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If we got angry about this kind of thing we'd be angry all the time

UK Labour MP Points Out There Are No Female Engines In Thomas The Tank Engine

Parents, it’s never too early to teach your kids about fair gender representation in the media! Mary Creagh, the UK’s Labour shadow transport secretary, reminded us all that gendered social conditioning starts young when she pointed out that children’s TV shows unfairly portray transport jobs as exclusively male – particularly placing blame on Thomas the Tank Engine.

Creagh says that the lack of women engineers in transport can be traced to early childhood conditioning; girls are rarely portrayed on kids’ TV in transport jobs, something she called out as a “national scandal” (with which I’m sure GoldieBlox would agree). Creagh’s point is an important one; currently only 4.2% of train drivers in the UK are women. In the Thomas franchise, the gender imbalance is definitely true; all the main characters – all seven of them – are male. Said Creagh,

“In the Thomas the Tank Engine books there are almost no female engines. The only female characters are an annoyance, a nuisance and in some cases a danger to the functioning of the railway. [...] There is a preponderance of men in the transport industry and I am very keen to unpack some of the myths that stop women from taking up what are often highly paid and highly skilled jobs.”

Citing the CBeebies show Underground Ernie as a step in the right direction – the show features a motherly, queen-like train and a younger, “hippy chick” train – Creagh did point out that the show’s main focus is still Ernie, and not the ladies. And it isn’t just books and TV shows that reinforce the stereotype; she also draws attention to children’s toys sold at Boots pharmacies in the UK, inscribed with “little cupcake” for girls and “train driver” for boys (though some UK retailers are breaking gender borders in stores). Creagh pointed out that,

“Girls sit at home and eat cake, boys are out driving the train. So it starts in childhood harnesses, and it goes up to the Thomas the Tank Engine books where there are no female engines. [...] There are quite a lot of stereotypical attitudes in the industry. I was talking to one fright operator who said we think women don’t like working night shifts. And I said well, have you told that to all the NHS nurses who work nights in hospitals across the country and probably do it for half the pay of train drivers.”

The company that owns Thomas, Hit Entertainment, assures the public that they’re aware of the “historical imbalance,” but that “gender is irrelevant” to the trains on the Island of Sodor. Unfortunately, here in reality, gender remains super relevant. The pink and blue aisles at my local toy shop make sure of that.

(via The Telegraph, image via Barney Moss)

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  • Nuuni Nuunani

    Umm…I honestly have trouble seeing the significence about trying to push genders onto trains. This would be like declaring female subjugation for sailors giving ships female pronouns or something. ^^;

  • Anonymous

    Tugboat Willie (male) would probably have words with you.

    This isn’t about “trying” to push gender on trains; they already have gender. They are gendered, male-named characters with traditionally male voices. It’s significant because there are NO female heroes. Just because this “species” is all trains doesn’t mean they shouldn’t represent their audience.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, has a theory about Thomas the Tank Engine. Go to #1.

  • Sally Strange

    “gender is irrelevant” to the trains on the Island of Sodor.

    If that were true then they wouldn’t be all male. They’d be either an even mix, or they’d be genderless.

  • Sally Strange

    The trains already have gender. The gender is male. The people who decided that anthropomorphized trains should all have a gender, and it should be male only, they are the ones who did this “pushing” you seem so offended by. We are just noting it and wondering why.

  • Anonymous

    Reader comment over at The Indie:
    “Look, if kids made career choices from watching children’s programmes I’d have been driving around in a van catching ghosts, with a dog named Scooby.”

  • Alithea Sexton

    This is where have a 3 year old nephew comes in handy. There are female characters on the Thomas the Tank Engine show. Emily (my nephew loves her), Rosie, Belle, Lady, and few other non-engine random vehicle girls.

  • Alithea Sexton

    Emily is even mentioned in the opening title song.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know what the Thomas the Tank Engine books are like, but in the tv show, or at least its most recent incarnations, there ARE female engines. There’s Emily, who’s very reliable, and Rosie, who’s young and wants to prove herself (and is a lot like Thomas)…and I think there’s a few more…some of the cable cars were female…and I think the plot of one of the moves centered around a female engine and magic.

    It’s not a 50/50 balance, but there are some female trains. This wasn’t necessarily true in the past, as I remember watching Thomas as a kid and not seeing any female trains. My cousin watches it now, and there are female trains around. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than it was.

    …….now if only all the trains would stop looking so dang CREEPY…….

  • Laura Truxillo

    ‘“gender is irrelevant” to the trains on the Island of Sodor.’

    So…it shouldn’t be a big deal to have some trains voiced by ladies then? With female names? I mean, sense it’s irrelevant and all.

  • Laura Truxillo

    Which is such a weak, myopic sort of comment. Kids may not make their Ultimate Career Choice from watching preschool programing at the age where half of the kids are still convinced that they can grow up to be an animal or a princess. But they do take their socialization cues from it. Kids become almost rigidly aware of gender between the ages of four and six, to the point that most kids don’t want to play with toys that they are told are for the other gender, even if they were toys they previously enjoyed playing with. Television is the shared cultural medium, the way folklore around the fire used to be, and children absorb a heck of a lot of it (whether or not that’s a good thing is another question entirely).

    So no, it might not be the only deciding factor. But there are girls out there who might be interested in trains until they’re made to realize that trains are “boy things.” (And there are girls who will buck that angrily and take “tomboy” as their badge of honor, but there are plenty of girls who just want to like what they like and not get hassled or isolated for it). If girl look at the sorts of characters who are the kinds of people they’d like to be, and see most or even all of them are boys, in a child’s mind it’s a pretty easy conclusion to come to that there are no girls like that. And yes, eventually they’ll be old enough to understand social complexities, but by then, it’ll be a force of habit they’ll have to unlearn, if they even want to.

    Which again, doesn’t even address the sort of scorn a kid can get from their peers for liking something presented as primarily a toy or tv show for the opposite gender. It’s freaking heartbreaking to watch a kid decide to have nothing more to do with something they liked just because they want to fit in.

  • HamsterMasterSamster

    Yeah, I have to say, I always hated the show as a kid, no female characters or not. The engines’ faces are the stuff of nightmares D:

  • Anonymous

    Ugh, but there ARE female trains (or, at least, trains with female names and female voice actors), there are little girls and adult women (although the adults are primarily wives or visiting celebrities, not conductors/drivers/engineers… which is much more of an issue, I should think).

    For parents interested in a kid train show with a more diverse cast, “Chuggington” (created by some of the folks who worked on “Thomas,” in fact) has a cast with a pretty good male/female mix as well as a train with a Swahili name (the design of the engine is a Kenyan one as well) and a few POC human characters.

  • Anonymous

    D: The faces of the trains move now. I don’t know if that’s creepier than when they were just static faces with scary moving eyes or not.

  • bugsbaby

    I did a speech on sexism in children’s media for an english assignment, and Thomas the Tank Engines is one of the worst culprits, however there are female characters. 12 of them to be precise. 12 out of 102. Each of those 12 is usually a background supporting character, and those that do have a larger role are generally used to reinforce ‘bitchy female behaviour’.

  • Anonymous

    No it’s not. Mary Creagh specifically referred to ‘the Thomas The Tank Engine books’ not the show. I can confirm they are devoid of any female characters who aren’t subordinate or silly. Mary Creagh no doubt knows this because she, like you, has young kids.

    Just because you made an assumption that the headline referred to the TV show, then didn’t read the article with enough attention to realise you were mistaken, does not mean TMS’s headline is at fault.

    Headlines are there to give the gist of the article; the article itself gives the details. Sloppy reading, not sloppy reporting.

  • Anonymous

    You accuse Maggs of not doing her research but you haven’t even properly read the article: the critisism explicitly refers to the BOOKS not the TV show.

  • Anonymous

    Yup. When I was 5 and people asked me wanted to be when I grew up my answers were things like ‘mermaid’ and ‘fairy unicorn’ and ‘princess’. And I wasn’t even a ‘girly-girl’ child.

    Isn’t that kind of worrying? Before I even understood some of the basics of REALITY I already had a clear idea of what it was feminine to aspire to, and it was things that were beautiful and inert.

    It’s disingenuous to pretend the cultural models we see as children (whether they are presented as fantasy or reality) don’t affect our understanding of the world.

    And in any case, even if one buys into the idea that ‘it doesn’t affect children’ – then why are the arguers so desperate to keep it male? They shouldn’t care what is done with the genders. I can’t help but think that some of the same people who think it’s silly to have gender representation on children’s TV would be the ones kicking up a stink if, for instance, gay characters were introduced.

  • Anonymous

    Quite so – it’s the old problem of ‘maleness is generic, femaleness is an exception’.

    The psychology reminds me of the way part of my family goes on: they make an incredibly closed plan amongst themselves which they tell you wholesale, and you’re expected to fold in with. And when you can’t fit in with their arrangements (‘but that’s the one day of the month I can’t make’ – ‘I can’t actually eat spicy food, I have a hernia’ – whatever) you’re being the incredibly picky annoying one.

  • Meg

    I know there are a few lady engines (Emily in particular is a goodie) but these ladies are indeed missing from the books.