When my daughter was three, she adored Thomas the Tank Engine, the cheeky blue steam engine who, along with his friends, inspired a series of books and TV programs. The TV show’s catchy theme song (“They’re two, they’re four, they’re six, they’re eight”) is indelibly cemented in my brain. I can recite lines from the 2012 movie Blue Mountain Mystery the way some people quote a Scorsese film. I can tell you the color and number of every engine on the Island of Sodor. My husband and I still joke that we wonder if our daughter will love anything the way she loved Thomas.
But as a girl, she was in the minority. Much to my chagrin, there was no Thomas-themed underwear for girls—which, let me tell you, would have helped a lot when it came time for toilet training. I had to go on Etsy to find someone to make me a Thomas dress. There were very few female trains.
So I read with great intrigue that for its 22nd season, Thomas & Friends, which airs during the Nick Jr. pre-school block on Nickelodeon, would be introducing two new female trains and taking Thomas out of Sodor to see the world. This kicked off with the new movie Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! which aired last month and will continue throughout the season.
Ian McCue, senior producer on the series, has been with the show since its 16th season. McCue and his team did extensive focus groups and research leading up to the 22nd season, and what they found was that about 40% of their audience is young girls.
“For a long time, the misconception has been [that] Thomas is aimed at boys, but if you’ve got almost 50% of your audience girls, we’ve got to put something in for them,” McCue says. “And also for your children to understand just because you’re a boy you don’t have to just hang out with boys and if you’re a girl you don’t just have to hang out with girls. You can all sort of be friends together and that’s one of the great things we get from Thomas—it’s all about friendship and teamwork.”
Nia, a train from Africa, was introduced in the Big Adventures! movie. Nia is not only helpful but, in her debut, she’s also the voice of reason who warns Thomas when he’s about to make some not-so-great decisions. The series worked with the U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women to make sure they got the character right from a cultural perspective, and also to ensure that Nia is a full and equal partner with Thomas. The U.N. welcomed the decision to have Nia return home with Thomas at the end of the movie.
“They felt was that we are sort of trying to encourage children to open up their arms and welcome everyone and that’s what Thomas does in a really lovely way,” McCue says.
Another female train, Rebecca, is introduced in an episode this season as a true counterpart to Gordon, the fastest express train on Sodor.
“Rebecca is strong and is as big as Gordon, but she’s got this positive outlook on life,” McCue says. “She’s almost the polar opposite of grumpy old Gordon. She can do everything. She can match him pound for pound. We are giving girls the same opportunity as the boys and really getting that gender balance right in the show.”
That commitment to gender equality begins with the show’s new theme song and new roll call song, which incorporates Nia and Rebecca along with Emily, formerly the song’s lone female. These seemingly small changes make a big difference. “Up until Season 22, you had six boys and Emily,” McCue says. “Now, we have much better balance: three boys, three girls, and Thomas.” It also makes for a much more colorful line-up: Nia is bright orange and Rebecca is sunshine yellow.
The other feedback the series received in its focus groups is that Thomas was a train that really didn’t go anywhere. That’s why, this season, he’ll travel to India, Australia and China. Of the 26 episodes, half will be set on the Island of Sodor and half will take Thomas off the island and into the world.
“The world is much bigger than their backyard,” is one of the messages McCue hopes young viewers will take away from watching the series. “Perhaps they’ll turn and start conversations with their parents to want to know more, asking about China, asking about India, all these other countries out there in the world.”
McCue realizes there are limits to what a TV show for pre-schoolers can accomplish.
“We can only do so much as an entertainment show, but I think [it can] sow that seed and encourage young children to open up to everyone and be welcoming to everyone. We can all be friends together. We don’t have to side ourselves with one particular group of people and if boys want to wear pink and girls want to wear blue, so be it. At the same time, if a girl wants to wear pink, why not? It’s a lovely color. It’s letting people make up their own minds and be their own person. That’s what we are really hoping to do. Again, we have a very young audience and we are sowing a very early seed, but if we can do that and entertain them in a fun way and use Thomas as that spokesperson, that’s a good thing.”
Thomas & Friends airs on Nickelodeon. Check your local listings.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .