How “The Little Engine That Could” Perpetuates Gender Stereotypes

{This post, originally written on my Blogger supported blog in 2009, attracted the attention of NPR. Yeah, I don’t know how that happened either, but there it is! Here is the link to the article where I am mentioned. The link back to this blog in the article is now broken, but my name is still there. Someone from NPR apparently tried to reach me via FB in the days before the recording, to see if I wanted to be interviewed, and trusty dusty Facebook stashed their message in my “Other” folder. So I missed it. Sigh. What can you do? —L}

So I’m reading the Little Engine that Could to my boys, and I notice something very suddenly: the Little Engine is female. And the two engines that refused to help the clown and toys were both male. Hmmmm…..
I start paying closer attention to what I’m actually reading and notice a few things:

1. The male trains are described as new and shiny and the other as big and tough. The Little Engine is “a small engine. A very small engine, but maybe she can help us.” Only maybe? C’mon. She’s a woman, of course she can help you! And could they get more stereotypical? Me man, me big and strong. You woman, you small and weak. Sexist pig author.

2. The clown and other toys tell her the children will have nothing if she doesn’t pull the train over the mountain. Well of course! The stupid male trains wouldn’t lift a finger to get the kids fed and make sure they had age-appropriate toys, noooo, it’s assumed the woman will take care of that!

3. Added bonus: they guilt her into it. How many women are susceptible to guilt trips, especially where children are involved? Raise your hands. How many have guilted yourselves into things because of your children?! Go on, raise your hands. It’s all about the honesty here!

4. The Little Engine immediately doubts herself and lists the reasons why she can’t do the job: she’s never pulled a train before (like that matters!), she only works at the train yard (this is a metaphor for stay at home moms!!) so she’s not sure she can help (the SAHM trying to break back into the work force no less!). Why does she have such low self-esteem I ask you?

5. Both the male trains had no problem telling the clown “no.” The Little Engine hems and haws and tries to list reasons why she can’t do it, but agrees anyway, even though she’s obviously overwhelmed at the thought….sound familiar? Women can’t say No. Everyone knows that. Alternatively, when a woman says No, she doesn’t really mean it. Put on your persuasive hat! I’m s

ure you can convince her to change her mind! Go!

6. She has to work very hard to get the kiddies their crap, I mean, their “toys and good food to eat,” pulling that damn train all night. You know those mean male trains aren’t workin’ all night! Does your husband give you the ol’ “but I have to get up and go to work tomorrow and you don’t” routine at 2am with a puking kid? Typical.

7. Finally, after pulling all night, she makes it over the fricken mountain in time to see the sunrise and for some reason is very pleased with herself. What message is this meant to convey? “That’s right girls, take on way more than you should, work hard, twenty-four-seven as a matter of fact, and you can get it all done; there really is such a thing as Supermom! Just look at that Little Engine go! You can too!”

I think I might throw this book out…wouldn’t want my boys (or my daughter) getting any crazy ideas…

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