Propaganda from Sodor

Thomas the Tank Engine episodes aren’t overtly educational in the way Sesame Street is, but Robin loves them and I let him watch an episode most days, generally while I’m cooking dinner. He’s also watching one right now because I’m putting off going to the park in hopes that weather will clear up.

One thing I do appreciate about the Thomas episodes is that they are really explicit about emotions. “This made Thomas cross,” or “James was feeling very proud,” or “Emily was pleased,” are common refrains in the stories.

I read something the other day about how moms are much more likely to talk about emotions to their daughters than their sons—for instance, a question like “Why is that baby crying?” from a little girl would provoke a kind of story, and more engagement from the parent: “I don’t know, do you think he’s tired? Maybe he’s hungry?” While the same question from a little boy more often provokes reassurance, but not explanation: “That baby is fine, honey, his mommy is right there.” I can’t find it now, of course, so I have no idea if it was a rigorous study or just some educator’s vague impressions, but I made a mental note to talk more explicitly about emotions with Robin. So, I kind of like that the Thomas show is reinforcing that.

However, other aspects of the show just make me laugh. Firstly, the society of the Island of Sodor is pretty weird: Sir Topham Hatt is running some kind of railway monopoly, and clearly making a killing at it too, despite the fact that his terrifying, sentient, self-willed engines seem to make life a living hell for the poor commuters who rely on them for transportation. (And what jobs are these masses of people moving back and forth from? There doesn’t seem to be any big cities on Sodor, just quaint little towns like Tidmouth, which might support a few shops and farms but certainly aren’t housing large office buildings or major industrial complexes—with, I guess, the notable exception of the ice cream factory).

Also, most the episodes have morals to them, and while most of them are pretty obvious and unobjectionable—”Work goes better when we all pull together”; “Being polite to your co-workers gets the job done better than treating them rudely”; “Even the smallest and least glamorous jobs are important”—they seem to knit together into an ideology preparing children to take their place as docile, obedient worker drones in the Glorious Society of Sir Topham Hatt. Of course the central conceit is about train engines whose highest aspiration is to be Really Useful, so it’s unsurprising that most of the morals revolve around hard work and taking direction well, but…listen. Right now Robin is happily humming along to a chorus of sweet little English children, singing one of their little Sodor ditties:

Patience is a virtue
So it never hurts to
Take a little time to see
Sir Topham Hatt has taught you
And you know you ought to
Be as patient as can be
Happy waiting patiently

That’s right. Thomas the Tank Engine is teaching my child about the virtues of queueing. We’ll see if it sinks in next time I have to go to the post office!

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