Barney Docuseries exposes America’s masculinity problem

Image for article titled I Love You, You Hate Me: Barney Docuseries Lays Barney's Masculinity Problem

photo: Carolina Cabral (Getty Images)

I’ve never heard the lovable Barney theme song “I Love You, You Love Me” set to the tempo of an eerie horror tune, and even after hearing it I wasn’t quite sure what horror could be come from the funny purple dinosaur. Yeah, I heard the guy who played Barney was a tantric sex healer (true) and about Barney hiding coke in his cock (less true), and thought maybe Peacock’s new documentary on Barney would give me some answers. But surprisingly What i love you you hate me proves that one is even lovable imaginary Dinosaurs won’t save you from our culture of toxic masculinity.

As I watched, I expected there would be some twisted mysteries about the production of the show itself, a la The Ellen Show‘s Employee Tell All that came to light two years ago. But the problem wasn’t with the show at all (everyone who worked on the show seemed original and super thankful for the community that brought it to them). It also had nothing to do with the kids obsessively watching it (we turned out good in every way!). No, the horrors that surrounded Barney came from the world he entered – one that couldn’t handle how truly wonderful he is??

At its core, the documentary seeks to discover why someone as harmless and sane as Barney could grip the nation in such uncontrollable hatred. “It’s supposed to be fun, folks, it’s kids’ TV!” says an angry Bill Nye in one of the show’s opening scenes. At a time when malevolence has consistently given way to extremism, a deep dive into this phenomenon reveals exactly where some of these sentiments stem from.

Barney was founded in 1988 by a Texas mother, Sheryl Leach, who wanted to support her hyperactive two-year-old son, Patrick. With the help of her in-laws, who owned a video production studio (very cheaply), Leach launched the first iterations of Barney. After PBS was a grassroots venture for a few years (with suburban moms known as “Mom Blitzers” and ties to other moms, preschools, daycares, etc. and as they say, the rest is history.

But when Barney went “larger than life,” the dinosaur faced even bigger, meaner, and sinister competition: America’s culture of masculinity is being capitalized. Barney rose to fame in an era of American irony and cool, Barney just hasn’t jogged with anyone over the age of ten. As the documentary notes, Jerry Springer, which was also just beginning at the time, departing from America’s penchant for a bit of midday screen violence, was a more accurate sign of the times. The show was just one of many examples of a culture moving towards cutting edge or over the edge. Wholly validating your experience as a human, how could a purple dinosaur rival that?

So as Barney gained more fans, he also gained more haters. Seemingly overnight he became the center of mass hatred nationwide – the target of violent video games, IRL gun drills and outright hate groups, including The Jihad to Destroy Barney collaborative role-playing session (which came with its own guide!). College students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln popularized “barney bashing” events, which included taking out aggression on plush Barneys with a hammer. And because the AIDS epidemic was on the rise at the time, Barney, who was largely considered effeminate, became one too literally Punching bag for misguided hatred aimed at gay men.

Much of the backlash Barney received when he became part of mainstream media was rooted in the masculinity we have idealized in our society: one of physical violence and emotional restraint. Barney, who unabashedly believes in love and inclusivity, disagreed with all of this, sparking deep anger among America’s men. “We’re just not used in our culture to seeing men who are kind and vulnerable and sweet, and when we do see, they will be punished,” explained developmental psychologist Dr. Yalda T. Uhls in the series. For many young men, Barney symbolized everything they feared (vulnerable, kind, loving…the list goes on), and so they fought back.

But when asked why they were doing all this *movements in the air*, men young and old alike hinted that they were afraid of being replaced. For the college kids, it was the idea of ​​Barney replacing their own childhood heroes Sesame Street. And for others, like Robert Curran, founder of the satirical newsletter I Hate Barney Secret Society, things got even closer. Coming home from a business trip, the amateur blogger received a slap in the face to learn that his daughter now preferred her imaginary TV boyfriend to her own father. But almost as soon as he took his concerns onto the World Wide Web, even Curran’s own insecurities seemed to take on a bigger life than his own: “I struck a chord with that [newsletter]?” he said during an interview for the documentary. “Is this the first time, at the dawn of the social media era, that the world learned to love hate?”

But perhaps the biggest toll Barney’s struggle with manhood took was on Leach’s personal life. As the show gained some popularity, Leach became the breadwinner of their household, and her husband Jim left his high-paying job to become a stay-at-home father. The shift in their family dynamic eventually led to the couple’s split in 1998, the same year Leach left the show. Jim, who was reportedly suffering from depression, would eventually die by suicide.

Patrick, Leach’s whole inspiration for the show, didn’t have Barney’s best takeaways either. In 2015, Patrick shot and killed his neighbor in Malibu, an altercation that eventually led to a 15-year sentence (he got out after five years). Whether it’s jealousy, resentment, or other inner struggles, Patrick’s actions make it clear that there were wounds that even Barney couldn’t heal, and they may actually have gotten worse.

Though Barney is past his prime, his complicated legacy proves we have bigger messes to clear than our toys: Toxic masculinity may have taken on a new form since the ’90s — but I can’t say the way how we deal with it They’ve improved a lot today from instigating psychological warfare against fictional characters. If anyone has better suggestions on how to proceed, that would be super dee-duper! Barney Docuseries exposes America’s masculinity problem

Adam Bradshaw

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