Thomas & (Male) Friends

It’s been a surprise to see Thomas the Tank Engine slammed in the media recently by Labour minister Mary Creagh. The loveable children’s television series, Thomas & Friends that first aired in the ’80s has received criticism for its lack of female characters.

Creagh described Thomas & Friends as responsible for setting a poor example to children and pointed out that the few female characters featured in the show are portrayed as annoyances, constantly disrupting the functioning of the railway. She stated the show should include more female engines to encourage girls to become train drivers. Such a specific attack on the show is harsh of Creagh; she is imposing retrospective political correctness on a quaint children’s story from the 1940s.

But what are the facts? There is a clear shortage of female train drivers in Britain and with 95.8% of workers male, it’s natural to consider the reasons behind the statistics and for us to question whether job opportunities within the sector are equally advertised between genders. Do women want to drive trains given the chance? Is Creagh, as Labour’s shadow transport secretary, really addressing the matter at hand by singling out Thomas the Tank Engine as a contributor to negative stereotypes in the workplace today?

Thomas & Friends is by no stretch the only male dominated children’s show; a 2007 study demonstrated that two thirds of lead characters in UK children’s television were male. Cartoons are largely responsible for presenting images of gender that are somewhat stereotypical and traditional, examples of girlhood usually involving little ponies and supportive sidekicks. Recent CBeebies remake of Topsy and Tim caused a media stir, the show, supposedly updated for the 21st century, was slated for reinforcing outdated gender stereotypes (Topsy inside decorating princess cupcakes, Tim playing outside with his quad bikes).

The balance of male to female characters within Thomas & Friends may be somewhat outdated. However, the show is fun and has been enjoyed by generations of children for what it is – toy trains puffing through the jaunts of locomotive life. It has received praise from parents for its educational value and positive role models. The show is based on the storybooks of Wilbert Awdry, who was born in 1911. It is important to note that Awdry was writing in a very different time period, inspired to write the Thomas books by adventures of his own childhood spent overlooking a railway tunnel.

Although there is truth behind Creagh’s claims, she is judging Awdry’s stories from the 20th century in relation to current social norms and gender standards. Thomas & Friends has been running for decades and it easy to see how in modern viewing, certain principles and standards of the show become old fashioned. How much harm is Thomas the Tank Engine really doing to children’s perceptions of gender? It’s unlikely that Creagh will tackle the issue of the shortage of female train drivers through publicly criticising a children’s television show.

Hit Entertainment, which owns the rights to Thomas & Friends, recognised that there is a historical imbalance and in order to update it have announced female engines are in development. In this case it appears political correctness has got in the way of a simple children’s story.