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It’s a lovely day at work on your idyllic little island. You always get to be outside in the beautiful countryside, until one day you feel unwell and unable to work. Naturally, your boss shuts you up in a tunnel for days on end. Right?
Henry, a green steam engine, is punished in this manner in his introductory episode in “Thomas and Friends,” and it is standard fare on the Island of Sodor. In almost every episode, trains are penalized in a similar manner, usually to the amusement and mockery of the other trains. When Henry feels unable to continue working on just one occasion, the controller, Sir Topham Hatt, builds a very real — and petty — brick wall to trap Henry in the tunnel. He even dramatically informs him that “we will leave you here for always and always and always,” so long as Henry fails to labor for him.
On the Island of Sodor, Henry’s cardinal sin was feeling unable to work. The narrator soberly proclaims “I think he deserved his punishment, don’t you?”, making it clear that the audience is expected to agree with Henry’s fate. In the world of “Thomas and Friends,” there is no greater insult than not being useful. The trains behave like people, experiencing emotions, forming friendships, and teasing outsiders (the troublesome trucks). They happily explore their island and enjoy completing different tasks, but the threat of punishment constantly looms over their heads. In some cases, they are even threatened with capital punishment—being sent to the scrapyard—for a lack of productivity.
Instead of bemoaning the strict rules and punishments of Sir Topham Hatt, the trains genuflect to him (or they would if they had knees) and urge each other to be more useful as well. Thomas believes he works harder than all of the other engines, making him better than them, and taunts Gordon to work hard just like him. In one case, Sir Topham Hatt praises Thomas by proclaiming that he has finally been a “really useful engine,” for doing his bidding and Thomas beams, his eyes spinning around in utter glee. On the Island of Sodor, the trains derive all satisfaction from the approval of their boss and the revenue they generate for his railroad.
The root of this motivation lies in the way our western societies operate. Capitalism pervades our inner motivations in almost every situation. Workers are measured by the amount of revenue they generate for a company, and those who underperform are let go. They fear the watching eye of the boss, the controller, “the man.” In “Thomas and Friends,” “the man” sports a top hat and is a source of humor for viewers, but the genuine adulation the trains show him creates harmful perceptions that workers should love what they do to death, literally. To the trains, there is nothing worse than the phrase “Sir Topham Hatt was cross,” which is always accompanied by a sinister little riff to signal the controller’s arrival.
Encouragement to work hard may seem like a positive trait to instill within children. But in the atmosphere surrounding Thomas and his friends, the encouragement seems a lot more like a threat. The trains must choose between working to exhaustion to earn revenue or having no place in their society, especially socially. Even after Henry is freed from the tunnel, he worries that he “shall have to go away” for not being useful enough one day, despite trying his hardest. For every load of coal the humanesque trains deliver, they deliver the message that self-worth can be equated with productivity as well.
In fact, the only people seemingly exempt from this treatment in our world are children, who are ostensibly encouraged to play and seek happiness above all else. Even as they learn about the world in school, it is as a backdrop to personal enrichment, at least at a young age. So, when children watch their beloved trains view their lives through the lens of productivity and feel that they deserve punishment for pauses in labor, how can they resist viewing their own world the same way? Thomas and company indoctrinate children with a love of forced labor that urges them to shape their entire lives around work, just as the engines do.
The intentional messaging of the show is standard, encouraging children to work together and find creative solutions to problems. But underlying it all is the same message that we face every day from every facet of our society: the capitalist pressure to work for revenue above all else. By the end of the story, the narrator smugly informs us that Henry has learned the best way to deal with feeling unwell is to ask his driver to stop and wipe him down only “when the day’s work is over,” when he has satisfied the controller. I think he deserves more than that, don’t you?
Nour L. Khachemoune ’22-’23 is a joint concentrator in Chemistry and Anthropology in Dunster House. Her column “Nostalgia: What’s it Hiding?” appears on alternate Thursdays.
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