Saturday, May 3, 2014
Karl hates Thomas: in honor of International Workers Day
May 1 came and went here with a lot of labor, but not a lot of celebration. But I didn't come here to talk about my May Day, I came here to complain about Thomas the Train. LB became obsessed with this show (from chatter at daycare maybe?) a few months ago. She loves some Thomas. At first I didn't mind, after all it's got to better than whatever Sparkly Fairy Disney Princess Barbie Pink Craptacular little girls are supposed to be watching. But there's the Thomas theme song with its inevitable earworm, and there's the oversensitive and whiny trains who can't let even the littlest slight just roll of their train backs. Dislike.
Then there's the maleness and whiteness of Thomas. Emily is now the token lady train, and all the bosses and conductors are men. Then there's the whiteness. Of the human characters, I've seen a black mayor have a bit part (in our racial TV taxonomy, he should have been Prime Minister or King, because surely if you have a show with a black King you can't be racist). And maybe there is one black conductor? I haven't been able to force myself to watch closely enough to be sure. Perhaps this whiteness is supposed to harken back to the historical moment when railroads mattered (and I'll get to why, if that is so, it also sucks)? But really, this is a show about talking trains, surely historical white supremacy isn't the detailed realism to which the creators need to cling? In addition to the human characters, I also think the trains are meant to read white (their "faces" are grey). See my previous musings on the "race" of non-human characters in kids books here.] [And see Bionics additional info about race and trains on Thomas in the comments, clearly I shouldn't be as annoyed as I am because I've been tuning out a lot of the show.]
Why can't the trains and humans on Thomas represent the racial realities of modern Britain. And I don't mean that there need to be normal trains and then a Jamaican-Me-Crazy-Jar-Jar-Binks train. How hard would it be to have train faces and humans in a variety of hues with a variety of non-stereotyped accents?
But maybe the racial representations of Thomas are just a nod to an imagined Industrial Revolution utopia, and if so-dislike. I can't seem to find my copy of the Making of the English Working Class, but I can remember the vivid description of scrawny children sent into the mines, kept half-naked in darkness for 12 or 18 hours only to emerge like scrawny, blinded little moles. And there are the children in Sweetness and Power, raised on sugar water, cheap treacle, and bakery bread as their mothers worked long hours in the factories. And that my friends is your bedtime story about the Industrial Revolution. Feel free to thank me for excluding details about industrial scalpings and limb loss.
If Thomas is visually a celebration of early capitalism, its message is a celebration of late capitalism. I opened my Marx-Engels Reader to this passage: "Rather it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso...." A page later Marx goes on to say that in this context "the worker appears as superfluous." Like Thomas, perhaps, where there are owners and managers and machines, but no workers of the kind that gets dirty-no one who develops lung problems from breathing coal dust, or a bad back from shoveling coals, or losses a leg under a train wheel. And in this world of bosses and machines and work, no one ever goes home. There are no "8 hours for what you will." For the trains work is self, and the workers who make trains go are invisible.
Luckily for LB, I don't think Thomas will warp her view of the value of workers than The Little Rabbit with Red Wings warped my view of the value of individuality. And for better or worse, I'll make sure to provide plenty of indoctrination about the value of workers.