Friday, December 11, 2009

Thomas and the Confused Canadian

"Bust my buffers!" exclaimed Thomas. "Me, in politics?"

Earlier this week, University of Alberta political studies Professor Shauna Wilton watched several episodes of the children's TV show Thomas and Friends with her three-year-old daughter Kate. She then heavily analyzed each episode, and finally came to the conclusion that the television series was sexist and conservative; in her view, it was pushing children to suppress new ideas and to only do as their told, and portraying the female characters as inferior to the male-dominated cast. While it’s no secret that the majority of Thomas characters are male, Shauna’s views of the show are rather misleading, straying away from the show’s true meanings and intentions. What she is describing is simply not there; there’s no room for political correctness in a show about anthropomorphic locomotives.

Sharon explains that the show is “conservative” as when an engine decides to do something on their own accord, as opposed to what Sir Topham Hatt (the Fat Controller) tells them to do, it only ends up in disaster, confusion, and delay. She feels that this discourages children to think for themselves and instead simply follow orders from superiors without question. Here, she completely misses that the railway of which Thomas lives is a big, important industry that supplies countless people all over the Island of Sodor. It’s not the United States of Sir Topham Hatt; it’s the North Western Railway, a job, a company, an important place of work that requires order and stability. Engines that work their hardest do eventually get their perks, as any human with a real job would, and back-talking and laziness are grounds for punishment. Thomas himself is the perfect example of this; starting out as the lowly shunting engine at the Big Station, he eventually proves himself to be Really Useful and earns his very own branch line. There are no underlying political messages hidden here. All that’s being said is that hard work and determination will reward you in the long run, a message children today need to hear.

As the misinformed article continues, Sharon also points out the minority of female cast members, decrying them for all having negative characteristics and not getting as much spotlight as the classic characters that have been around since the very first season. "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," Sharon says. What Sharon has not seen is that what negative qualities are introduced to the female cast are not made to push them aside from the male engines, but instead are used to characterize them and make them more believable, likable members of the railway. What’s fantastic about the new female characters is that they’re not the politically correct Mary Sue character, the strong female lead that snags the spotlight from the original characters. Both the male and female characters have their flaws, and this helps them to grow and develop with each story. Take for example Mavis, who started out as a young feisty diesel full of her own ideas and constantly made mistakes. In recent years, she appears to have calmed down and become a reliable member of the railway, playing a motherly role towards the two more immature tank engines Bill and Ben. Mavis, like any believable character, has gone through character development, and thanks to this, she can provide a fantastic role for young girls watching the show. It’s shameful that despite so many of the female engines are wonderfully characterized and are steadily gaining more screen time, there will always be a stigma about the lack of positive girl characters.

The “Political Correctness Brigade” has no place in the Thomas and Friends universe, as in the end, it’s a form of children’s entertainment, and nothing more. There are plenty of positive messages and role models in the show that children can look towards and learn from, and the show gets better every year. Shauna Wilton should have further evaluated the stories, settings, and messages from the show before she completed her study, as she missed out tremendously on all the things that make the series as long-lasting as it has been.

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