I haven't written a blog post on this particular blog for a while now, so let's break that silence with my thoughts on possibly the most controversial subject in Thomas' history: female characters! Before I do though...
Ever since Thomas the Tank Engine first made it onto television screens, the franchise has been barraged with criticism. Whether it be ridiculous things made up by the media or legitimate issues from fans, the little blue engine has never been far away from controversy. Perhaps the biggest talking point of the lot is the issue of "sexism". While I don't agree that the series is sexist due of the amount of female characters in the show (I've never been in favour of having a 50/50 balance of males and females in important jobs or as TV or movie characters purely to fill a quota), I DO think that every producer and writer of the series has something against treating the majority of female characters in a way that will provoke a positive fan reaction.
Annie and Clarabel are actually two characters that buck this trend brilliantly. Not only are they Thomas' coaches, which means they basically get quite a bit of screen time (except the Sam Barlow era, where in most episodes Thomas starred in he was pulling trucks or gallivanting light engine), but when they actually spoke was where they shined. In the early series they acted like Thomas' mentors, trying to steer the tank engine away from trouble, while scolding him when he did something they disapproved of. And even when they weren't doing that, they encouraged him to do his best. They don't always speak, but when they do, what they say ALWAYS feels natural for the personas they have. I'm rather glad they're finding their voices in the CGI series and, predictably, they suit the characters down to the ground. Although you HAVE to wonder: if they didn't belong to a member of the main cast of engines, would they have appeared as often as they have?
Henrietta, despite her lack of a face, is actually one of 12 characters seen in EVERY series in some form (Thomas, Edward, Henry, Gordon, James, Percy, Toby, Bertie, The Fat Controller, Annie and Clarabel being the others). However, despite this, she doesn't really say much due to, as I've said, her lack of face more than likely restricting this. Despite that though, the fact she's been in every series is an impressive achievement, especially for a female character.
Lady Hatt actually never did anything in the first four series. In fact, she only appeared in a few shots! But since she was barely in the Railway Series, it's no surprise that this was the case. It was actually in Series 5 where she came into her own. Strong willed and knowing her own mind, she (and the implementation of human characters on the whole) was actually one of the things about that series I really liked. Ever since then, she's been seen quite often in many series. However, despite one starring role in Series 12, she's not really said or done much, being relegated to cameo appearances. It's nice that she's appearing, but the series NEEDS more human interaction (which I'll save for another post)
Bridget was nice as well. A character that misunderstood some things, but since she was a child this was no surprise, nor was it an issue. That pink dress was a bit stereotypical though, but since things like that never really bothered anyone back in the 80's when the first series originally aired that doesn't really bother me much. I wouldn't mind if she was given some new clothes if she appears in the future though..!
Then there was Mrs Kyndley, a woman that was actually thrust upon us without really going into what happened to her apart from a 30 second flashback to a Railway Series story that I personally think should have been the 26th episode of the first series (Mrs Kyndley's Christmas). She was well loved by everyone on the railway, especially those on the Ffarquhar branch line, to such an extent that everyone would bend over backwards to make her feel better when she was down or just celebrate what she did for the railway when the landslide hit. Sadly though her escapades ended after Series 5, and this could be partially due to the fact that Ffarquhar's surrounding area hasn't been seen since then either. It would be nice to see Mrs Kyndley again, and since Andrew Brenner's now in charge there'd be no need to worry about whether she'd be treated right.
We now come to Daisy, who really should be treated far more respectfully than she has been. She's the first ever female locomotive of ANY sort - let alone diesel powered, the first diesel locomotive to join Sir Topham Hatt's fleet (Diesel was originally a loanee) the most originally designed character in the series (at the time as least). With all those credentials you'd think she'd be one of the most used characters, right..? Wrong. She was ONLY featured in the three adapted stories she starred in, while in 'Mavis' her role was given to Diesel, an engine that should've been sent away in disgrace! The only "disgrace" is the mistreatment that Daisy's received over the years! After Series 4, she didn't appear again for 10 years, and even that wasn't anything to shout about. She shouldn't have had any issues with the steam engines anyway, but considering Bull's Eyes was produced out of written order, it's no wonder Paul Larson and Abi Grant didn't acknowledge that. And the fact that the model crew often swapped Daisy and BoCo's face masks and chasses just proved how little they cared for her (or maybe how tight the budget was, who knows?)
I've always loved her persona, but you never get the sense that she mellows out in the TV series because she was so underused and because the last episode she was in was misplaced. I really hope she's brought back more than you readers can imagine. I wouldn't demand that she return as I'm not like that. But considering how much of a groundbreaking character she was for the series, I highly recommend Andrew Brenner consider bringing her back.
Mavis is probably the only female locomotive that every producer and writer that's ever been involved with the show has got right. She actually went down the route Daisy could have, although the latter would be great (if she returned) if she had that self confidence she's always had. Mavis was a character who thought she knew better than her elders, but she taught kids that elders needed to be respected as they were wiser and more knowledgable. As years went by, she blossomed to such an extent that she became mentor in Series 6 and 7. She lost that role in Series 8, but she's always been a sort of motherly figure, being an engine that others could confide in. She's an excellent female role model I feel, and I think that SHE should be the engine on girls' T shirts rather than Rosie, who I'll get to later.
Nancy was OK, but we never really saw much of her. It's obvious that she was never meant to be a mainstay, but appearing for around a minute in only one episode just doesn't seem enough. Maybe they could have had her grow into an adult and become a full-time engine cleaner? Or given her a completely different role on the railway? Saying this though, considering none of the other humans age in the television series, it would seem a bit awkward if she was the only one that did.
The only other female introduced in the fourth series was Caroline the Car. Considering her age and her issues, she was never really going to go far unless she was properly fixed, but that never happened (not even in the Railway Series) so it seemed that no one really saw much in her, which is a real shame. Don't get me wrong, she was never going to set the series alight or anything, but she may have at least one or two pretty solid episodes left in her should she be given the chance.
Then we move onto Lady. People are going to lynch me for this, but please refer to the top of the blog post before you send any hate; this is MY opinion. If you disagree, feel free to state yours below, but bullying and threatening comments won't solve anything, nor will they change my opinion.
As I was saying, Lady is probably the most pointless character to date (yes, I even include the Logging Locos in that), and by far the worst female character. She looks fake (she doesn't have a real life basis), she was involved in the most generic of Hollywood stories and she was based in the most faraway place of faraway places that she really did not have ANY potential at all! I was rather hoping that Thomas was ahead of her in the chase, so she could fall off the viaduct with Diesel 10. Actually, that's unfair on the Class 42: he had far more potential and you actually cared about him. The other main part of Lady's downfall was her owner. HE WAS SO BORING! Heck, even the child's voice from his flashback sounded wooden and bored! Paul and Abi tried to "fix" her in Calling All Engines but the damage was already done by that point and she (thankfully) hasn't been seen since. If I never see her again in a new episode, I'll be happy.
For the sixth series, the new writing and production team introduced Elizabeth, a vintage sentinel lorry. Her design was fantastic and original, while her persona was great as well. She really shined in series 6 and 7, and while she was toned down to become more helpful in series 8, she was still an enjoyable character to watch. But, like other females, she slid into obscurity after that, only making the odd appearance in series 11. She would be a great candidate to make a return, but considering there isn't as much focus on Sodor's roads these days, I'm not sure how much she'd affect things.
Emily is actually one of the few female characters that has been used frequently. She was excellent in the seventh series: helpful, kind, yet confident enough to put an engine in their place when she needed to. She made such an impression that she was added to the Steam Team. Sadly though, that seemed to get to her, as she became really bossy and full of her own self-importance, pretty much destroying her popularity. Thankfully her old persona did start sneaking back in during the Nitrogen era and it seems to have returned fully in the most recent series, which is wonderful. I personally feel that if she continues on this path SHE could be the engine on the girly merchandise.
The other point of contention is her whistle sound, which has been changed CONSTANTLY throughout the series. The seventh series version was lovely, original and it suited her. During series 8 however, she was given Henry's whistle. Why?! From Calling All Engines to series 12 it was made higher pitched, but it was still basically Henry's. Ever since though, up until the festive episodes from series 17, the whistle sound reverted to Henry's without the adjustments. Now though, she has a whistle that sounds like a more realistic version of the one she had during the seventh series. I really approve of this, and I'm just hoping that it's kept, rather than just used for a couple of episodes.
The first female introduction of the Sharon Miller era was Molly, an engine that was bullied because her job "wasn't important". It seems that the "higher ups" felt the same, as she only had one lead role and the rest of her appearances lasted a few seconds. She is basically a blank slate, so if the producers brought her back, they could do something promising with her, especially since the team worked wonders with new characters Luke, Stephen and Porter while really boosting characters like Hiro, Scruff and, amazingly, even Charlie became somewhat bearable (although I still don't like him).
Then we come to Rosie, the most stereotypical female character of the lot. Unsurprisingly she's on the merchandise and she's the main female attraction at Drayton Manor (even her model is the only female character model that moves around the layout). Why? Because she's pink. This REALLY infuriates me. Yes, it's known that a girl's favourite colour is, more often than not, pink, but it's hardly surprising when pink, female characters are shoved down their throats! It's like TV and toy companies are pandering to the stereotypes rather than moving with the times. Not only that, but her persona in her debut episode made her feel like a Disney princess: obsessing over Thomas because he's the main engine! It's sickening! Females need POSITIVE role models like Belle (who I'll get to later), Daisy and Mavis, not stereotypical ones like Rosie! Despite all that, she's STILL underused in the series! She only speaks once or twice in series 11, 13 and 15, while every other appearance (apart from a starring role in Series 12) was a cameo. Can Rosie be salvaged? She would need a complete (permanent) repaint and personality change if you ask me...
But while everyone knew what Rosie was meant to be, Madge was a bit of a mess, and I'm not just talking about her appearance in Wash Behind Your Buffers. Fans could obviously see that she wanted to do her jobs right, yet BOTH her starring roles from series 11 have her run late. Maybe she cares a bit TOO much about some things..? Either way, she could be an asset to the series should they decide to bring her back and make an episode or two solely around Sodor's road network.
Then we come to Flora... Possibly the most controversial character introduced in the model era, fans hated her purely because she turned Toby from the "only tram on Sodor" to the "oldest tram on Sodor". I personally wouldn't have been bothered... had Flora actually had some personality. I really would NEVER want to see Flora return. Rather than be an assertive character who knows her own mind, she's basically the Bella (Twilight) of the Thomas franchise... She just does anything and everything Thomas tells her to! What sort of role model is THAT for girls?! The only time I'd want to see Flora if it involves her being shoved into a red hot smelting shed. Preferably by Diesel 10 :P.
Let's be fair though, Flora actually doesn't look that bad, and I personally wouldn't mind another tram engine on Sodor. There were a large variety of railway trams around back in the day, so why NOT use one or two as bases for characters?
We now move into the CGI era with Dowager Hatt. Yes, I know: she was introduced during series 5. While that's true, she REALLY shone during series 13-16. In fact, the only good things about that period were the actors, music, animation and ANY moment involving Dowager Hatt. She was just so funny to watch, especially with the vocal stylings of Keith Wickham. I just hope that, with Sharon Miller seemingly stepping away from episode writing, Dowager Hatt doesn't disappear too. She'd be wonderful comic relief, and the Railway Series was well known for its humour, as well as its storytelling.
The ONLY female character introduced during the Nitrogen era was Belle. Secretly? I really enjoy seeing her! Well, except in Big Belle. She was far too overbearing and clingy in that. Fans fixate so much time on the water cannons (I must admit that I'm guilty of that!) that they forget that Belle is a FEMALE FIREFIGHTER! She's possibly the most groundbreaking character the series has had since Daisy! She just needs to be treated in the right way. And judging by Too Many Fire Engines, there's no doubt that Andrew Brenner and his team will be the ones that CAN, and WILL, do just that.
Caitlin is a character who's been criticised due to her American roots, but I really don't care about that. In fact, that issue may be tackled in another blog post. While she didn't do much in King of the Railway (to be fair, neither did Connor), she got a starring role in Calm Down, Caitlin. I quite liked her eagerness and her overexcitable nature as kids could see a lot of them in her, especially during holiday periods. I'm not going to criticise her lack of appearances though as it's pretty clear that she's only a visitor that travels along a specific route. In fact, I praise the team for giving Caitlin a definitive role in the series. Although whether she appears again, be it a cameo, a speaking part or a starring role, remains to be seen...
And finally we come to Millie, a female French narrow gauge engine (three "firsts"). With all these credentials, and the fact that she's the Earl's private engine, you'd think SHE'D be given a sizeable share of the spotlight, right? Well, no... Despite the fact that she was introduced in the same special as Stephen, she only gained 1/3 of the attention. While it's understandable as the major plot was focusing mainly on Stephen, it doesn't stop it from being disappointing. Meanwhile, she only appeared in three episodes set around Ulfstead Castle while Stephen appeared in all but one (six). Also, the Rocket has spoken in every episode he's been in, while poor Millie only spoke in the one she starred in. To be fair to the team, the narrow gauge engines don't really have a CGI rendered railway yet (I don't really count the one seen in series 16; it feels like a scaled down standard gauge line) so episode opportunities for all the engines are going to be sparse until they get that sorted, but to give her half the screen time as Stephen is very disappointing regardless. In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Stephen is actually the Earl's private engine over poor Millie.
The island of Sodor has always been a male dominated environment: all the staff are male, seven of the eight main characters are male so it's rather unsurprising that the male characters get the most attention. But why does that have to be the case? The series has MANY great female characters (and one they can mould themselves) so why don't the writers actually do something with them?
To be honest, I'm not sure. Maybe they're scared they'll overshadow the male cast or maybe they're worried that fans won't accept them. But they'll never know what will happen if they don't take a chance! They NEED to! I'm getting rather bored of the new male characters (despite their personalities) while the females - apart from Annie and Clarabel - are ignored, as usual. We're not living in the 1950's anymore. People should stop living by stereotypes dictated by society. This series could lead the way by showing that not all females are "girly girls" that like pink and only think of dolls and wanting to be a princess, but it seems nobody wants to take that chance!
That's why I chose Daisy to have that bright idea over Thomas and the people on the platform in my latest Christmas special. That's why I chose Mavis to cheer Percy up over Toby. It's not that I've anything against Thomas and Toby, I just feel that the female characters deserve more love and respect than they've been getting over the years. As I've said though, I'm not necessarily saying that there needs to be more female characters to balance things out, I'm saying that they need to do a heck of a lot more with the ones they already have, otherwise the journalists who scream "sexism" will never go away.