Inspired by her three-year-old daughter's love for the show, Dr. Wilton watched twenty-three episodes and identified themes which "didn't seem constructive" for children. Like a scientist from a Hawthorne short story, Wilton attempts to impose her design on something that is inherently beautiful -- in this case, a child's love for a mythical character. With her ethnicity, identity, and gender spidey sense tingling, Wilton was compelled to dissect this show with her academic scalpel. In the process, she comes off as the stereotypical left-wing academist bugaboo that David Horowitz warned you about.
I disagree with Wilton on a number of counts, but none moreso that with her assumption that punishing initiative is a conservative principle. Conservatism has traditionally encouraged initiative, self-sufficiency, and socioeconomic ascent by leaving people (or at least their wallets) the hell alone; whereas liberalism discourages initiative by having the government pull up your bootstraps for you, promoting dependence on the state, and cutting off your profits (and the freedom that comes with them) via taxation.
Wilton asserts that Thomas and his friends are punished for showing initiative. That charge is completely off-base. Her utter wrongheadedness is best illustrated in her assumption that Thomas's being replaced after he impatiently whistles at a police officer is a bad thing. By whistling at the police officer, the train wasn't trying to rise from the ranks. He was being rude, self-centered, and disrespectful. Perhaps if Kanye West, John McEnroe, and Andy Dick had grown up on a steady diet of Thomas & Friends, they wouldn't have grown up (and I use that term loosely) to be such crassholes.
It seems Doc Wilton's fear is that young Thomas viewers will attain "full political citizenship" and try to shape the world we live in to be more like Thomas & Friends' mythical Island of Sodor, a place where industry, perserverance, and civility are the rule and where the closest thing to cruelty is an occassional bit of cheekiness. Couldn't have a world like that now, could we? No sirree.
Researcher rails against Thomas the Tank Engine
Thomas the Tank Engine's TV show displays conservatism while underrepresenting women, a steamed Canadian researcher charges.
After analyzing 23 episodes of British series Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, University of Alberta political scientist Shauna Wilton was able to identify themes which, she said, didn't seem constructive for youngsters.
"While the show conveys a number of positive political values such as tolerance, listening, communicating with others and contributing to the community, it also represents a conservative political ideology that punishes individual initiative, opposes critique and change, and relegates females to supportive roles," said Wilton, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Augustana Campus.
"The female characters weren't necessarily portrayed any more negatively than the male characters or the male trains, but they did tend to play more secondary roles, and they're often portrayed as being bossy or know-it-alls."
The Thomas and Friends series is shown in 130 countries around the world. Wilton observed storylines in several episodes that divided the characters into different social classes and punished those who tried to gain individual power. "Any change is seen as disrupting the natural order of things," she said.
While Thomas and his fellow engine friends, including Percy and James, are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, the Fat Controller, Sir Topham Hatt, is at the top of the heap.
She felt "uncomfortable" by how the steam engines are punished if they show initiative or try to change their rank or role. In one episode, after Thomas whistles impatiently at a police officer, he is punished by being replaced with a different engine.
As well, of 49 main characters listed in the show, only eight were female, reflecting a general trend among children's programming, Wilton said.
Parents, teachers and other experts such as political scientists would be wise to give children's shows a closer look, she added.
"We tend to think of children's TV shows as neutral and safe, but they still carry messages. Eventually these children will attain full political citizenship, and the opinions and world outlook they develop now, partially influenced by shows like Thomas and Friends, are part of that process."
Wilton presented her research findings earlier this year at a conference of the Canadian Political Science Association. She was inspired to conduct the study after being concerned by what she saw when she viewed Thomas videos with her three-year-old daughter.
She did observe that the show portrays some positive values, such as tolerance of others, good communication and contributing to the community. And, she confessed, her daughter loves the show and its trains.
Laura Midgley, co-founder of Britain's Campaign Against Political Correctness, called the research "unbelievable nonsense."
"I cannot believe anyone has the time and energy to do such a study," she said. "I'm surprised she hasn't singled out the Fat Controller as an example of fattism, too.
"Children should just be left to enjoy the innocent fun of Thomas without the politically correct brigade stoking the fires and ruining their enjoyment."
h/t Ben Price