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Society, Politics & Law

Politicians should never argue with the Fat Controller!

Updated Tuesday, 28th January 2014

Recent accusations by the Shadow Transport Minister that Thomas the Tank Engine is sexist almost made Dick Skellington blow his safety valves.

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Cartoon depicting Thomas leering at a female-gendered train Creative commons image Icon Gary Edwards under Creative-Commons license Every now and again a politician says something which really strikes you as blatantly inappropriate, even when the politician is seeking to highlight an issue of significant social concern. This occurred to me recently when I read about the Shadow Transport Minister’s deep anxiety over the impact of sexism on the employment of train drivers.

Mary Creagh (no, I’d never heard of her either) declared that one of my favourite children’s toys, Thomas the Tank Engine, was culpable in ensuring that there were very few female railway train drivers on our public transport system.  My God, I thought, the Rev W.V Awdry would be turning in his grave.


Seeking to highlight the underemployment of female drivers, she described the current situation as ‘a national scandal’. Now, of course, the fact that only 1,000 women are employed as train drivers in the UK is worrying. They amount to only 4.2 per cent of train drivers, and it is right that we share the concern of the train driver union Aslef which is campaigning for an increase in female and ethnic minority train drivers.

Mary pointed the figure of blame at poor Thomas the Tank Engine because it encouraged only boys to grow up to become train drivers. This flies in the face of my experience with three granddaughters who are all Thomas fans. I think there must be more to this than meets the eye.

In the High Street of my home town, Stony Stratford, there is a little toy shop that in its show window has a tiny Thomas the Tank Engine going around a track. Every 30 seconds it appears from behind a range of other toys and comes out into view, and my granddaughters, and dozens of others, stop and stare at the blue stumpy funnel. They love it. Girls and boys alike.

Hits Entertainment, the firm which owns the rights for the television programme Thomas and Friends, is introducing more and more female engines to the railway shed. Female engines are not ‘the annoyance’, Mary Creagh claimed, but engines of equal stature. Mary even went as far as to suggest that the female engines in Thomas presented ‘a danger to the functioning of the railway’. Evidently their very presence distracted the male engines from their tasks. If that is not a sexist statement I do not know what is. I do wish Mary would lighten up. 

Try telling the sexist thesis to Emily who first appeared in 1984, and Annie, Belle, Caroline, Caitlin, Daisy, Clarabel, Elizabeth, Flora, Henrietta, Kelly, Mavis, Lady Hatt, Lady, and Rosie (among many others). In fact my examination of the proportion of female engines in the railway shed (see Thomas and Friends website) revealed that female engines are far more likely to be found there than female drivers on our national networks. Cleary, Mary failed to do her research when her brain went into first gear.  

I felt the same way when in 2009 academics attacked Thomas the Tank Engine claiming it portrayed a world blighted by a conservative political ideology’ and operated ‘a rigid class system’ that stifled self-expression.

This research highlighted the class divide which sees the downtrodden workers in the form of Thomas and his friends at the bottom of the social ladder and the wealthy Fat Controller, Sir Topham Hatt, at the top. Any attempt to break out of this controlled hierarchy to gain individual power, show initiative or dissent was, the research concluded, met with punishment, usually because it goes wrong. They also objected to the way the show portrays Thomas, Percy and James slaving away for wealthy bosses like the Fat Controller. 

I can imagine what the Rev W.V. Awdry would say if he was around to read such perverse analyses of a charming children’s storyline. Maybe, like me, he would recommend that Mary, the MP for Coventry, should be sent there for a period of reflection, where perhaps she may rediscover the joys of childhood, a sense of perspective, and to try and engage with what really causes sexism and class discrimination in Britain.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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