tv ‘I Love You, You Hate Me’: Barney Docuseries Lays Bare America’s Masculinity Problem
I never heard the endearing “I Love You, You Love Me” Barney theme song set to the tempo of an eerie horror tune before, and even after I heard it, I wasn’t quite sure what terrors could possibly come from the jolly purple dinosaur. Yes, I heard about the guy who played Barney being a tantric sex healer (true) and about Barney hiding coke in his tail (less true), and thought maybe Peacock’s new docuseries on Barney would give me some answers. But surprisingly, what I Love You, You Hate Me proves is that even being a lovable imaginary dinosaur won’t save you from our culture of toxic masculinity.
As I watched, I expected there to be some twisted secrets 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 genuinely into it and super grateful for the community it brought them). Nor did it have to do with the kids who obsessively watched it (for all intents and purposes, we turned out fine!). Nay, the horrors surrounding Barney came from the world he was stepping into—one that couldn’t deal with how genuinely wonderful he is??
At its core, the docuseries tries to get at why someone as harmless and wholesome as Barney could grip the nation in such uncontrollable hatred. “It’s supposed to be fun, you guys, it’s children’s television!” an exasperated Bill Nye says in one of the series’ opening scenes. At a time when ill will has consistently given way to extremism, a deep dive into this phenomenon reveals exactly where some of those feelings stem from.
Barney was created in 1988 by a Texas mom, Sheryl Leach, who wanted to entertain her hyperactive two-year-old son, Patrick. With the help of her in-laws, who (very conveniently) owned a video production studio, Leach got the first iterations of Barney off the ground. After being a grassroots enterprise for a few years (with suburban moms known as the “Mom Blitzers” selling tapes to other moms, preschools, daycares, etc.) and an instant hit with kids all over, PBS picked the show up in 1992, and as they say, the rest is history.
But as Barney became “larger than life,” the dinosaur came face to face with even bigger, meaner, and more sinister competition: America’s culture of masculinity writ large. Coming to fame during an era of American irony and coolness, Barney just really didn’t jive with anyone above the age of like, ten. As the documentary notes, Jerry Springer, which was also starting out at the time and rode off of America’s penchant for a little midday on-screen violence, was a more accurate sign of the times. The show was just one of the many examples of a culture that was shifting towards “cutting edge or over the edge.” How could a purple dinosaur who wholeheartedly validates your experience as a human being measure up to that?
So as Barney gained more fans, he also gained more haters. Seemingly overnight, he became the center of mass hate nationwide—the target of violent video games, IRL gun practice, and straight-up hate groups, including the collaborative roleplay session, The Jihad to Destroy Barney (which came with its own guidebook!). College students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln popularized “Barney bashing” events, where you could let out your aggression on plush Barneys with a hammer, among other activities. And because the AIDS epidemic was also on the rise at the time, Barney, who was largely seen as effeminate, also became a literal punching bag for misdirected hatred pointed toward gay men.
Much of the backlash Barney received once he became part of mainstream media was rooted in the masculinity we’ve idealized in our society: one of physical violence and emotional restraint. Barney, who unabashedly believes in love and inclusiveness, was antithetical to all of this, eliciting a visceral rage amongst America’s men. “We’re just not used to, in our culture, seeing men that are kind and vulnerable and sweet, and if we do see that, they’re penalized,” developmental psychologist Dr. Yalda T. Uhls explained in the series. For many young men, Barney symbolized everything they were terrified of being (vulnerable, kind, loving... the list goes on), and so they retaliated.
But when they were asked why they did *motions to the air* all of this, men young and old hinted at a fear of being replaced. For the college kids, it was the idea that Barney was replacing their own childhood heroes from Sesame Street. And for others, like Robert Curran, the founder of the “I Hate Barney Secret Society” satirical newsletter, things hit even closer to home. The amateur blogger was gut-punched when he came home from a business trip and learned that his daughter now preferred her imaginary TV friend to her own father. But almost as soon as he took his woes to the world wide web, even Curran’s own insecurities seemed to take on a life larger than his own: “Did I hit a nerve with this [newsletter]?” he said during an interview for the documentary. “Is this the first time, at the dawn of the social media era, where the world learned to love hate?”
But perhaps the biggest toll Barney’s battle with masculinity took was on Leach’s personal life. Once the show reached certain popularity, Leach became the breadwinner of her household, and her husband Jim left his high-paying job to become a stay-at-home dad. The shift in their familial dynamic eventually led to the couple’s separation in 1998, the same year that Leach left the show. Jim, who reportedly suffered from depression, would eventually die by suicide.
Patrick, Leach’s whole inspiration for the show, didn’t have the brightest takeaways from Barney, either. In 2015, Patrick shot his neighbor in Malibu, an altercation that would eventually lead to a 15-year jail sentence (he got out after five years). Whether out of jealousy, resentment, or other internal struggles, Patrick’s actions make clear that there were wounds even Barney can’t heal, and in fact, might’ve actually exacerbated.
While Barney may be past his prime, his complicated legacy proves that we’ve got bigger messes to clean up than our toys: Toxic masculinity may have taken new shape since the 90s—but I can’t say that the ways in which we deal with it today have improved much from wreaking psychological warfare on made-up characters. If anyone has any better suggestions about how to proceed, that would be super dee-duper!
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