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Adults loved to hate Barney, but why? A new doc tries and fails to explain

<em>I Love You, You Hate Me</em> examines what makes people (men especially) so hostile to a children's dinosaur. But it's spoiled by sensational side trips and settles on the idea that haters just need a hug. Above, Barney and Pia Hamilton as Min.
Peacock
I Love You, You Hate Me examines what makes people (men especially) so hostile to a children's dinosaur. But it's spoiled by sensational side trips and settles on the idea that haters just need a hug. Above, Barney and Pia Hamilton as Min.

I watched both hour-long installments of the Peacock documentary I Love You, You Hate Me, and I'm still not sure whether two hours is way too much time to spend talking about Barney the dinosaur or not nearly enough.

Barney was created by Sheryl Leach in the late 1980s as entertainment for her son, Patrick. She originally sold VHS tapes of the big guy, until he was picked up by public television and became an enormous hit as well as, of course, an enormous punching bag. The documentary tries to do several things: document the creation of a phenomenon, document the creation of a cultural backlash, and try to tie those things to a larger conversation about not only internet negativity but also maybe racism and homophobia and political violence. Anyone who is against inclusion and kindness, says former Barney voice actor Bob West, may "need a hug." (Reactions to that will be personal; mine was: "Hmm.")

In a series that closes with a kind of "love your fellow human being" lesson, these digressions into some pretty rote and cheap exploitation are awfully jarring.

But also, regrettably, the documentary also wants to grab onto a couple of sensational-sounding stories that don't really have much of anything to do with the pop-cultural Barney story, including the difficult life of Leach's son and the fact that David Joyner, who wore the Barney costume for years, now does "tantric energy healing." Neither Leach nor her son participated, and attempts to relate their personal lives to the cultural history of Barney get pretty tenuous. The tee-hee-ing about Joyner seems to serve no purpose except to include a couple mentions of sex, just so that there are a couple mentions of sex. In a series that closes with a kind of "love your fellow human being" lesson, these digressions into some pretty rote and cheap exploitation are awfully jarring.

What are more interesting are the reflections on the Barney phenomenon itself, including what makes people build up their identities around something like hating a children's show. Not the people who merely said Barney was annoying, but people like Rob Curran, the guy who created the "I Hate Barney Secret Society," which sent out a newsletter in the early 1990s. There's some tossing around of the idea that maybe building your identity around hate has elements in common, whether you hate a dinosaur or a race of people, and if the filmmakers had spent a little more time on that, maybe they would seem more persuasive, but as it stands, it's a pretty thin point made almost in passing.

David Joyner and Barney
/ Peacock
/
Peacock
David Joyner and Barney

The best insights, for my money, come from Steve Burns, the former Blue's Clues host. While remaining utterly respectful of the fondness and nostalgia still felt by Barney fans, he makes perhaps the best point about one way Barney actually is different from a lot of other characters for children in ways that may explain some of the hostility that came to be so outsized. As Burns explains it, Sesame Street characters have something a little "broken" about them. Grover, Bert, Big Bird — they all have these moments where they're not perfectly happy or perfectly upbeat. Grover is frustrated practically all the time, after all. As Burns puts it, there's nothing broken about Barney. And for adults, that may grate in a particularly difficult way, and it may hit their cynicism especially hard. By extension, that lack of ... well, humanity (?) might have made it easier for adults to burn or beat or rip apart Barney dolls than it would have been with Ernie or Big Bird.

Maybe it's not surprising that this show (really a two-hour doc split in half; I'm not sure what we should call it) is a little all over the place. The streaming documentary boom has had its moments of both niche interest and uneven quality; it's sort of remarkable that we've had not one but two different projects focused on the leggings MLM LulaRoe. Looking back on pop-cultural phenomena is an emerging subspecialty: HBO Max did Beanie Babies; Netflix did Abercrombie & Fitch; Hulu did the clothing brand Von Dutch.

There's a dull filmmaking style that unites most of these works, where archival footage (much of it from breathless local news doofuses) is combined with interviews that all look the same, where a person sits in a chair, and they're framed in the center of the screen and flatly lit, and they say a lot of the same things about how this was the moment or that was the moment when things got really out of hand.

What's interesting is that because most of these pieces walk through a rote rise-and-fall structure that you could get from Wikipedia, they leave threads hanging that have potential. There's a moment when Curran somberly wonders whether perhaps the I Hate Barney Secret Society accidentally invented recreational love-to-hate relationships with popular culture that have since become a scourge. This is an absurd thing to say: It doesn't take more than 30 seconds of thought to come up with the fact that it ignores the existence of things like Disco Demolition Night, the disco-hating baseball stadium promotion that ended in a riot in 1979, which was itself plenty ugly. It ignores the very similarly named "I Hate Brenda" newsletter that emerged from Beverly Hills, 90210 fandom at about the same time Curran got going. It ignores Usenet message groups that were extremely popular by then, which had plenty of similar communal enthusiasms around viciousness.

Who drives popular culture, and who thinks they drive it, and who gets credit for driving it? What is the role of outsized ego in trying to claim territory as an important hater? And why does it seem to be overwhelmingly men who drove this particular anti-fandom?

But even though Curran is obviously dead wrong, it would be telling to think about why. Who drives popular culture, and who thinks they drive it, and who gets credit for driving it? What is the role of outsized ego in trying to claim territory as an important hater? And why does it seem to be overwhelmingly men who drove this particular anti-fandom? This man with his newsletter, men on the internet, men in college holding "Barney bashing" events? When women do so much of the child care in any given society, how does it wind up being men who are most resentful about a dinosaur for children? Is that in spite of the traditional associations of nurture with mothers, or because of it?

The big issue with I Love You, You Hate Me is that because it can't give up on the sensational side trips, and because it hasn't organized the many thoughts it contains into an argument for anything more than "haters need a hug," its more provocative just are sucked into a vortex of getting two hours of content produced and posted. Mostly, I was left with the sense that I would have loved to see a more searching look at Barney, which is not something I anticipated saying when I sat down to watch.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.