Monday, December 08, 2008 • 12:00 AM Comments (7)

Ideologically Thomas

posted by John Drabinski

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 get inside little people's brains?

Don't get me wrong in this post. 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 here simply mean a place where certain forms of life - values, preferences, comportments toward self and other - 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 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 follows a pretty simple structure. Each episode has a straightforward conflict that gets resolved, with few complications, in about ten 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. And 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 is 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 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’s 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,” he added. Always from the authoritarian figure.

Now, this remark is both typical and fraught. It is typical because the idea of usefulness is the thread to nearly every plot. But the line is also fraught 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.

Watch this clip

if you want a short example. The title is “Percy’s Chocolate Crunch.” The book is even more troubling, more stark in its moral scolding, but the clip does enough. 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, scolding, and assume always that you’re in trouble. Let me be absurdly plain about this: Is this really a good “message” for children? Do we really want their introduction to the world of work and sociality be so fraught 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, other than the idea 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.

Comments (7)
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My own experience contradcits the underlying assumption of this post, i.e., that human nature, in the form of a child, is passive and infinitely malleable like putty and can be shaped by the Thomas the Tank Engine stories. My children, at least, were and are tough characters who actually recognized such stories as just that--stories--with no relevance to real life. Althusser's idea that having children sit quietly in class makes them submissive citizens is a nice theory, but, like so much Marxist theorizing of that time, is simply not proved by history or everyday life. If it were true, how is that revolutions every happen, since most of the revolutionary leaders were told to sit and listen to their teachers when they were young? If it were true, how was it that the Soviet Socialist Republics of Georgia, the Ukraine, etc., didn't forget about their religious beliefs or their love of their own nations after decades of authoritarian conditioning? The world is full of unruly characters who were required to sit quietly in class--the author of this post is probably one of them! As for characterizing the show as anti-worker or classist, my word we are freighting a silly story with so much weight. Is there a single person who ever watched this show or read the books who actually took "usefulness before cleanliness" to heart and regimented their lives in that way? Sometimes, of course, usefulness should come first--other times cleanliness--and most people freely choose which one comes first on any given occasion. Anyway, folks, if you really want to get excited start watching some of the nonsense on grown-up T.V.!
Posted by Martin Newhouse on 12.8.08 at 12:29
I would also note that although Sir Topham Hatt is always the one who resolves conflict, he does so by never getting dirty--it's a tale of Victorian morality (or the morals of a certain class) as much as it is about class itself. It is a show about labor, not creativity (or work and action, to use Arendt's catagories).
Posted by Chris Vickers on 12.8.08 at 12:32
I hate to continue as a curmudgeon, but who exactly were the Victorians who resolved conflict without getting dirty? It certainly wasn't any of the characters described by Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians, i.e., General Gordon, Florence Nightingale, or Cardinal Manning. None of the great Victorian industrialists or explorers come to mind--they all got very dirty on occasion. Even Disraeli and Gladstone got their hands dirty, if one thinks of what they had to do to govern and keep their parties in line. Indeed, I think a historically sound definition of Victorian morality would include the commandment to roll up one's sleeves, and get ones' hands as dirty as they needed to be with the business of improving humanity.
Posted by Martin Newhouse on 12.8.08 at 12:45
Nice comments already! Martin, I don't think I've suggested anything like a causal relation between Thomas the Tank Engine and children with neurotic disorders. At the same time, I think one would be foolish to think that the show (and especially the stories) suggests anything other than a terribly self-conscious, fastidious life as the proper life. Why not draw out the ideological implications of a show? Why not think about what a show is saying to a child? As my response to Hayley below will show, I think the "event" of Thomas the Tank Engine saves it from being just a disturbing ideological site; much more goes on, after all, than viewing. The example of the school room is perfectly accurate, I think. First, it's one ideological site amongst others, so we're not talking about a causal argument. Rather, it is a sign argument, where we read the site as a symptom of a larger set of ideas. Second, and to the heart of your response, I'd say Althusser is in fact proven by the fact that there are so FEW revolutions, especially in the West. Here in the U.S., let's think about it: terribly unpopular war, horrific economic news and forecasts, complete "distrust" (according to polls) of all branches of government, yet nothing like a revolution can even be sniffed in the air. We barely elected a freakin' Democrat! So, I take the general absence of revolution to be plenty evidence of submission to authority. Or how rarely workers stand up to their bosses or see such standing up as their rights (unions have all but disappeared). Or how there is virtually no effort to scale back the blast of advertising in our walk-about lives. Etc. Submission to authority sounds just about right. Why? How? Ideological reproduction in common, everyday sites. Thomas the Tank Engine is pretty minor, sure, but why not include it? If nothing else, the show reflects a strange world. Yet very familiar. Chris, I've never been able to pin names on Sir Topham Hatt. That remark helps. Will be thinking it over. Hayley, I find the play dimension to Thomas the Tank Engine to be the most intriguing, if only because I think the play with toys and tracks - the merchandising dimension - actually undoes much of the ideology. That is, I find that my son seems most interested in the fact that his toys are RIGHT THERE ON THE TELEVISION! We all love images, especially familiar and comfortable ones. I think my boy connects to the familiarity of the images, images come to life, even, rather than to the stories. For that reason, I actually prefer the seemingly endless videos on youtube.com - the ones of other kids playing with trains, setting up insanely elaborate tracks, and all that. Self-produced. Often just a film of the trains circling around. That seems as interesting and captivating as any story told in the actual series to the five year-old fan's brain.
Posted by John Drabinski on 12.8.08 at 15:53
I have young children and I avoid this show at all costs (I don't believe I've seen an entire story) and was very relieved when they got tired of it after a few months. (They still play with the toys, though.) The most recent thing I heard about Thomas is pretty intriguing. The writer Paul Collins has an autistic son and has been researching that topic historically and anecdotally. Anecdotally, he finds that autistic children LOVE Thomas (obviously lots of non-autistic children do, too). Part of the appeal he thinks is because trains appeal to the autistic sense of order and systems. The other part is that the animation of the faces is very crude and the trains make very obvious expressions of happiness, or anger, or disgust, or whatnot, and that is easier for autistic kids to understand. Collins' book is called Not Even Wrong and he discusses autism with his wife and the host of Speaking of Faith here: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/beingautistic/index.shtml
Posted by Jack Cheng on 12.8.08 at 20:22
John: We must agree to differ. I should disclose a personal bias here--Louis Althusser lost all credibility with me as a moral human being when he strangled his wife. Perhaps that slips into my view of his Marxist analyses. However, I have come to a different conclusion about the lack of revolutions in this country, namely that the lack evidences a maturity in the public and the strength of our social and cultural cake. The last presidential election to me demonstrates this. But more than that, most people understand that revolutions historically have been almost always disasters, resulting in less freedom, oceans of blood, and installation of a controlling elite. Gradual change, thought through carefully, is in my view always better, and despite many lapses we tend to move that way. (We'll see how we do on climate change legislation after January 20th.) In any event, I strongly disagree that the lack of revolusions is evidence of an inappropriate submission to authoirty. (as opposed to perfectly appropriate submissions to authority). For my part, it seems often that as a society we have gone to the other extreme with respect to authority, so that, for example, public school teachers, who need some authority in order to teach, have none--they are disrespected not only by their students, but by their students' parents; all too many adults have little respect for learning or experience, thinking that in all walks of life they are "as smart" as anyone else, etc. And in Massachusetts at least--or perhaps only in Boston--even traffic regulations have no authority, they are treated totally as if they were optional. And I am sure that most of those who act in this stupid way were submissive at school! Cheers! Martin
Posted by Martin Newhouse on 12.9.08 at 7:41
John: Perhaps I'll change my mind. I just received word over the web that the Democratic governor of Illinois has been arrested and charged with conspiring to get financila benefits for himself and his wife through his authority to appoint a U.S. Senator to replace Barack Obama. Apparently, he was recorded on court-authoirzed wiretaps (which means that he has been suspected of something before this) conspiring to sell or trade the vacant Senate seat. The affidavit filed with the court quotes him as saying "I want to make money." Now, as a former criminal defense lawyer, I know that there are always two sides (and perhaps more) to such stories, but if it is true--well, it certainly makes me feel rather revolutionary (despite all of the signals and signs I have received in my youth from every site imaginable to submit to authority). Martin
Posted by Martin Newhouse on 12.9.08 at 7:50
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