The XX Factor

Can Mattel Bring Thomas the Tank Engine Into the 21st Century?

Thomas and Hiro
Thomas the Tank Engine already has some international friends. Thomas (right) and Hiro (left), at Senzu station in Japan.

Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images

Children’s love for Thomas the Tank Engine is an abiding source of bafflement and vexation for parents. The “useful” little blue train and his many locomotive pals have been criticized for being classist, sexist, racist, anti-environmentalist, brainwashing, and boring. But none of that seems to bother our kids, who every year spend $1 billion of their parents’ money on Thomas-branded toys and entertainment.

Nevertheless, Mattel, which took over the franchise in 2013, appears to be aware of the shortcomings that are so obvious to parents. Mattel has realized that a fantasy island inhabited almost exclusively by white, male trains and steeped in the “yes, sir” culture of colonial times doesn’t pass muster in our moderately more enlightened age. It has decided to reimagine Sodor as a more inclusive place. Whether or not it has succeeded is questionable.

As the New York Times reported, this year Mattel is expanding the line with 14 new friends for Thomas, many of which hail from non-Western countries and four of which are female. These characters will be sold as toys and appear in a movie called The Great Race, which will begin a staggered worldwide release in August. Vincent D’Alleva, who oversees the Thomas franchise for Mattel, told the Times that the movie was made with this summer’s Olympic Games in mind and that it will feature competitors from different countries coming together to “help [Thomas] understand that there is a bigger world out there.” Unfortunately, the characters Thomas will meet will largely be fashioned out of stereotypes.

So far, Mattel has only released biographical details on four of the new characters. There’s Raul of Brazil, who is described as “feisty, strong and agile.” Yong Bao of China, who’s “driven to achieve and make progress.” Ashima of India, a colorful female train, who, in addition to being as fast as Thomas, “shows no fear,” and is “happy to help out.” Carlos of Mexico sports a Frida Kahlo-style unibrow and is “proud” and “always wearing a smile.” The excitable South American, the ambitious Asian, the obliging female, the peppy Mexican—they aren’t exactly playing against type here.

To be fair, there’s a fine line between capturing a national culture and perpetuating stereotypes. The chances of crossing that line are much higher in the world of children’s media, where characters are, by necessity, painted with broad strokes. Nuance, the platinum standard in character development for adult entertainment, doesn’t fly with toddlers; complications and contradictions just aren’t their thing.

Still, the Thomas team could have a done a little more to diversify the diversity. Maybe ambitious Yong Bao also loves to laugh? Raul is also loyal? Carlos a hard worker? Ashima, on the other hand, would have benefited from having one less trait: She’s beautiful, fast, and kind, in other words, a steam engine who has it all. Bless her.

Some parents might wish to boycott Thomas or attempt to explain away the more questionable aspects of Sodor’s newest additions to their preschoolers. I’ll be doing none of that. Instead of censoring what my son watches and reads, I’d rather make sure he’s aware of other characters whose gender or race plays out in less predictable ways. Fortunately, the world of children’s programming is far less sclerotic than the island of Sodor, and there are lots of great options featuring women and people of color. Doc McStuffins, a cartoon about a little black girl who fixes broken toys in the back of her house, and Dora the Explorer are two great examples. My son loves both.

Or maybe I’m just chicken. The truth is, banning Thomas, for transgressions new or old, would be a heavy lift in my house, and I’m not sure I’ve got the energy for it. Another truth? Although the show contradicts many of my feminist and democratic socialist values, I really rather like it. I’m an outlier in the parenting world, someone who doesn’t only understand why such an orderly and simplified would appeal to my child but also finds it appealing herself. The show plays to our paradoxical relationship with freedom, the simultaneous desire to both do what we want and be told what to do. How seductive it is to transport oneself to a place where everyone has a chance to avoid the existential angst brought on by too much freedom and opt instead to be “useful”—a state of being whose definition is communally agreed upon.

I don’t want my son to stop watching Thomas, nor do I want Thomas to undergo any radical changes. My hope is that the Thomas franchise finds a way to make girls and children of color feel equally at home in this soothingly predictable imaginary world as white boys apparently do. Let’s see if Mattel can pull it off.