If you have a little boy or girl, then you probably know about Thomas the Tank Engine. No, I don't mean a character. And I don't even mean a show. And, no, I don't even mean a merchandise aisle at Target. I mean what becomes, so very easily, an entire way of being. What is it about trains in general, and Thomas the Tank Engine in particular, that gets inside little people's brains?
Don't get me wrong. I'm not going to rant about marketing to children (a worthy rant) or the merchandising of everything, from birth onward (another worthy rant). Instead, I want to think about Thomas the Tank Engine as a troubling site of ideological reproduction. If the show is inside little people's brains, then we ought to think about the world it gives them as image and maybe even reality.
By "ideological reproduction," I simply mean a place where certain forms of life—values, preferences, comportments toward self and others—are instilled in us out of habit and everydayness, rather than from an authoritarian source. That is, how forms of life happen in our common experiences, rather than through surprising interventions of authority. The theorist of this is Louis Althusser, whose famous essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" showed, in such troublingly straightforward terms, how ideology is in the very air we breathe. My favorite example: the requirement to sit quietly in class while the teacher talks produces and reproduces the ideology of submission to authority.
What might Thomas the Tank Engine produce and reproduce? In other words, what's the ideological "something" in the show?
Thomas the Tank Engine (the show) follows a pretty simple structure. Each episode has a straightforward conflict that gets resolved, with few complications, in about 10 minutes. The plot lines have to do with an ever-increasing (marketer's dream!) cluster of trains. They have train-like conflicts, but the lessons are clearly intended for the rest of us as well. Trains cooperate, trains get jealous, trains get hurt and need repair. Human stuff, you know. An authoritarian figure called "Sir Topham Hatt" on the U.S. version, called "The Fat Controller" on the U.K. version, wanders about, constantly doling out critique and reprimand. Therein lies the real ideological question: who and what is the authoritarian figure?
Like I said, I'm not altogether troubled by the marketing aspect of the show. Sure, it's annoying to hear over and over about how we have to buy this or that new character in metallic form, but that's part of having kids. There are plenty of annoying repetitions when you have a kid around. Let's be honest: we hear the same stories and questions over and over (though few cost as much as Thomas, if you're soft). It's part of the "charm" of children, right? (It actually is.) What I am troubled by in Thomas the Tank Engine is pretty simple: the trains are always in trouble. The show is full of scolding and punishment. Everyone is always screwing up and getting corrected, and the alleged screw-ups are pretty pedestrian: got dirty, didn't work enough hours, wanted to stay clean, worked too hard…
You see, I put those four screw-ups out there on purpose. They show that you just can't win in Thomas' world. You're always too much of one thing or another. I'm thinking in particular about the show where James, who's constantly criticized for being too vain, doesn't want rain to ruin his new coat of paint. I get that. Not a big deal. James stops in a tunnel to wait out the rain. His penalty for such vanity? An explanation? A quick scold? Some education? No. The workers build a wall on both sides of the tunnel and trap James inside the tunnel to punish his vanity.
I'm hoping a comment or two explores the psychoanalytic dimension of this.
As I write that account of the episode, I'm actually a little chilled. I mean, seriously, what the hell kind of kids' show walls in one of its characters because he wants to avoid the rain? But if you watch the show, it strikes you as par for the course and not exceptionally cruel. If you've watched the show—or been cursed by the books (!)—you know the refrain. Can't tell you how many times I've heard it: "Usefulness before cleanliness." Always from the authoritarian figure.
Now, this remark is both typical and loaded. It is typical because the idea of usefulness is the thread to nearly every plot. But the line is also loaded because we know that the trains are constantly in trouble for being one or the other. Too useful and not clean enough; sometimes there's too much work. Too clean and not useful enough; don't be vain.
Take "Percy's Chocolate Crunch," for example. The book is troubling and stark in its moral scolding. Percy crashes into a chocolate factory and is covered in its sweetness. The book shows Percy smiling, but the story is actually much bleaker. Percy crashes, then gets in heaps of trouble and ridicule for being dirty… there is work to do, remember. And usefulness is about labor on the authoritarian figure's terms, not in terms of the play or pleasure of work. There is plenty of play and pleasure in work on the show, though it nearly always leads to trouble, scolding, and punishment. Covered in chocolate—but that's not funny? Silly? Or even a kid's dream come true? No. Percy is rewarded for feeling the shame of dirtiness but enduring it for the sake of usefulness.
The ideology is clear: you never work hard enough and adherence to various values will never be perfect enough. So expect a world of conflict and scolding, and assume always that you're in trouble. Is this really a good "message" for children? Do we really want their introduction to the world of work and sociality to be so tense and conflictual?
I'm not a parent who thinks every kid should live in a scold-free bliss-world. I get the discipline thing and can be pretty hard on my son. But I still wonder, every time I watch Thomas the Tank Engine, why this depiction of life seems acceptable to so many of us. It portrays life as a commodity, something that, once it is bought by the nicely named "Fat Controller" (he is fat), is no longer your own, even though you inhabit the body and soul put to work on the controller's terms.
In that way, I've come to see Thomas the Tank Engine as a sad and harrowing story about capitalism—uncritical on the show's part. I mean, what else can "usefulness before cleanliness" mean except that you're the property of another first, before you care for yourself? But it ought to also make us ask: if the world is so grotesque in the show (it is), and the show portrays something essential about capitalist labor (it does), then why doesn't it prompt oh, so many questions from us? Maybe that just reveals how familiar that ideology is to us, so it doesn't register as surprising. That's how ideology works, after all. If nothing else, the show ought to prompt a pretty simple parental response, one that, in the end, is always revolutionary: you're more than that, kid. And a world is possible in which you and your friends are not always in trouble for working too little or working too much. Yes, another world is possible… maybe.
John Drabinksi teaches philosophy and political theory at Hampshire College in Amherst. He is an occasional contributor to the Public Humanist.