Thomas the Tank Engine, the popular children’s book and TV series, has been with us for 70 years, and still captures the imagination of children around the world. As a father of two rapidly growing-up children, trains seem to have some sort of mystic fascination with the preschool demographic. So it is no surprise that Thomas the Tank Engine is one of the world’s most recognised toy brands.
Thomas lives on the Island of Sodor, a mythical, small countryside island in the Irish Sea, just off the coast from Barrow-in-Furness. The trains are colourful, largely happy and busy, while the people go about normal lives in school, on the farm or on the railways. The trouble is, though, this surface-level utopian English-countryside-mid-twentieth-century idyll belies a far more sinister neoliberal allegory that pervades the daily minutiae of Thomas and his friends. The more of Thomas I watch, the more its ideologies of subservience, self-interest, prejudice and the constant imprinting of capitalist relations on everyday life ooze through the veneer of cutesy anthropomorphic trains. I would like to explore, here, just three ways in which Thomas the Tank Engine is far from a utopian idyll, but, rather, is a nightmarish vision of a society dominated by neoliberal capitalist ideologies.
First of all, it’s overtly and shockingly misogynistic. Nearly all the engines are male, with only one female-named engine in the title song, Emily, who “really knows her stuff” apparently, as if a female displaying cognitive abilities is somehow surprising. There are female coaches (Annie and Clarabelle are Thomas’ famous carriages), but of course, being coaches they have no agency other than to express occasional dissatisfaction in Thomas’ cheeky escapades. They are shunted around (perhaps dragged by their buffers) by the male engines, and are often in distress, whining or nagging. In addition, the Fat Controller’s mother, Dowager Hatt, makes the occasional appearance too. She is overbearing, immaculately dressed yet stuffy – personifying the matriarchal sternness that typified the baby boomer generation. Indeed she is voiced by the same actor who voices the Fat Controller, but with a high-pitched squeak, as if to further ridicule her stupefying tones.
Then there’s the now infamous episode where James is painted pink. As he chuffs through Sodor to pick up some children, he is laughed at by all the other (male, obviously) engines; “you’re a big pink steamie!” said Diesel. “I’d hide too if I was bright pink” laughed Gordon. He then goes onto to pick up the Fat Controller’s granddaughter who proclaims, “I like pink!” Now, the optimist in me would like to see this as a critique of the dominant heteronormativity and macho socio-cultural milieu, and James’ emboldening in the face of continued oppression articulates the emancipatory potential of ignoring repressive social regimes. But that optimism can chuff on! The episode ends with no comeuppance at all for the instigators of these oppressive hate crimes. Diesel and Gordon are free to continue their taunting without fear of rebuttal from wider society or the Leviathan himself, the Fat Controller. Sodor, it seems, is a highly patriarchal and heterosexual, the typical neoliberal normalised identity.
Second, there are distinctive UK regional biases woven into the characters. Bill and Ben for example, the highly disruptive and indecorous twin engines have extremely thick Black Country accents. They are constantly begin told off, being irksome and are generally infantilised. Their Brummie accent directly feeds the stereotype of the Birmingham accent as denoting delinquency, deviance and derogatory slurs. Also, the dockworkers of Sodor are brash, grumpy and often derided for only being able to do menial tasks. It’s of no surprise then that they are given regional accents: Cornish, Scottish and Northwestern. Those engines that speak the Queen’s English often are the ones that receive adulation and end up saving the day. In addition, the accusations of Thomas the Tank Engine’s deeply ingrained racism also adds further layers of controversy; all the engines have white faces, even the ‘new’ multicultural engines from China, Brazil and Mexico (but none from Africa of course – presumably because there are no expensive-Western-toy-buying markets out there to fully exploit yet).
But the most blatant overture of Thomas’ escapades in Sodor are rooted in his (and his fellow engines’) complete subservience to The Fat Controller’s every whim. Each engine longs to please this draconian, Dickensian behemoth with their every chore. Working for free, this army of slave labourers long to be considered “a really useful engine”, because if you’re not useful, you’re a drain on the energy and resources of the railways. Sodor’s industrialised landscape and steadfast refusal to electrify its railways or update to a more efficient mass-transit system for its evidently highly centralised and immobile population, speaks volumes of the Fat Controller’s intrinsic desire to maintain hegemonic control and a highly segregated, hierarchical, and fossil-fuel-dependent society. He is a sovereign figure who is always flanked by two mute (and of course white male) anonymous railway workers. These subservient underlings seem to follow him whenever he appears, and given they are significantly taller than the Fat Controller, it pervades the image of a central godlike figure sat on a throne flanked by two obedient lackeys; seriously, the only thing lacking are chain leads from around their necks. The slightest erring of an engine from his (or hers, but mostly his) duties brings the accusation of causing “confusion and delay!” The engines compete, undercut and collude for the Fat Controller’s affection, but receive nothing in return other than the promise of more work. Sodor, it seems, is Foxconn as Enid Blyton may have imagined it.
On Sodor, labour is controlled: striated by the railways with creative, free-thinking that does not yield more production quashed by the Fat Controller’s brutal regime of shame and accusatory glances. Such hierarchical dominance of course does not correlate with recent scholarship on neoliberalism that articulates it as a variegated, amorphous and crucially, figurehead-less process of exploitation. But on Sodor, the Fat Controller is as ubiquitous and dispersed as these readings of neoliberalism argue. Think about it, he springs up the moment an engine’s actions cause a blockage in the system. As soon as capital isn’t flowing as it should, he appears to finesse the system via emotive, affective or, if needed, directly oppressive means. He appears on platforms, in carriages, on riverbanks, on the middle of the tracks; he pops up to effectuate control, then disappears again almost as quickly. His morbid obesity (and obvious alcoholism denoted by his unhealthy facial hyperaemia) belies his ghost-in-the-machine style mobility.
Reading neoliberal ideologies in popular culture is nothing new, but there is something very blatant about Thomas the Tank Engine’s allegories. It does speak to the allure of them though that every time I bring this argument up while watching it, I’m told by my children to shush as I’m “not being very useful”…