.  Given that the entire Isle of Sodor was probably shut down by Beeching around 1962, this is surely a lie of epic proportions.  I am more inclined to believe that the moon is actually occupied by the Clangers in their natty fabric body-armour outfits than I am to believe that the Isle of Sodor is representative of any real present-day island.

2.) As Thomas and Friends are all steam engines, there is an underlying current of menace and threat surrounding the few resident non-steam-powered trains.  Diesel, for example, is considered the enemy.  Luddites, much?

3.) Thomas and his Friends all have massive faces.  This is seriously creepy.  I have seen some books where everything at Brendam Docks has a big, scary face, even the cranes.  A CRANE WITH A FACE, people.  This will HAUNT MY DREAMS.

4.) Where there are traces of modernity, these appear to be glaring anachronisms on Ye Olde Sceptr’d Isle of Sodor.  For example I have seen a helicopter in one book-a helicopter!  In the 1950s!  Pass the smelling salts for I hath glimpsed the future and it is TERRIFYING!  A flying machine with a great big propeller on top.  Who’d have thought it?  The helicopter is called Harold.  As in, 1066, or tuba-playing Neighbours character of yore.  Who would even call a helicopter Harold?

However, the fifth, and most important beef I have with Thomas (and his Friends) concerns the Friends themselves.  Let’s take a look at these Friends: James, Henry, Gordon, Edward, Percy, Victor, Harold (don’t forget Harold!), Douglas, Diesel, Bertie, the Fat Controller…..are you noticing a pattern here?  Of course, how could I have missed it, these Friends are, without exception MALE.

So apparently there are no females on the Isle of Sodor.

A splendid specimen of the 1950s if ever I saw one
A splendid specimen of the 1950s if ever I saw one

Oh yes, of course there are, I had forgotten Annie and Clarabel!  Ah, Annie and Clarabel, Thomas’ CARRIAGES.

I get it now, on Sodor the females are seen and not heard, quite literally.  They are mere passive vessels, to be pushed and pulled about by the men.  I’m starting to think that this Sodor isn’t quite as idyllic a place as it likes to present itself.

Not only that but even the characters who are humans as opposed to inanimate methods of transportation are male.  Take this guy, for example.

OK so he's a figure of fun here, but I can guarantee he's having the last laugh, as long as patriarchy still reigns supreme.
OK so he’s a figure of fun here, but I can guarantee he’s having the last laugh, as long as patriarchy still reigns supreme.

Surely there can be no better representative of patriarchy, the world as literally controlled by pompous middle-aged white men-possibly wearing top hats-than this one.  I also particularly like the fact that the other characters in this picture are also white males.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen any railway worker in a Thomas book-and there are quite a few-who was not a white man.  I’m also enjoying the future leaders of Sodor-apparently public schoolboys-in the corner here.  Do the girls on Sodor not go to school?  Was it wash day when this picture was taken, or were they all on their period and hence confined to some outbuilding for a week or so, so as not to pollute the crisp air of Sodor’s houses with their uncleanliness?

Come on Thomas, get with the programme.  Chuggington has a female mayor you know.  And she’s black.  Sodor is over.  Embrace the future!

My Random Musings

23 Comments Add yours

  1. Hayley says:

    My son is a massive Thomas fan so I know all the engines – theres actually Marion, Emily, Rosie, Mavis, Belle, Caitlyn, Lady, Elizabeth, Daisy, – just off the top of my head from glancing at his train collection 😛 lol

    1. Min says:

      Yay! I’m glad to hear this as I have never seen any ladies in any of the books (Annie and Clarabel aside). I’m relieved they are finally moving with the times 🙂

  2. Gemma says:

    There are also female human characters now too, though they are relations of the Fat Controller. As Hayley mentioned there are plenty of female engines now too. Thomas (and Friends) is definitely changing.

    1. Min says:

      Yes a few people have mentioned that. Glad to hear it’s changing. I’m intrigued to meet these relatives of the Fat Controller! I saw one book where he actually had henchmen, which I thought was hilarious!

      1. Gemma says:

        Oh I haven’t heard of them! It’s wife and his mother but I can’t remember their names off the top of my head. Oh and he has a niece or granddaughterG 🙂

        1. Min says:

          They didn’t get names-just two threatening looking blokes in uniform flanking him one each side as he stepped out of his Rolls Royce in one book I read. I loved how he needed to bring his heavies with him to talk to one of his trains.

  3. Nicole Stanfield Caile says:

    The world’s first mass-produced helicopter was made in the 1940s, apparently. 🙂

    1. Min says:

      And Leonardo Da Vinci designed a prototype in the 1500s too. I wasn’t sure exactly when the dawn of the helicopter age was, but was assuming around the time of the Vietnam War. Just using a bit of artistic licence in lieu of full historic accuracy! 🙂

  4. suzy says:

    I can’t stand Thomas as, not only is it a great big paean to sexism and class oppression, it is horrendously, tooth- pullingly dull and clunky to read. And massively over marketed. And gives people an excuse to call it “Thomas the Tank”, which makes my teeth itch. Is that steam engine a tank? Is it? Is it? Clearly not. I’m with you- Chuggington is miles better. Not perfect, mind you- I notice Callie the female breakdown train appears to have been overlooked for promotion and be answering to a male boss in the new series….it’s all the fucking patriarchy innit?

    1. Min says:

      It is, haha! To be fair I’ve only seen one episode of Chuggington, so am no expert!

  5. ArchimedesBestFeather says:

    I hear you on the giant faces. Are they fleshy? Are they soft, if you poked one,could it give? Shudder.

    What bothers me most, aside from the glaring sexism, is that the fat controller seems to be some kind of dark wizard/ necromancy who has brought life to these machines. They are all beholden to him, they call him Sir and must obey him. He must have had to make them pretty thick to keep them under the thumb, because most of his problems seem to come from the engines acting like idiots, then being sorry about it. Surely they are his slaves.

    And what happens to engines that aren’t ‘really useful’? What if they cause too much ‘confusion and delay’? We get a hint in the episode where Thomas finds Hiro, abandoned on an old line and overgrown with weeds, but still somehow sentient. What powers them? Gruesome.

    1. Min says:

      Very good point. I hadn’t thought too much about the dark undertones of the Fat Controller’s dictatorial power over them, but yes. Now I will never be able to read it in the same way again!

  6. Veronika says:

    My son is almost five and *still* into Thomas – will it ever end? If you want the full horror, there is even a Thomas theme park. I most despise it for the classism (workmen as opposed to ‘important passengers’!), the authoritarian father figure that is the Fat Controller and because it is so badly written.

    1. Min says:

      A Thomas theme park?! I pray my mother never finds out about this as she seems determined to get my son to like Thomas at all costs. And it seems to be working.

  7. Lee Campbell says:

    Hubby and I have immersed Into Thomas with my little boy. We love it, it teaches colours, numbers, naughty behaviour doesn’t go unchecked, ti learn lessons. OK yes I do see that the male-female ratio was poor but it’s improved and don’t underestimate the female coaches. The women are Lady Hat and Mrs Toppenhat also Mrs Kyndly (oh Hell ? I’m hooked). The diesels are naughty yes but from a steam lover, which the author was. That’s to be expected. My boy is 2, he loves it, can count up to 14 and knows over 100 characters. Their colours and their jobs…. I credit Thomas for many things that my clever cookie has learned in the last year obviously with help of us too.

    1. Min says:

      That’s good to hear. I hadn’t really thought about it as a teaching tool but a few people have mentioned this to me. Glad to hear it’s improving!

  8. I’m a bit torn on this one – while it’s irritating that all of the main characters are male, I would hate for it to go the way of Fireman Sam, where they have a token female firefighter and a token black woman (with a bad accent because apparently black people can’t have been born and raised in Wales).
    My daughter loves Thomas but I find it teeth-itchingly dull. Great post; very amusing!

    1. Min says:

      Fireman Sam! I haven’t seen that recently but my brother used to be obsessed with it when we were kids. Seems like only yesterday but it must have been 25 years ago so it’s probably changed a lot since then, but I remember watching an old episode recently and laughing at a few crude racial stereotypes-the Italian restaurant owner was the one that stood out to me. I think her name was Bella Lasagne and from what I can recall she used to say “mamma mia” a lot. Standard.

      1. Leela says:

        Now fireman Sam is a joke! He gets credit for everything, they don’t say phone the fire brigade it’s phone fireman Sam! Poor Elvis, Penny and Station Officer Steal get no thanks at all. Also watched one episode where the women were in a house and hair tongs went on fire, Penny was there but could she fulfil the task without Sam? Nope they had to call him out. It is sexist, racist (they still have black/Asian stereotypes) and the kid’s squeaky voices annoy me. Norman Price should be in a young offenders by now! But my son enjoys it and while the squeaky voices irritate me, the language is coherent and not crazy like other wacky shows. He gets concerned if the smoke alarm goes off and when I put gas hobs on he says be careful mummy, so it does teach some good things. I just bite my knuckles when it comes on ha ha.

        1. Min says:

          Oh no, I was hoping it had improved! I used to think it was a step up from Thomas because at least they had Penny. The racial stereotypes were awful though. I also found it interesting that the dastardly Norman was the child of a single parent. Stereotypes much?

  9. Helen Gandy says:

    Promise there are lots of female engines…..and they are feisty some of them ha!! 🙂

    1. Min says:

      Good to hear. I haven’t met them yet, but I look forward to it!

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