What has Starlight Express got in common with Thomas the Tank Engine? It is a question which it has amused me to ask ever since we saw Starlight Express at the Grimsby Auditorium some time ago, and I’ve had some grudgingly tolerant answers when I have labouriously trotted it out.
Both have a master figure in charge, and this figure has the same name (Control in one case and the Fat Controller in the other). In both cases, steam is good and diesel is bad. And in both, the engines which drive everything are male and the carriages which trail along behind are female.
It appears that a Canadian Professor has spotted the last point, and is being roundly castigated for highlighting it. One of the pair of male presenters on the objective BBC’s flagship Radio 4 news programme introduced an item about it by saying ‘you are not going to believe this’ and finished by saying that it was ‘not surprising’ that she is being taken to task.
Her basic point is that there are no neutral standing places, and that what children assume to be normal is absorbed among other places from the unspoken assumptions in the books they read and the media they consume; it would have seemed an uncontroversial point to make a generation ago, but somehow it is now greeted with incredulity.
But do the subliminal norms of this sort really make enough difference to make a fuss? Well, they appear to do so in the church. Last week unsolicited I’ve had two different female priests totally independently tell me the debilitating way some male priest have treated them and what it has felt like; I’m sure that some of the opposition to women’s ordained ministry is principled, but it is so difficulty to disentangle this theological context from the non-neutral background assumptions which appear to fuel this sort of behaviour.
And it is endemic. Last week I was also at an almost exclusively male meeting of Rural Deans and watched the face of the only woman present squirm as one of them chortled while described an able female priest as ‘a stunner’.
Meanwhile, the picture is the Kingsway Printers’ Band playing at a Christmas Spectacular in St Michael’s on Thursday.