Archive for July, 2012

Oddities and Children’s Media

I watch a bit more kid-centric media than I used to. I’ve been watching cartoons for a long time, don’t get me wrong, but those are geared more to the older kid, ages 8 and up. Children’s television is a different beast entirely. Small kids are interested in different things. Joshua did not care for Transformers cartoons at all, but loves Elmo. He is also not bothered in the least by repetition. He could watch the same video every day and not tire of it. Combining the repetitive viewings with the fact that I’m not really invested in the content gives me the chance to sit back and view things at a level that they are not really intended to viewed.

Joshua is obsessed with trains (something I keep meaning to explore in greater depth: Why is it that it seems almost all little kids love trains and then that love doesn’t really transition to adulthood for most? What is so universal about trains that it seems to hit the psyche of little kids so hard?) and this means he is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. Thomas is not what I would refer to as annoying in the traditional sense. The classic episodes feature some impressive model-work and attention to detail and feature such parent-friendly narrators as Ringo Starr, George Carlin and Alec Baldwin. It has the workings of what should be a pretty inoffensive children’s show. It is, however, pretty goddamn weird.

For starters, the trains are all assholes. They are best friends and bitter enemies at random depending on which episode you are viewing—there’s no real consistency. Thomas and Percy are best friends. Thomas is teasing Percy mercilessly. The trains are AWFUL to one another and more than a few episodes feature trains being teased to the point of taking a drastic and poorly thought out action that results in great harm to themselves and general damage to the surroundings. The moral is never belabored, either. There’s no real consequence to the aggressor. They get scolded by the head of the railway, Sir Topham Hatt (bonus fun fact: in the original books, he’s known as The Fat Controller). There’s typically a brief admission of fault. No one seems to dwell on the fact that, were these trains people, one of them would be dead or seriously maimed by what has just transpired.

I would love to say that the newer, computer-animated shows are better but two instances of questionable “lessons” stand out. In one episode, one of the only female engines, Emily, is coerced into believing that she should be excited that she’s been tasked with picking up the laundry while other trains take on jobs she once thought were more desirable. In one of the Thomas movies, as important tasks are being assigned, a diesel engine (one of the only all-black engines on the show) is told that he’s not special enough to take part in the important tasks. The point is never once revisited.

The thing that really drives me nuts, though, is a serious logical inconsistency in the show.

The trains are alive. They all speak to one another and have distinct personalities. They have desires and goals but they have no ability to act for themselves. They are still trains and trains require operators. This is very directly addressed in the show. In one episode, Thomas is complimented by his driver that he’s working so efficiently that it’s almost as if the driver wasn’t needed at all. His ego balloons and the next morning Thomas decides to try and start his day on his own, without his driver. Thomas then finds that he’s able to start moving (we are told this is because an attendent who was cleaning Thomas didn’t properly secure him) but then very quickly learns that he has no ability to do anything else. He can’t stop, can’t whistle, can’t do anything. He ends up crashing into a house at the end of the train yard because he is totally unable to control himself without a driver.

So we have that established. It’s canon. In almost every episode the major lesson is that the trains need to be patient and follow instructions. They tend to try to rush or perform functions haphazardly, causing as Topham Hatt says “Confusion and Delay”. When something goes wrong, the trains are scolded and punished. But… why? They can’t do anything at all for themselves. Their every function is performed by their drivers who apparently have carte blanche to roll around and, in today’s parlance, fuck shit up. They are never addressed or punished for actions that they clearly either must have engaged in directly, or at the very least enabled. It’s not as if the humans in the world are not characters. Topham Hatt is the ultimate leadership and many storylines revolve around the trains helping citizens on the island of Sodor. They have clear agency. It’s not as if we were dealing with some mindless slave race of train conductors in a world populated only by locomotives.

What results is me sitting on a couch next to Joshua and saying things like, “Hey, Topham! Why don’t you fire that driver? It’s all his fault. Did Thomas use his arms to hook himself up incorrectly to those cars? You know, the arms he DOES NOT HAVE.”