Pity the purple dinosaur. He came to spread a message of love, and got the stuffing knocked out of him.
I Love You, You Hate Me, the two-part documentary series premiering on Peacock on Wednesday, explores the way Barney became a runaway hit with tots, and how the tubby T-Rex ignited one of the most devastating backlashes in pop culture history.
Director Tommy Avallone admits that as a kid, he too partook in Barney bashing.
“As a teenager, for one of my birthdays I asked my aunt to make me a Barney costume, so my friends and I could beat him up on camera,” he says. “Several years later, creating this docu-series, it feels good to be on the other side and no longer a Barney hater.”
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Episode 1 excavates the dinosaur’s origins in the late 1980s. He was the brainchild of Sheryl Leach, a Texas schoolteacher and new mom who found little in the way of engaging videos to keep her preschooler Patrick entertained. She designed Barney to be upbeat and cuddly, with a plush, huggable body, a perma-smile and a strip of white teeth like a parson’s collar instead of the jagged incisors of an actual T-Rex.
The people who helped bring Barney to life, including voice actor Bob West, and David Joyner – the actor-dancer inside the Barney suit for many years – all describe Leach in the fondest terms.
“Sheryl’s amazing journey… along with that teacher’s heart and why she created it — I even get the chills a little bit [thinking about it],” says executive producer Joel Chiodi, head of documentaries and SVP of strategic development at Scout Productions, which produced the series. “You see this sweet person who against all odds, almost because of her naivete, she succeeded. Because if you knew what the odds against making this thing were, you would never even try.”
The first Barney home videos came out in 1988. Within a few years, an executive with Connecticut Public Television worked with Leach to turn her creation into a PBS series, Barney & Friends, which launched in 1992.
“The show came back on in 1993, their second season… 1993 is what they call their ‘Elvis’ year. It just blew up,” Avallone notes. “When Barney came out in ‘92, Nick Junior was just starting, Disney Channel wasn’t like the way it became. Sheryl Leach and the Barney crew really found a market. And once that character landed, it just exploded.”
West came up with the character’s giggly, goofy voice, and sang his cheery song (to the melody of “This Old Man”): “I love you, you love me/We’re a happy family. With a great big hug/And a kiss from me to you/Won’t you say you love me too?”
Barney fans loved to sing and dance along. As West observes in the film, “With a preschool kid, repetition represents safety. They want to hear the same song, they want to hear the same story.”
But that very repetition, along with Barney’s relentlessly upbeat attitude, is part of what drove parents – and others beyond the target audience — crazy. The filmmakers interviewed Robert Curran, who founded the I Hate Barney Secret Society in 1993, after his two-year-old daughter became obsessed with Barney.
“He came home from work one day expecting her to say, ‘Hey, dad!’ But she’s glued to the television,” Avallone explains. “There’s obviously a jealousy issue there, as silly as that may sound, but that’s a real feeling.”
The series meticulously unpacks what caused the Barney backlash. Dr. Yalda Uhls, a child psychologist and former movie industry executive, detects a reason for the negative reaction to Barney’s warm and supportive nature.
“We’re just not used to – in our culture – seeing men that are kind, vulnerable and sweet,” she comments in the documentary. “And if we do see that, they’re penalized.”
Chiodi and others identify an element of homophobia behind the visceral anger Barney inspired on such a wide scale.
“The purplish color, I think the way he danced around, I think the feminine-like hands and, of course, the voice contributed to the tropes of what we think about with regard to masculinity and male toys and a scary dinosaur,” Chiodi says. “I think all that absolutely factored into it… You start to see how we’re conditioned as people… about masculinity and femininity and what’s okay and what isn’t.”
After Barney became a huge hit, bizarre stories began to circulate about him and those associated with the character. One posited that, through a series of steps, one could tie Barney to the number 666, the Book of Revelation’s “Sign of the Beast.” Another claimed cocaine was being secreted in Barney’s tail.
“One of the rumors was Barney was named after a 1930 serial killer,” Avallone says. Another rumor, that an actor portraying Barney “hanged himself in the suit.”
Some of the Barney conspiracy theories may have arisen inadvertently from a parody that took the form of a website and a role-playing guidebook called The Jihad to Destroy Barney. Sean Breen, who is interviewed in the film, created the Barney-bashing outlet in 1999, which described itself as intended for “people on the Internet dedicated to defamation, humiliation, eradication, killing, and removal of Barney the Purple Dinosaur of the television show Barney & Friends from the airwaves and from every human’s life.”
From the vantage point of today, the early online Barney vitriol seems to herald the internet as an ideal vehicle for platforming hate and circulating irrational conspiracy theories.
“In the doc, Breen does talk about how he somewhat feels responsible for [paving] the way possibly for 4chan — that sort of stuff,” Avallone says, “because they were the very beginning of that dialogue.”
Sheryl Leach wound up becoming a very wealthy woman through the success of Barney. But what toll did the Barney phenomenon – the good, the bad and the ugly – have on her, her husband and her son Patrick? For the full story you’ll have to watch the series, but suffice to say it certainly wasn’t all hugs, kisses, and unremitting sunshine. You might say there were clouds of dark purple.
Says Chiodi, “To see this sweet teacher go through this thing, my heart really went out to her.”
Adds Avallone, “You can be irritated by Barney, but you shouldn’t hate the guy. You know, he’s just trying to teach us how to love.”
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