There's kind of an interesting story about the children's show Thomas the Tank Engine, that many will dismiss; but I think deserves at least a bit of discussion.
A political scientist from the University of Alberta, has studied the program and found that it promoted a Conservative ideology. Was that the shows intent? Did it's creator have an agenda?
I don't think so.
First off the program was based on a series of books written by a pastor in the 1940's. Therefore, the characters are more reflective of that era. When producer Britt Allcroft first brought Thomas to the TV screen in 1979, she tried to capture the innocence and magic that inspired her, after reading the books.
She herself is a strong female role model, and though she ultimately lost the company she helped to create, she is still an astute businesswoman.
But that doesn't mean that Shauna Wilton is wrong. We do have to be careful about what our children are watching, and be ready to counter or discuss what messages they may be getting, even if unintentional.
Study: Thomas pushing conservatism
December 12, 2009
OH THOMAS: A Canadian researcher claims Thomas the Tank Engine pushes a 'conservative political ideology' on to kids.
A researcher has blown the whistle on Thomas the Tank Engine, saying the classic series was pushing "conservative political ideology" on to kids.
Storylines written for Thomas and his steam-powered friends appeared to "punish individual initiative", the Canadian study found, while female characters were shunted into support roles only.
Political scientist Shauna Wilton, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at University of Alberta's Augustana Campus, said parents should be more mindful of children's programming.
It played a major role in shaping a child's conception of the world and in the case of Thomas the Tank Engine, it was not always constructive.
Dr Wilton said the show conveyed a number of positive political values such as tolerance, listening, communicating with others and contributing to the community.
"It also represents a conservative political ideology that punishes individual initiative, opposes critique and change, and relegates females to supportive roles," she said.
Dr Wilton analysed 23 episodes of the model train-based series, which is shown in 130 countries. She said there were storylines in several episodes that divided the characters into different social classes and punished those who tried to gain individual power.
"Any change is seen as disrupting the natural order of things," she said.
Of the 49 main characters listed in the show, only eight were female and Dr Wilton said this reflected a general bias towards male characters across all of children's programming.
"We tend to think of children's TV shows as neutral and safe but they still carry messages," she said.
"Eventually, these children will attain full political citizenship and the opinions and world outlook they develop now, partially influenced by shows like Thomas and Friends, are part of that process."
Australia's Professor Sue Grieshaber said children gained the ability to think about the subtle messages contained in programming, like Thomas the Tank Engine, from about age four or five.
She said that in this case, Thomas' storylines may have been written years ago and they could reflect views from "a bygone era".
Parents and teachers should point these cases out to children where they saw them, said Prof Grieshaber who is Professor of Early Years Education at the Queensland University of Technology.
"You can point things out to children and say why are all the people in the Thomas story males? Can you name any female engines?" she said.
"Or what sort of roles did the females have? Four- or five-year-old children can think about these issues if you point them out."
What comes to mind for me was a show called 227, starring Marla Gibbs, who had played the Jefferson's feisty maid. It was based on a play that was set in the 1950's, but was supposed to have been made more contemporary.
I remember watching an episode with my daughter, who was about 9 or 10 at the time, and Gibb's character Mary Jenkins, suddenly shot up and stated that she had to get upstairs because her construction worker husband Lester would be home soon and expected his dinner on the table.
My first impulse was to cover my daughter's ears, but I realized that was silly. Instead I joked about it, but starting paying more attention to the message. The main female characters were a gossipy housewife and a slut. We never watched the show again.