Thomas the Train: the UN's latest ambassador

Political studies professor Shauna Wilton has long called for a refresh of the popular children's television show Thomas and Friends-now that it's in the works, not everyone is as thrilled.

Tia Lalani - 02 March 2018

By Shauna Wilton

Mattel's decision to incorporate gender equality, diversity, and sustainability into the children's television show Thomas and Friends have been met with accusations of political correctness and indoctrination, says political science professor. (Photo: Arc productions via

Mattel, the owner of the Thomas the Tank Engine brand, recently announced a new collaboration with the United Nations. Mattel will be revamping the children's television show, Thomas and Friends, in order to modernize the show, diversify the main characters, and provide more action and adventure for the trains on Sodor Island. Not only will the new version of the show include more central female characters, including a female engine from Africa that Thomas invites to Sodor, it will also incorporate aspects of the UN Millennium Development Goals on education, gender equality, and sustainability into the storylines.

As Maher Nasser, Director of the UN Creative Community Outreach Initiative insists, "We recognise the power of the creative community and entertainment industry in reaching much wider audiences through storytelling." The UN, Nasser continues, sees its work with partners such as Thomas and Friends, broadcast in over 33 languages and 100 countries, as a way "to translate our messages into everyday language that young people and children can better understand and relate to. Once children understand [the concepts behind the UN Millennium Development Goals], they will grow to be more responsible adults." Kate Schlomann, representing Thomas and Friends, agreed, stating, "The content hopes to inspire the next generation of global citizens and produce meaningful conversation and learnings between children and parents."

A number of years ago, I published a highly critical paper on the TV series, Thomas and Friends. Essentially, I argued that we need to pay attention to the content of children's television shows because children learn from the shows they watch-they learn how to behave, interact with others, and how society works. I criticized the show for its strict social hierarchy, which was gendered and racialized, the limited and stereotypical roles for female characters, and the fact that the main job of the engines (who are like children on the show) was just to do what they are told, without question! I asked, are these really the lessons we want our children to learn?

The new series addresses many of my concerns. While much depends on the how the show is produced and how it deals with the new characters and storylines, these appear to be positive changes. Yet, the response to the announcement by members of the public is reminiscent of the outrage when my research was originally publicized. Why should the show change? Accusations of political correctness and indoctrination abound.

This response continues to puzzle me today. Why do people get so upset when a children's television show is criticized? Why do they see messages of gender equality or caring for the earth as political indoctrination, but either cannot see or do not mind the messages about absolute authority, gender inequality, and racism that earlier versions of the show contained? It appears that privilege is indeed blind. While the original stories by Rev. Awdry reflected a particular time and place in history and the beliefs of the author, shouldn't contemporary reincarnations of the show reflect our time, our history, and our beliefs?

Many defenders of the show argue that it reflects the time and place in which it was created. To change it amounts to historical revisionism. They also say that it is a children's show and should be left alone, not imbued with political messages. But, if the content doesn't matter, because it is just entertainment, then changing the messages within the show to be more inclusive and progressive also shouldn't matter. The very fact that people become so upset with the thought of changing the show suggests that the content does matter.

While it is not yet clear how the show will teach children about the UN development goals, other than by having Thomas explore the world and meet more people and creatures from diverse backgrounds, the values behind the UN goals of equality and sustainability are fairly universally accepted. Finding creative ways to teach children about these values is a worthwhile project and Thomas and Friends was overdue for a 'refresh.' The collaboration with the UN and people from the countries Thomas will visit seems like a step in the right direction.

Shauna Wilton, Political Studies, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on Tuesday, February 27, 2018.