The makers of Thomas the Tank Engine, star of Thomas and Friends and other material aimed at preschool-aged children, are taking steps to reverse a problem the anthropomorphic train has faced since the character was introduced in 1946: a lack of diversity on the fictional island of Sodor.
The New York Times reports that Mattel, which bought the brand in 2012, has been looking for ways to make the brand more popular in new markets (read: not white, not male, not British) and has decided to add new, diverse characters to the Thomas and Friends lineup.
In May, Thomas, Gordon, Percy, and others will have 14 new friends, four of them female, hailing from countries like India, China, and Brazil. The characters will be introduced in a new movie, The Great Race, which will be released in theaters in some markets in May, and on DVD in August.
The descriptions for the new characters are…interesting!
One of the new characters, Raul of Brazil (described as "feisty"), was conceived with the 2016 Summer Olympics in mind, according to Vincent D’Alleva, who oversees The Tank Engineverse for Mattel. Another, Yong Bao of China, is described as "driven to achieve and make progress." D'Alleva told the Times that China represented the second-biggest market for the brand, ahead of Great Britain. Ashima of India, one of the new female characters, is described as being as fast or faster than Thomas, which will present a challenge for the intrepid tank engine:
"How does Thomas develop a relationship with someone who looks very different from him and in some cases can do things better than he can?”
According to the Times, "Mattel went to great lengths…to make sure each new character had a color palette and personality reflective of a particular country’s culture." So Carlos of Mexico "seems to have a Frida Kahlo-style unibrow." (???)
There are about 100 characters in Thomas and Friends right now, and adding some characters to make its fictional world where trains have faces more inclusive is a great idea, although its apparent execution is questionable. More kids around the world can participate and enjoy Thomas' low-stakes adventures and Mattel can keep raking it in: Thomas-related products gross $1 billion for the company annually. Now, if only Thomas could get over his competitive streak and learn to be a useful engine.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org