Last weekend, both my toddler son and I were sick so we spent some time watching episodes of the British television series Thomas & Friends on Netflix.1 The more I watched the series, the more it bothered me. In particular, the goal of all the engines to be Really Useful (capitalized as such in the books and in the sing-along at the end of some of the episodes) stood out to me, especially when I realized that the creator of the characters was the Rev. Wilbert Awdry (1911–97), an Anglican minister. So, this is my theological critique of the show.
The series Thomas & Friends is a television series that is based on the characters created by Rev. Awdry in, originally, his Railway Series, stories that he told to his son Christopher in the early 1940s. In the stories, the engines are anthropomorphized and have their own personalities. For example, as the theme song to the series explains, Thomas is the “cheeky” one and James is vain. All the engines work on the railway on the island of Sodor, a railway which is run by a chubby man, named Sir Topham Hatt. When the engines do things right and follow directions, Sir Topham Hatt commends them for being Really Useful engines. When they follow their own whims and desires, which often creates problems for the railway service, Sir Topham Hatt critiques them for causing “confusion and delay” and not being Really Useful engines. There are clear messages here for children: do what you’re told, follow directions, and respect authority. As Bruce Carrington and Martyn Denscombe explain in their critique of the original book series in the context of its popularity in the 1980s2,
In so far as the Railway Series can be shown to embody elements of both traditional and radical conservatism, one might ask: is it merely coincidental that the rise to superstardom of Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends has taken place at this, rather than an earlier juncture, in Britain’s postwar history? In common with Thatcherism, Awdry’s stories emphasise the importance of individual responsibility, discipline, order, and respect for authority. The Series also celebrates the work ethic, enterprise, utilitarianism, patriotism, and meritocratic values. Moreover, along with traditional forms of conservatism, his work may be read as a polemic against modernisation, technological change, and bureaucracy. Certainly, the series presents a romantic vision of the way things were in the “good old days.” Life on the well-ordered Island of Sodor, where everyone (irrespective of their position in society) has a use, place, and purpose, contrasts sharply with conflict-ridden contemporary Britain with its spiralling unemployment, uncertainty, and alienation.
The book series was first adapted for television in 1984 and in their Marxist critique of the series, Benjamin Wright and Michael Roberts explain, “Despite claims to foster creative imagination, Thomas & Friends was adopted for the UK airwaves in 1984 when privatization and union-busting became focal issues following Thatcher’s reelection, and it seems to discourage free thinking, as the show’s narrative rewards conformity and punishes difference.”3 Wright and Roberts argue that the anthropomorphism of machines in this show (and Bob the Builder) is crucial in teaching children to see them as metaphors for human workers and teaching them that “it is ‘obvious’ that workers in capitalism exist as instruments to be used.” They explain further:
The engines on Thomas, representative of workers, are taught to keep busy, be timely, and not deviate from the status quo. If they deviate, the message is delivered that they will be punished by either social distancing or replacement. In other words, if they are not ‘really useful’–the key ideological message of this program–they can expect to be disposed of or disciplined accordingly. These characters figure as metaphors for the subjects of economy in neoliberal capitalism.
Now, I find this critique gives me pause in wanting to continue to show this program to my toddler, but I find the show also problematic on theological grounds in relation to the purpose of Christianity and human dignity and I think that the Rev. Awdry’s position as an Anglican minister is key in understanding this.
The significance I think can be explained by noting that Rev. Awdry was just a few years older than Thomas Merton (1915–68). Awdry’s education took place in Sussex (1919–24) and Wiltshire (1924–29), then Oxford and Thomas Merton started at the Oakham School in Rutland, England in 1930. Here is what Merton had to say about his religious education at Oakham: “In any case his [Buggy Jerwood, the school chaplain] religious teaching consisted mostly in more or less vague ethical remarks, an obscure mixture of ideals of English gentlemanliness and his favorite notions of personal hygiene.”4 He explains further:
His greatest sermon was on the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians–and a wonderful chapter indeed. But his exegesis was a bit strange. However, it was typical of him, and, in a way, of his whole church. “Buggy’s” interpretation of the word “charity” in this passage (and in the whole Bible) was that it simply stood for “all that we mean when we call a chap a ‘gentleman.’” In other words, charity meant good-sportsmanship, cricket, the descent thing, wearing the right kind of clothes, using the proper spoon, not being a cad or a bounder. There he stood in the plain pulpit, and raised his chin above the heads of all the rows of boys in black coats, and said: “One might go through this chapter of St. Paul and simply substitute the word ‘gentleman’ for ‘charity’ wherever it occurs. ‘If I talk with the tongues of men and of angels, and be not a gentleman, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal … A gentleman is patient, is kind; a gentleman envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up. … A gentleman never falleth away.’…” And so it went. I will not accuse him of finishing the chapter with “Now there remain faith, hope and gentlemanliness, and the greatest of these is gentlemanliness…” although it was the logical term of his reasoning. (p. 81)
As Merton notes in the passage quoted above, he observes this method to be typical not only of the chaplain at Oakham, but also, “in a way, of his whole church.” Now, I don’t, by this, want to claim anything about present-day Anglicanism, but I think the evidence of Rev. Awdry and Merton’s memory seems to show that there may have been a period in which the predominant tendency was to interpret Christianity in terms of how it could create Really Useful people in society.
So my critique of Rev. Awdry’s series is, theologically, the same as Merton’s critique of his school chaplain. Namely, that there is much more to Christianity than creating Really Useful people for society, or, as Merton explains, “I think St. Peter and the twelve Apostles would have been rather surprised at the concept that Christ had been scourged and beaten by soldiers, cursed and crowned with thorns and subjected to unutterable contempt and finally nailed to the Cross and left to bleed to death in order that we might all become gentlemen” (p. 81–82).
This, however, is not the only critique I have with the series. It’s also that it reinforces either an idea of racism or classism, though I haven’t entirely decided which. This is done through the distinction between the “steamies” (Thomas and all his friends) and the “diesels,” who are described as devious and not to be trusted. In the special, “Calling All Engines,” there is a whole bit that describes how steam engines and diesel engines are different. First, the steam engines run on coal, while the diesel engines run on diesel fuel and are “not like steam engines at all” (emphasis mine). The diesel engines also don’t make steam, but sometimes make “nasty” black smoke. Finally, steam engines have whistles, while diesel engines have horns. The narrator concludes, “Steam engines and diesel engines really are very different” (emphasis mine). The diesels are portrayed negatively throughout the series and children are taught to identify with the steamies, not the diesels. My son has taken to describing himself as a “steamie.”
Now this distinction between the steamies and the diesels is problematic exactly because the engines are anthropomorphized. The narrator emphasizes on numerous occasions, as I’ve cited above, that the steamies and diesels are very different. Unlike Catholic theology, which emphasizes that all humans have dignity because they are humans made in the image and likeness of God, the theological anthropology in Thomas & Friends emphasizes how differences make us “really very different.” This is not a good lesson for children who should be taught to see differences of race and class as things that don’t make us “really very different” because we are all human.
As Carrington and Denscombe conclude in their analysis of the book series, “Whereas some conservatives, sexists, and railway buffs will no doubt continue to commend the Railway Series to their children, others will read between the lines and argue that there are grounds for doubting Thomas!” (p. 52–53).5
- The featured image from this post is by Joeyinsully (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. ↩
- Bruce Carrington & Martyn Denscombe, “Doubting Thomas: Reading Between the Lines,” Children’s Literature in Education 18, no. 1 (1987): 45–53. This quote can be found on p. 48. ↩
- Benjamin Wright & Michael Roberts, “Reproducing ‘Really Useful’ Workers: Children’s Television as an Ideological State Apparatus,” Rethinking Marxism 25, no. 4 (2013): 566–91, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08935696.2013.842700. ↩
- Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith (New York: Harcourt, 2015), 81. ↩
- Of course, in this case, faced with the wrath of a toddler, I will probably continue to allow him to watch the series when he asks for it. ↩