The Gender Politics of Thomas the Tank Engine

I’m going to commit a minor sin here and basically conflate The Railway Series, twenty-six books by Wilbert Awdry with a few stories apiece in them which feature different engines located on the Island of Sodor, and Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, the filmed versions of those stories. Since I’m not terribly interested in the differences between these texts–to be perfectly honest, the basic difference is that one of them is in print and the other isn’t–I’m not going to be terribly careful about talking about them as one entity, though I will try to differentiate when I think it’s necessary.

It’s also worth noting that I’m not talking about anything in this piece which was thought of after 1972. Awdry’s son took over writing these books in the ’80s, and the television show which was based on The Railway Series aired largely during the late ’80s and early ’90s. This might be confusing for folks who are familiar with a newer set of Thomas stories (for example, I know academically that there’s a steam engine called Emily I know nothing about), but I’m working, for better or worse, within a certain canon. 

I realized a couple weeks ago that I’ve been spending the last few weeks reliving my childhood in several ways. I get the symbolism: I’ll be moving out (permanently, one hopes) in a month or so, and my anxiety is in all likelihood manifesting itself under the twin headings of: “this won’t be wherever I live in August” and “remember when I was six years old and lived here? Trippy.” Watching Disney movies, trying to play old computer games, watching The Magic School Bus, quoting Arthur, starting up the Harry Potter books again now that I’m winding down the available Song of Ice and Fire novels…and recently, that’s included Thomas the Tank Engine.

We have a collection of all of the Thomas stories with reprinted illustrations from the original books, and of course there must be a massive collection of Thomas videotapes downstairs. Lots of people have talked about how Thomas espouses conservative ideology. Here’s a report on a poli-sci professor’s take on Thomas, which also speaks to some of the gender issues I’m about to bring up, and here’s a misguided take on Thomas as overtly imperialistic (which conflates some episode of the show I’ve never seen with Awdry’s vision), and I won’t even link you the guy who thinks that the top-down emphasis and conformity and hard work is a parallel to Nazi Germany and thus the show is anti-Semitic. (Awdry was almost purged from the clergy during World War II because he was a pacifist: do we really think he’d purposefully create a universe which lovingly remembered the worst war in human history?) Claims of the Island of Sodor’s railway system as a fascist entity overstate the case significantly. What’s without doubt is that the engines are not paid despite being sentient and the railway controller is very much of dictator of the industrial proletariat (a term I use quite literally and without reference to its Soviet past). All of the engines’ strikes and complaints are based on the foibles of the engines (which belittles the concept of strikes or grievances) and are quickly crushed anyway, and their worth is based solely on being “a really useful engine.” I think of myself as a liberal. All of these a pretty clear. I don’t see a fascist state: I see the service industry in the United States. The proper parallel to Thomas the Tank Engine isn’t 1930s Germany, but a Wendy’s or an Applebee’s.

At any rate, that’s been talked about to death. Thomas’s world is conservative and is based entirely on working, and beyond that, working well to the specifications of a tubby little overlord who, in his defense, is not particularly capricious (though creating a brick wall to trap Henry in a tunnel for an unspecified period of time is pretty dark, and the premeditated murder of a freight car is pretty ugly). This is beyond dispute. My response is: yeah?

Look, Awdry was, as I’ve said before, a minister in the Anglican church who was also an advocate for an increasingly outdated form of transportation throughout the ’50s and ’60s (namely, team engines). I mean, this should not really surprise anyone. And frankly, as far as conservative propaganda goes in children’s literature and television, we could do a lot worse than this. Thomas’ universe wishes for bygone eras and hard work and individual responsibility. But Thomas’ universe is also just as squeaky-clean as everyone says it is: you could hardly ask for more wholesome children’s entertainment.

Well, at least if you’re not picky or inquisitive about gender.

Shauna Wilton (she’s the poli-sci professor I was talking about earlier) is the only person I’ve read who has even mentioned that the gender constructions of Thomas is deeply problematic. Wisely, Wilton remembers that the engines are almost entirely “male,” which we’re going to talk about later, and the freight cars are all male. Then there are coaches, which are all designated as female. Wilton was watching Thomas’ railway, but a great deal of The Railway Series (and later, some episodes were filmed based on these stories) takes placed on the Skarloey Railroad, which has a different set of characters. Those stories add more male steam engines and a positively vast number of female coaches and vans. In other words, it’s worse than Wilton imagined. It’s not just Annie and Clarabel, Thomas’ coaches, who are vaguely slavish individuals who rarely have anything interesting to say (although my father liked to half-jokingly tell me when I was younger as Annie and Clarabel told Thomas, that I was “lazy and slack”). On the Skarloey railroad, Agnes is a bogie coach who looks down on the others who don’t seat first-class passengers. Not that characters like Henry and Gordon don’t have their faults in this area as well, but  Agnes’ disdain for her fellows (who all happen to be of the same gender) makes her like a low-key Regina George sans satire.

The minor female characters in the books and television programs alike lack agency generally in ways that the minor male characters don’t. Those minor male characters are overwhelmingly a mass of unnamed freight cars which are endlessly mischievous, who are cowed by the work of the “really useful engines” and who tend to take advantage of those engines who get too big for their britches. Vanity is the reason why just about everything goes awry on the Island of Sodor, with carelessness a close second: both are exploited by the trucks. When you read all twenty-six volumes of The Railway Series in a few days, you notice just how many times these engines crash. I would never want to ride a train on the Island of Sodor, because an alarming number of accidents happen on those railroads. Often as not, it’s the trucks, working together to exploit the foolishness of some cocky steam engine, who make it happen. Coaches, the overwhelmingly female group? They’re passive-aggressive. I mean, it’s not like it’s a point in the male characters’ favor that they cause mayhem, but at least those guys get to express themselves somehow.

Here’s the one exception to the “female coaches are useless and dumb” rule, and here’s how nerdy I am. The nineteenth volume of The Railway Series is called Mountain Engines, featuring characters which did not appear before and haven’t shown up since. These odd engines operate on a fictional mountain called Culdee Fell, and push their passengers up the mountain. The coaches, again female as the steam engines are male, are useful because they are required to keep “a good lookout” for those male engines, because otherwise that could compromise lives. Again, it’s not like these female characters get to do things by themselves, but at least they’re not flighty or vapid.

What I’ve never seen anywhere, and what I hope to break some (frankly, odd) new ground on, is the role of female diesels. Diesels are not all bad in the Thomas stories (BoCo and Bear come to mind) but   for the most part, diesels are largely troublemakers. Again, Awdry is a steam engine enthusiast: it’s no wonder that the steam engines get to be the heroes of his stories, and that the diesels function as, if not villains, then certainly antagonists. What’s most typical is that diesels tend not to integrate well with the steam engines, usually because they’re arrogant folk who believe first in their own infallibility and second in the inferiority of steam. Here’s some dialogue from “Pop Goes the Diesel,” a story from vol. 13, Duck and the Diesel Engine:

“Sir Topham Hatt to you,” ordered Duck.

Diesel looked hurt. “Your worthy Sir Topham Hatt thinks I need to learn. He is mistaken. We Diesels don’t need to learn. We know everything. We come to a yard and improve it. We are revolutionary.”

Diesel (who, unlike the steam engines, doesn’t get a name like people–though, unlike some future diesels, at least he doesn’t go by a numerical designation) has all of those cardinal sins. Those of us interested in the innate conservatism of the Thomas stories will have noted Diesel’s use of the word “revolutionary.”  And here are some choice words from Daisy, a diesel who briefly replaces Thomas in vol. 16 (Branch Line Engines), to passengers:

“Look at me!” she purred to the waiting passengers. “I’m the latest Diesel, highly sprung and right up to date. You won’t want Thomas’ bumpy old Annie and Clarabel now.”

From vol. 18, Stepney the “Bluebell” Engine:

The big Diesel surveyed the shed….”It’s not your fault,” he went on, “but you’re all out of date. Your controller should scrap you and get engines like me.”

From vol. 23, Enterprising Engines:

“The two diesels surveyed the Shed. “It’s time, 7101,” said one, “that we took this railway over.”

“Shsh, 199! It’s their railway, after all.”

“Not for long,” persisted 199. “Our Controller says, ‘Steam engines spoil our Image’.”

From vol. 26, Tramway Engines, which features another new diesel named Mavis:

At Ffarquhar she met Daisy. “Toby’s an old fusspot,” she complained.

Daisy liked Toby, but she was glad of a diesel to talk to. “Steam engines,” she said, “have their uses, but they don’t understand…”

“Toby says only steam engines can manage trucks properly…”

“What rubbish!” put in Daisy, who knew nothing about trucks. “Depend upon it, my dear, anything steam engines can do, we diesels can do better.

Here are some of the things which befall these various diesels in The Railway Series:

  • Diesel gets sent away for good after his schemes and lies come to light.
  • Daisy fails to chase a bull off the line and is eventually cowed into becoming a “really useful engine.” Despite that designation, she appears once more in The Railway Series, in that cited section from vol. 26, and never again on TV.
  • The big Diesel, in a really British moment, sucks a bowler hat into his works, breaks down, and is never heard from again.
  • 199 and 7101 break down simultaneously and thus Henry, likewise hurting, must take them and their trucks home in a show of the great will steam engines have and diesels lack.
  • And Mavis schemes some herself until she sees the error of her ways after she almost gets Toby drowned.

You get the point. Steam engines have foibles and are good despite them, and diesels (with the sole exception of Rusty on the Skarloey Railroad) have foibles and attempt to wreak minor havoc before being put in their place. That’s clear? Good. Now, think about those designations, and then try to name all of the female steam engines you can. Now name all of the female diesel engines that you can.

There are dozens of steam engines who show up, and not one of those is female. There are eight named diesel engines in The Railway Series, and two of those are female. 25% of the named diesels being female may not sound like a particularly high percentage, but it’s certainly higher than 0% of a larger cohort.

I brought some presents from YouTube. The first two videos feature Daisy. The latter two are Mavis-centric. And yes, that is George Carlin narrating three and Ringo Starr narrating one, because we need to indoctrinate children in the Seven Dirty Words and The Beatles earlier.

and

and

and finally,

Here are some of the things I’m taking from all this.

Daisy and Mavis both fail to understand the stakes, socially speaking, of what’s involved in their work. There are dozens of Thomas stories which involve some poor engine crashing into something, but there are almost as many involving dogged determination which requires not just individual sacrifice but, in sporting vernacular, it requires the engine to “play hurt.” It goes back to the obsession with work and being “really useful.” Diesels never do these deeds. Edward does it in vol. 21. Henry does it in vol. 23. Rheneas does it in vol. 17. All of those are steam engines, all of them are male, and there is no comparable action taken by any diesel, female or otherwise.

The evolution from “lazy” or “troublesome” into “really useful” for Daisy and Mavis requires cutting through two preconceptions: they must work past their diesel natures, and to do so, they must look to the steam engine model (which is synonymous with “male”) to find conformity. Daisy and Mavis, as we’ve covered earlier, are deemed “really useful,” or are at least praised for their good work once their stories have basically ended. In what circumstances did they begin to sin? When isolated from the steady steam engine influence, and, in The Railway Series Mavis’ case, when she confers with another female diesel. Who bestows the honor they earn when they become “really useful” ? Sir Topham Hatt. Who do they work with to earn that praise? In both cases, it’s Toby, a sensible steam engine. Living up to the standards of the Island of Sodor is to become a masculinized entity, which can only happen when one is deemed as such by the male leader. It’s transgressive to be a female Other, but to integrate peacefully and without disrepute requires casting out the presumably weak traits of both.

Finally and funnily enough, Daisy and Mavis are conversely feminized  bodies in The Railway Series and Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. In the books, Daisy’s face is basically two eyes and a mouth, while Mavis has eyelashes, a red pout, and vaguely rosy cheeks. In the TV episodes, Daisy has blue eyeshadow and red lipstick, while the only difference between Thomas’ and Mavis’ faces is the shape. The upshot is that neither Daisy nor Mavis can escape becoming weirdly feminized bodies in either of the major media through which they are known.

This is the performative aspect of gender coming to the forefront. Facial cues are perhaps the easiest way for the child audience of these books and shows to understand which characters are male and which are female; to evince those qualities on cylinders and rectangular prisms requires a positively clownish face for the female characters, which makes the reader of written or visual text treat them less seriously. This performance is, of course, totally necessary if one plans to make a “girl” or “boy” of any train, because an engine is a sexless and genderless thing. The steam engine way of work is superior on the Island of Sodor, but there was no particular reason that Thomas, Edward, Henry, etc. had to be designated male. As we learn in vol. 5, Troublesome Engines, Percy was named seemingly at random by Sir Topham Hatt. There was nothing to stop him from designating his railway’s #6 as “Jane” or “Jill,” but he went with Percy instead.

Gender, like language, is conventional. How we show off gender is important insofar as it is understood by the other beings around us, and in that limited sense, whether it’s Thomas or Thomasina the Tank Engine is fairly unimportant. The danger, and this is where the Thomas universe falls short, is the assignment of value to gender. Only steam engines show the capability to attain the standards of goodness, to earn the highest praise: there are no steam engines gendered female. The only way that a female diesel can even come close to that standard (which they never do, and which they certainly never do without some minor turmoil) is to ape the characteristics of the male-gendered steam engine and hope for the endowment of acceptance.

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