When I was very young we had Thomas The Tank Engine books in my primary school.
Nice drawings, simple, child-like stories.
By the time I had my own children, the books had been made into little, five minute films.
Same stories, very basic animation, Ringo Starr’s voice-over.
Thomas and his friends were always doing something naughty, and always getting taught a lesson.
In one story it’s raining and Henry, the green engine, doesn’t want to get his paint wet.
So he stops in a tunnel and won’t come out to do his work.
To teach him a lesson, the Fat Controller has him bricked in.
Henry can see out, but he can’t come out.
Meanwhile all the other engines are having to do his work.
Henry is stuck in the tunnel but the Fat Controller won’t let him out until he’s learned a lesson.
The lesson is not to be vain and selfish.
Eventually, Henry gets out and he’s happy to go back to work with his friends.
Fair enough, or so I thought.
But the New Yorker magazine has an online article titled “The Repressive Authoritarian Soul of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends”.
The author has a twitter link to the article: “Thomas the Tank Engine is super fucked-up.”
They write that Thomas the Tank Engine stories are “worse than any horror stories”.
That the show is “a depiction of a premodern corporate-totalitarian dystopia.”
Discussing the episode in the tunnel, one of the readers says: “What moral lesson are kids supposed to learn from this? Do as you’re told or you’ll be entombed forever in the darkness to die?”
Other readers say: “Trains work hard because they fear a violent death” and: “The trains have been given the gift of life but they exist only to serve” and: “The trains were basically slaves to the people that owned the train company – they had no rights.”
Yet another adds: “This is manipulation, a traditional tactic used by psyop social engineers in order to reinforce group think in order to steer you around like cattle.”
Suddenly I wondered if I was on the wrong planet.
Who were these people?
To everyone I knew, Thomas had always been harmless, kiddy stories.
To these people, Thomas was dangerous brainwashing, the equivalent of Kim Jong-Un.
But it’s comments like the next one I found really worrying:
“I use this episode when teaching media studies as an introduction to the concept of social values. You can see the worrisome message the dominant political ideology was imparting via children’s TV to the next generation.”
What’s worrying is that this person is teaching Media Studies.
And they are teaching the next generation of communications professionals.
The people that will be working in mass media.
And they will bring this kind of learning into their thinking on communication.
They will be implementing strategies and writing briefing documents.
They will be overseeing advertising campaigns.
They will be dictating the way we talk to bus drivers, office workers, housewives, shop staff, factory workers.
And just how far removed is their thinking from the reality of ordinary people’s lives?
These people who are being taught that Thomas the Tank Engine is “a depiction of a premodern corporate-totalitarian dystopia.”
Do we really think these people are capable of simple common-sense thought?
The sort of everyday thinking that’s going on in the minds of normal human beings.
Who can they possibly be capable of understanding or talking to?
What are we training and recruiting?
And then we wonder why advertising is no longer relevant to ordinary people