CNN Parenting

Why kids love 'fascist' cartoons like 'Paw Patrol' and 'Thomas'

Story highlights

  • "Thomas the Tank Engine" and "Paw Patrol" have been eviscerated by the press and on social media
  • Young brains seek out order, stability and even punishment in their entertainment

(CNN)Parents like to see themselves as purveyors of possibility. We want our children to inhabit a world in which identities are both mutable and equal, and imagination and empathy reign supreme!

But young children, as dictated by their tastes in popular culture, have something else in mind. They're drawn to worlds in which identities are fixed, order trumps imagination and transgressions are met with routine punishment.
    This clash between what parents desire for their children and what children desire for themselves is most easily observable in cartoon preferences. So often, the more parents dislike a show, the more their children love it.
    Two of the most divisive shows are "Thomas the Tank Engine" and "Paw Patrol," both of which have been eviscerated by grown-ups on discussion boards, in social media and in widely shared essays in prestigious publications.
    "Thomas," the long-running television franchise about a group of working trains chugging away on the Island of Sodor, has been called a "premodern corporate-totalitarian dystopia" in the New Yorker, imperialist and sinister in Slate, and classist, sexist and anti-environmentalist in the Guardian. And yet people -- presumably parents -- spend $1 billion on "Thomas" merchandise every year.
    "Paw Patrol" is equally polarizing. The show, about a group of rescue dogs led by a boy named Ryder, is a regular source of complaint among parents and of adoration among their kids.
    Buzzfeed called the show "terrible" and pointed to instances of gender and social inequality that go unchecked on the show. In the Guardian, Ryder is described as a megalomaniac with an implied "unstoppable God complex." Nevertheless, "Paw Patrol" is ubiquitous. Branded merchandise featuring Ryder and the gang outsells most other television shows, according to recent data from the Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association. A recent Amazon search for "Paw Patrol" yielded 24,814 results.
    It's tempting as a parent -- especially those of us who are aghast at contemporary politics -- to be disturbed by the notion of our children tuning in for a regular dose of primary-colored authoritarianism. What ever happened to "Free to Be ... You and Me?"