Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thomas the Tank Engine: Agent of Hegemony

I enjoyed Jessica Roake’s recent piece in Slate that argued that beloved children’s show Thomas the Tank Engine not only espouses a conservative message, but even an imperialist one.

I am not going to defend Thomas as actually being democratic, or (like most of Slate’s commenters) argue that she he hasn’t carefully watched the show or applied critical theory correctly. No I will defend Thomas for being conservative and imperialist. Not conservative in any narrow political sense. Sir Topham Hat must believe in government interventionism so that his railway can maintain its monopoly over Sodor Island transit.

First, let me express my bias, I believe that educational television is an oxymoron and that television is the equivalent of junk food or ice cream. It may have some modest nutritional value, but that is beside the point. None of this is to say I am a puritan, I watch lots of TV – but I have no illusions that this is anything but relaxation and amusement.

For my children, the point of TV is not to educate them in any way. There may be studies indicating that educational shows help children to read, write, and do trigonometry. My wife and I have advanced degrees, I am not worried that the little Goofs will master reading and be reasonably functional adults (that move out of my house shortly after they enter their third decade!) The purpose of letting my kids watch TV is to buy me an hour or so of peace so I can make dinner, go to the bathroom in peace, or write a blog entry about their TV viewing habits. As long as what they are watching achieves that purpose and is not age-inappropriate (which eliminates most prime-time network programming) I don’t care what they watch.

(Digression: Back in the early 1980s when my parents first got cable, I remember Arthur (starring Dudley Moore being broadcast all the time. My then six-year old brother was watching afterschool when my mother walked in and asked him what was happening. He cheerfully responded, “Arthur is picking up a hooker.”

That was the end of cable in our house.)

That being said, I like Thomas the Tank Engine. Most children’s shows are insipid in their efforts to send messages of cooperation. Because conflict is so limited these programs struggle to show even a faint pulse of dramatic tension. The fact that in Thomas the trains pick on each other is in the show’s favor because in real life children are mean to each other. There is something at stake in Thomas the Tank Engine. True, the big reward is being “useful” and getting to make special cargo runs – but it is after all a show about anthropomorphized trains.

Roake’s big problem is that the trains are discouraged from showing any initiative or ambition and instead live for Sir Topham Hatt’s faint praise of being “useful.” Roake illustrates this with the episode “Hiro Helps Out:"
In an effort to assist Sir Topham Hatt, the "controller of the rails," who is oddly discombobulated, Hiro decides to give the other trains their orders himself. But initiative is not a virtue on the Island of Sodor, and stepping above one's station is a serious offense. When Sir Topham Hatt finds that Hiro has appointed himself middle-manager, he is furious ("I am controller of the railway!").

Hiro apologizes profusely, almost tearfully ("I thought I was master of the rails, but I am only master of the muddle"), but that is not enough…. He apologizes to each train for giving them instruction, saying "I was wrong. Sir Topham Hatt didn't want that at all." Once he has completed his shame tour… Hiro chugs back to Sir Topham Hatt's side, where the benevolent master tells him he is "helpful," which in turn makes Hiro "happier than he had ever been."
Squelching of initiative is one interpretation, but another interpretation is possible. Is Sir Topham Hatt's primary responsibility to make sure the engines are happy, or is it to (for lack of a better phrase) make the trains run on time? Hiro may have made matters worse and made Sir Topham Hatt’s difficult day even more difficult. Was Hiro taking charge, or being bossy?

Oddly, as I was writing this, this very scenario played itself out at Goof Manor. Home sick from camp, GoofGirl was amusing herself making things with “gimp.” However, she didn’t quite have the dexterity to manage, but she didn’t want to bother daddy (who was furiously blogging) so she did it herself and accidentally unwound a few dozen yards of the stuff. I am pleased she wanted to be a big girl and do things herself, but her efforts to do so end up costing Mama Goof and I a lot of energy (and really cut into my blogging time!)

Just as I am not worried that modest exposure to television will rot the little Goofs’ brains, I am also not worried that a few hours of Thomas the Tank Engine will so infiltrate my children’s being and worldview that they will be reduced to virtual invertebrates aspiring to be valets. And besides, wouldn’t it be nice if children actually were helpful and useful – maybe Thomas is on to something?

Thomas for our Time
In The River War, Winston Churchill (who knew a thing or two about British imperialism) wrote, “…every vigorous impulse that a community may feel, become[s] perverted and distorted as time passes… A wide humanitarian sympathy in a nation easily degenerates into hysteria. A military spirit tends towards brutality. Liberty leads to licence, restraint to tyranny.”

I mention this, because it appears that Thomas the Tank Engine, where the highest praise is to be “useful” celebrates duty and pride in doing it. This value can be over-emphasized of course. But in our time and place where children are raised to be creative and told they can be anything, Thomas could be a much-needed antidote to license. After all, not everyone will lead lives devoted to self-actualization. In the real world, most people work for inscrutable bosses who are not interested in their ideas and need them to shut up and do the work. Sometimes orders have to be obeyed and taking satisfaction from doing one’s duty is not the worst thing.

I could wax philosophic about the self, which seeks variety and enlargement vs. soul, which pursues consistency. But instead I will reveal my blatant self-interest here. Children raised to be creative and seek their place in the world may very well become self-actualized and wise. However, this quest may interfere with their moving out of my house because they are too busy producing documentary films, writing poetry, or playing

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