Monday, November 28, 2005

Gramsci, Sesame Street, and Thomas

Today Z-Net published this interesting article by Paul Street, called "Antonio Gramsci on Sesame Street."

Street begins by observing that

The hegemonic ideology of the ruling class, Antonio Gramsci once observed, becomes all too much like the "air we breathe." It comes to define the "common sense"of ordinary daily consciouness and experience, with tragic consequences all around.

He then cites an example of this that he stumbled across recently: a Sesame Street skit involving Cookie Monster dressed up as "Cookie Hood." We saw Sesame Street pretty regularly when we lived in LA, and I have, in fact, seen this skit, and had a similar gut reaction, though I never bothered to articulate it so thoroughly. The skit is about Cookie Hood noticing a disparity in the distribution of cookies -- some people have more than they need and others have none. He engages in some creative direct action to redistribute the cookie wealth, but by the end of the skit is caught by Sesame Street's adults and corrected to the proper notion that respecting private property is good, redistribution of wealth is bad, and asking why some people have too much while others have nothing is not an acceptable agenda. Read the article -- it's short -- to get a more complete picture of this one small example of how children's popular culture is a vehicle for hegemony.

That also got me thinking about another popular show around our place, Thomas The Tank Engine. L, who is 27 months old, loves it. I have a certain fondness for it as well. The books upon which it is based were written 60 years ago in England, but I first became aware of it when my youngest sister and brother were little and a version of the series narrated by Ringo Starr played on PBS. But as I have watched it (and watched it and watched it and watched it -- L can be a little obsessive sometimes, not completely unlike me and a number of the members of my family of origin) I have found my fondness for it rather more difficult to maintain for reasons beyond just excessive repetition.

In the Thomas universe, the central characters are trains on an imaginary British Isle named Sodor, and the take-home values that it teaches are passive acceptance of a highly stratified class society. The trains engage in activity that is very obviously working-class work. Their social structure, much like the British working-class historically, is highly stratified in a number of ways. One mechanism of stratification is based on the status of the work each engine does -- tender engines are above tank engines, and within the tender engines those who pull passanger trains are higher status than those who are mixed use who are higher than those who pull exclusively goods trains. The top of the pyramid (of workers) is Gordon, who pulls the passenger express and who embodies the highest attributes of working-class masculinity like strength and pride.

There is also a division between steam engines and diesel engines which is disturbingly easy to map onto racial divisions within the working class. Both groups are shown as being capable of foolish and inappropriate behaviour towards the other, but steamies are clearly higher status and often come across as being innately "better."

Most of the engines are male. I suspect the few that are female are latter day additions not in the original books, though I don't know this for sure. Even with this tokenism, the stories reinforce the idea of "real" working-class work being a masculine domain. It is also interesting how those engines are feminized in the language that is used. For example, Mavis (a female diesel engine) is in one story described as having "flounced" away, a word never used in the context of any of the male engines and one for which it is hard to imagine any physical enactment when the supposedly flouncing entity is a train.

The ultimate authority figure in this world is Sir Topham Hatt, a railway bureaucrat given, so it seems, to micro-managing as he always seems to magically appear when some difficulty arises. He settles disputes and makes sure that the railway runs smoothly. His authority, like the divisions among the workers, is shown to be completely natural and benevolent, and it is never questioned. Workers make trouble for other workers, and the boss is the one who is best placed to sort it all out equitably.

The series emphasizes interpersonal harmony and the value of hard work in the status slot which you have been assigned. I know nothing about him, but the author was a Protestant minister of some sort in early 20th century England, so these values are hardly surprising. Of course the emphasis on harmony and hard work without any explicit acknowledgment of the highly obvious status differences among workers/engines and even more obvious one between workers and bosses serves to make the hierarchy seem completely natural. The highest compliment which Sir Topham Hatt can pay to an engine is to describe them as "a very useful engine" and an engine knows he is in trouble if he is accused of causing "confusion and delay."

It is interesting, too, that this hierarchy maps easily onto conditions of industrial work in capitalist states, in states with mixed economies, and in states with a hierarchical, centrally planned economy.


SR said...

You so need to write a full-length article about this for something. As-is, it would make a great piece for a parenting zine.

You know what would be put together a collection of pieces like these (1 on Sesame Street, 1 on Thomas, 1 on Dora, etc etc etc) in book form. I'm not kidding.

SR said...

In fact, you should send the article as is to Rad Dad (see

Anonymous said...

That's some cute stuff. Katherine DeBrecht could take some pointers from those two instances; her book ("Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed!") seems almost gruntingly crude compared to them:


Daniel Keyes said...

With the Thomas mytho geography, I am struck by how the "pastoral" the Island of Sodor (Sordid) operates to naturalize industrial relations between trains, drivers (who need to drive the trains, but since the trains think for themselves creates an odd A.I. relationship), train passengers, etc.

An essentailly Benthemite ideology regulates the Island's economy while the economy of the Island in many ways seems to be non-existent. What does Sir Topham Hat produce? The island although fully serviced by trains seems to lack an industry; it is the perfect model of a post industrial consumerist economy nevertheless based on the "industry" of the trains.