Thomas and Friends – The good, bad, and ugly

As y’all know, Chotu has discovered the joys of toddlerhood. These include, but are not limited to, not eating, doing the exact opposite of what anyone says, not eating, climbing anything that appears climbable (The Goddess says that’s a real word now), not eating, exploring anything that appears dangerous, not eating, dancing on my laptop, not eating, throwing my phone on the ground with full might to get the battery out, and not eating some more. The only thing that gets his attention for more than a minute these days is trains.

To get this child to eat I have become that parent. You know, the one who plays Youtube videos and shoves food into the child’s mouth surreptitiously. For a while we went through a phase of looking up Russian Steam Engines on Youtube (really, look it up, it’s a real thing!) but eventually, all train fascination leads to Thomas and Friends.

Image: Wikipedia
Image: Wikipedia

At first glance, Thomas appears quite benign and even ideal for little children. The Hero and I were seduced by the shiny surface:

  • The videos are fairly quiet. This is good because the rest of The Goddess’ universe  is far from quiet.
  • Chotu’s able to identify all colours now and he can name all characters going as far as telling the different green trains apart. I’ve often been at the receiving end of “That’s not Percy. It’s Oliver, Amma Silly Billy*!”
  • For what it’s worth, Chotu now understands the terms paint, pistons, coal, smoke, steam, connecting rods, railway lines, signals, crossings, and more. This will provide an early start should he choose to become an Engine Driver with a railway specializing in steam engines

What’s bad is that the toys and assorted paraphernalia don’t come cheap. A tiny, lone engine without a coach costs more than the rest of the plastic crap we buy for Chotu on a monthly basis.

What really got me blogging, however, is the ugly underbelly of this train world.

  • Every freaking character is a male. Except for two “girl engines”, it’s a boys’ world. Two female engines and female coaches – presumably because coaches aren’t as important as engines and girls must be led.
  • The Fat Controller really crawls under my skin. He’s like the vestige of colonialism that together with fairness creams will taint our universe forever
  • The show is an authoritarian paradise where the Fat Controller must be obeyed at all costs and the biggest complement any engine can get is that it’s “Very Useful”. There’s even a story with “Usefulness before Cleanliness” as it’s main theme. Say what?
  • There are serious consequences if the trains don’t obey orders. Thankfully, I haven’t encountered any of those videos yet
  • There’s an awful lot of racism and sexism. There’s even a video where poor James must go out with a coat of pink paint and have all the engines make fun of him for being such a silly colour. Of course, little girls love him so it all ends well. My brain is still hurting from that one.

Am I reading too much into a simple kiddie program? No. In fact, it appears I’m being far too generous in my criticism. Here’s a Slate article criticizing the franchise and another rather funny piece on Deadspin and here’s a piece in The Guardian. We desperately need an alternative for train obsessed toddlers. Can’t we do better than a franchise invented a million years ago by an imperial fanboy?

Or maybe I should drop the self-righteousness and favour Project Self-Feeding and Project Family-Meals over Project Night-Time-Potty-Training**.

So, how about all you other parents? What sorts of questionable choices have you made with respect to kiddie entertainment? And more importantly, those of you with older kids, how did it all turn out? 🙂

* How I regret inventing that term in the first place…

**Also because night-time potty training is largely a physical milestone and not really a project!

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