Not the Onion: the NRA (spokesperson) vs. Thomas the Tank Engine

So, this is a thing I saw on Facebook tonight…

N.R.A. Show Puts Thomas the Tank Engine in K.K.K. Hood to Criticize Diversity Move — link goes to a New York Times article, which does indeed reprint the image of Thomas the Tank Engine in a KKK hood that appeared on a recent episode of the NRATV program Relentless. Because the show’s host, Diana Loesch, was trying to make the point that adding diversity to the cast of Thomas the Tank Engine is like racism because acknowledging that your show could be more diverse means you’re admitting to being racist? Or…or something? I…uhh…yeah…we’re going to unpack this for a bit…

Quick Take: Oh for crying in church…thank god I had something to eat before I saw this. This kinda stupid you don’t want to try taking on when your blood sugar’s low. As it is, I think I’m going to need ice cream after this.

So what’s going on?: Apparently, the Thomas the Tank Engine show is  going to be introducing several new characters in some upcoming episodes. The show’s going to have Thomas leave his home island and go visit other countries, like China, India and Australia and so Thomas is going to meet trains who aren’t generically British and/or white like he and his friends are. There are also going to be some new female trains added to the cast.

It’s been a while since I last watched Thomas the Tank Engine and I was never the target audience for it, so I don’t remember if they had any female train characters. What I mostly remember from the show are a bunch of male British characters who, if I had to put a race to them I’d peg as white — and Ringo Starr and George Carlen playing Mr. Conductor during the live action bits.  And I’m not Googling anything about the show because that way lies madness. Feel free to offer corrections/links to more accurate Thomas the Tank Engine info in the comments.

I’m more interested in looking at this quote from the article above, about Diana Loesch, who aired the Thomas the Tank Engine in the Klan hoods because:

In the segment, Ms. Loesch, an outspoken conservative commentator, questioned the decision to add the new characters, including Nia, a train from Kenya. How, she asked, could the children’s show introduce “ethnic diversity” when its anthropomorphized characters are mostly trains?

(Note: Links in quote were there in the original article; also, Nia’s adorable!)

If you’ve watched kids shows from, well, ever, you’ve seen characters that aren’t human or even humanoid who’ve been assigned genders and ethnicities before. It’s an accepted part of animated storytelling, right?  If the character has eyelashes, she’s a girl.  Accents = ethnicity (which can get confusing when the characters are supposed to be aliens — unless Ironhide is supposed to be from Cybertron’s Deep South).

But, even beyond that, it’s really not that hard to figure out how you go about introducing ethnic diversity with non-humanoid characters — Nia is a train who was, presumably, built in Kenya. Not much of a stretch for her to think of herself as Kenyan, is it? I mean, we talk about cars being Japanese and vodka being Russian and pastries being French so why can’t a train be Kenyan? Pretty sure Thomas and his friends think of themselves as British, so it’s not like there isn’t a precedent going on.

Funny how Leosch doesn’t seem to have a problem with that, though. It’s almost like ethnicity only becomes a touchy subject when it’s not Anglo-American. Kind of like how gender only becomes a problem when it’s not male (Transformers fandom, looking at you).

How much of this is actual confusion on Loesch’s part and how much is faux-confusion meant to serve as a rhetorical gambit, I don’t know. The generous part of me wants to think that maybe, just maybe, she’s honestly so unimaginative that the idea of non-humanoid characters having identities beyond “I’m a train” is throwing her for a genuine loop.

The cold and cynical part of me is less inclined toward such generosity.  That part thinks this ‘confusion’ is willful ignorance on Loesch’s part — it’s not that she can’t understand how a train could be Kenyan or female, it’s that she doesn’t want to understand.  Understanding someone else’s point of view is difficult; it’s much easier to sneer at something and dismiss it out of hand.  That way, you don’t have to face the fear of the unknown.

Which is what I think is at the root of most if not all of this kind of anti-diversity pushback that we’ve seen since, well, since always but especially in the last decade or so. Too many people think that other people gaining recognition and representation means that someone else (i.e. them) has to lose recognition and representation. But that’s not true.  As the meme says, it’s not pie.

Source: https://imgflip.com/i/1ijiwh (and now I want pie…)

 

Seriously, I think I’m going to go get some pie…