When I saw that a new documentary about Barney, the Purple Dinosaur that was described as exploring “the dark side” of the phenomenon my first thought was that there were previously unreported horrors behind the scenes—things I really didn’t want to contemplate since I assumed they’d make episodes of Law & Order: SVU, or the extremely dark, ludicrously funny Death To Smoochy look tame. It’s a relief it’s not that bad. The real dark side wasn’t Barney or the cast and crew. It mostly came from outside. Barney attracted a lot of anger. These were the early days of the internet, or at least early days of the internet becoming widespread, and some people remember Usenet groups devoted to horrific ways Barney should die. Some who participated say it was “just good fun,” but some of it spilled over into the real world. One Barney performer got death threats he says were “violent and explicit, death and dismemberment of my family.” That reminds me of the Kurt Vonnegut line, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
There’s a lot to delve into here. I was well into adulthood, even married, by the time Barney came along, and we’ve never had kids so I’ve never really thought much about Barney. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the people who thought and wrote about doing horrible things to Barney were also adults with no children. One of the problems with almost any fandom is it’s going to have toxic elements and, yes, I would call people who devoted a lot of time to imagining doing horrible things to Barney fans, in the original sense of “fanatic”. Let me put it another way: almost everything that has its own following has positive fans who enjoy it, who get something good out of it and out of feeling they’re part of a likeminded community, but also its negative fans who are deeply knowledgeable about it but bring a lot of anger too. They range from the ones who want the fandom to be restricted to the few who know all the minutiae, or who are just like them, who respond angrily, even violently, to those they consider intruders, to the ones who just want to destroy the whole thing. And I admit I find a lot of this hard to understand, because I’ve never been a negative fan, even with things I loved dearly. Yet I also think Death To Smoochy, which is obviously a Barney-inspired parody that also skewers and roasts children’s entertainment, is hilarious, and I laughed when Charles Barkley beat up Barney in a basketball game on SNL.
When I think about the aspects of the Barney phenomenon that were purely about raking in the money I can understand why some people would really hate Barney. In spite of never having been a parent I can sympathize with parents whose kids drove them crazy by playing Barney songs over and over and over. And yet I was one of those kids—my obsession just happened to be Star Wars, but that’s another story.
On the other side I know Barney taught kids about tolerance and understanding and being nice to each other. That was a genuine positive side to the Barney phenomenon. As adults it’s hard for many of us to not be cynical, to not see the marketing machinery behind the shiny curtain. I’m doing it myself, right now–I start to say something positive and immediately go, “Yes, but…” So let me come right out and say it: all that stuff about inclusion and kindness was just pretend. And we are what we pretend to be.