“You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.” -Dr.Seuss
Sometimes the people who fool others don’t know they're fooling others and unlike Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, there is a monster more capitalistic and catastrophic to a generation than Barney. I was the smart kid who liked learning how animation and puppets worked to create amazing magic no matter how beautiful or terrifying. I had a friend who loved Veggie Tales which had very witty writing and also had a message of inclusion and love. My favorite character is still Lary the Cukecumber and all his antics and silly songs. However, when Barney popped on that kid in me thought some thoughts that were considered dark, I even scared my friend because of who Barney is a T Rex, “What if he eats the kids…”
As a very literate kid, I read more than Dr.Seuss and the Grimm Brothers, Ronald Dahl, and Narnia. Yes, bad things happen to kids in those books but eventually, there is hope and something to think about. You learn later on that there are more dangerous flavors of Koolaide out there that kids can get sucked into whether it be Drum Corps or the Church Youth Group. Instead, I was told to think for myself but still hold on to what is right for myself and others. It’s why we shut old doors and open new ones.
Barney devoured not only the love of kids but their parent's pocketbooks and kids who didn’t like the show felt alienated. Much like when a new Elsa and Olaf toy comes around and a kid feels left behind by a Disney product. Much like Disney Adults keep their eyes shut about Walt’s anti-Semitic ideals, homophobic rhetoric, sexism, and mass Union busting. So many parents kept their eyes shut around Barney until the hatedom opened them to the fact that kids aren't stupid and know they are being fooled. Sometimes the best things that happen to us can be worse to start with.
Do You Know You’re Special?
If any people are more anti-Barney and the rampage he created they would be Fred Rogers and Jim Henson. Both men grew up in a time when war and anything war-related was turned into a plaything and a commodity. Other men had a complete and mask their vulnerable emotions, especially if someone was being made fun of or used as a joke. Before Henson did Sesame Street he made ads for Wilkins Coffee and other products where puppets blew up, smashed each other, fell off of trees, and shot out of cannons because they didn’t like brand X.
Like Henson, Fred Rogers was also a puppeteer for a local station with Daniel the Tiger being one of his favorites. King Friday came about over a kid's fear of Friday the Thirteenth being unlucky, so the day became King Friday’s birthday with a decree of no slasher movies in the theaters of the Land of Make Belief! They have terrible writing anyway, and what kind of fool hides in a shed of knives!
Both of them rebelled against war and capitalism used in children’s media and as a product in that medium. Before He-Man and GI Joe were cartoons they started as toys with the saga continuing with Paw Patrol. They saw what others could not see down the road and feared something like Barney happening. Jim Henson referred to Sesame Street as a blessing and a curse which is why he created The Dark Crystal to challenge puppetry as a performing art and effect. One that can spread across genres besides children’s media and late-night entertainment.
Some networks turned down Fraggle Rock because of how lofty the goal of world peace was for a show everyone could enjoy. Turns out that when Germans watched the show they learned some Western English and eventually brought down the Berlin Wall, not Ronald Regan. Also, a lot of Henson’s work has environmental themes and addresses them better than Captain Planet, which was also made by a corporate hack. His message is that the world is a vulnerable place for everyone which is why people need to work together to make it better than it was before and make good change happen.
Mister Rogers addressed emotional well-being and diversity, especially in the special needs community, and because of his work, the goal of a show like Sesame Street is to address similar issues that would not exist. One triumph for my community was the introduction of Julia an Autistic Muppet and her family who are all supportive of her and love her for all she is. The episode Starfish Hugs made me cry because for the first time in children’s media an Autistic person’s boundaries are being respected.
However, a very powerful lobby for homeschooling and conservative parents had a loophole through an industry that was illegal and often fraudulent at best and that was the direct-to-buy video market.
Wee Make the Videos, and You Give us The Kids
Barney the Dinosaur was not the only direct-to-buy video series that was popular among parents and the homeschool market and lobby which is now mostly Conservative, Capitalist, and Christan Nationalist. A lot of grifters and religious zealots banked on the market of making cheap videos to entertain and teach children and I’m not talking about Phil Visher the creator of Veggie Tales. I’m talking about people like the creators of Wee Sing who were homeschooling mothers with no experience in music pedology pedaling videos to music educators and teachers as edutainment when it’s anything but. I’m talking about Don the Doughnut Man whose videos are nothing but Christan Nationalist propaganda for kids. Mc Gee and Me was created by a lobby group called Focus on The Family in its heyday and one video I watched in dread in English Class was The Big Lie.
Barney although created with good intentions got the hate because kids knew they were being grifted and then treated like they were stupid. A popular playground practice was hating upon characters that treated kids like they were stupid or kids characters fighting each other. It’s the nature of how kids play because kids love goofy violence, however, when that violence is repressed even if it’s fun violence like the kind kids are known for. It comes out as dangerous behavior in adolescence.
Barney was not about diversity but tokenism, he would not admit his own emotions or feelings, he just wanted happiness and only happy things which are not healthy but toxic positivity. Kids and even puppets on Sesame Street go through a lot of complex emotions and struggles.
Rosita’s friend Perl is a puppet in a foster family because her parents are trying to recover from addiction. It’s not the only one to deal with such a tough subject even before Elmo. Big Bird had to deal with the death of Mr. Hooper, went to the hospital, and even had his nest recked by hurricane Sandy. Grover even had to deal with being alone which is what the song What Do When I’m Alone is about. Mister Rogers wrote songs about anger and the mad we feel when things are not fair or right in the world.
Barney wants everyone to be happy and included, but how can you include everyone if their emotions including the hard ones are dismissed and encouraged to adopt toxic positivity? Many of the Barney kids were child actors and not kids that felt included in the circle of Barney’s friends and that says something about the true hidden intention of the show to make a single mom wealthy but not a shared wealth for everyone. If anything
Barney is the story of a white cis-gendered single Mom Cheryl Leach who got rich making direct-to-buy videos that became a cult hit with other parents who didn’t get the grift that they were the consumers because their kids were viewers. Thus Barney became the baby step for future adults who worship and pay thousands for self-help gurus like Tony Robbins who is even more toxic than Barney.
In many ways, parents saw Barney as a child self-help guru which is dangerous and does not challenge children to escape environments where their autonomy, emotions, and ideas are not respected and embraced. When children do not challenge the monsters including ones that are people there is no lesson or conflict resolution to be learned. There is always a time when children encounter bullying, harassment, abuse, or neglect, whether it be from peers or an adult.
I Don’t Talk Down To Kids
One author who understood this was Theodore Geisel or Dr. Seuss. When a parent commented on how whimsical his books were he asked her to look up whimsy in the dictionary. One show I loved as a kid was Ponaloffel Pock Where Are You? which is about a young man in a pickle factory who is given a flying piano to escape all his troubles. First, he accidentally wreaks on a village called Groogen, and then he falls in love with a young woman from Casbahmopolis who hates eye-dancing for the sultan Neefa Feefa. He then loses track of her pressing the piano buttons to find her again. When he does find her with the help of some fairies he discovers that she like him wanted to escape for the same reasons he did. Ponaloffel and Neefa finally return to his home after wreaking the piano and finally, he confronts his pickle factory only to be successful.
I always wondered as a writer myself what the flying piano is, and why a flying piano? All my questions were answered in another film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T which was based on a nightmare he had as a child and a darkly satirical take on Libertarian ideology. Perhaps the flying piano was the one forbidden thing a young Pontiff Terwilliker was not allowed to see. His father cast him out with no memory of his family and gives him a terrible last name Pock. He is neglected only to be picked up by child laborers in a Pickel Factory.
The motif of the Forbidden Thing pops up in a lot of the Grimms Fairy Tales often as an allusion to parents not only as caregivers but also as abusive punishers that need to be challenged. If any person personifies this in Dr. Seuss’s works it’s Dr. Terwilliker and his overblown powers of hypnotics and manipulation of others. Perhaps the Piano given to Ponteffel was meant to be broken because it represents the trauma children in abusive, nepotistic, and conservative environments face in the real world. Unlike Terwilliker, Ponteffel is curious and also caring, and also his intentions for escaping were much like any child’s longing to escape a toxic work environment much like Neefa Feefa wanting to escape what is sexual exploitation. If anything Ponteffel and Neefa are Dr. Seuss’s unknown first, a biracial couple.
He knew that children no matter the situation are not fools when something seems very unfair to them, but seems fair to all the adults until they are fools. The Sneetches is about Eugenics, The Lorax is about how vulnerable nature is, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas is about over-consumption. In Shinto, this is why Yokai exists and mess with people the way they do to teach and challenge people. In some cases, Yokai can also mess up and trick various Kami and Yokai. Take No-Face from Spirited Away, all the gold that everyone including Yubaba thought was rich and powerful turned out to be mud.
If No-Face was a person he would be an over-consuming Disney Adult, and in a way, Barney is a No-Face. He loves bombs and is toxic-positive and wants everyone to love him until the haters realize that it’s all a lure and a man in a costume. In a way, the hate towards Barney helped writers be more conscious of children's social and emotional struggles rather than blast them with toxic positivity and love-bombing them. If I Love You, You Hate Me had a better message than killing them with kindness, it would be that even unified hatred toward something can be more positive than hating a group of people.
In Heather Shumaker's book, It’s OK Not to Share she says that kids need conflict and violent play as long as it does not hurt people or property. When adults restrict play or media regardless of the political spectrum it hurts kids and then they turn to forms of escapism that are not safe or end up hurting or harming others. Toy guns are ok, but when real guns start looking like toys is where a dangerous line is crossed. Parents need to talk to their kids about things in media that seem too good to be true or things that are problematic like the sheer ableist bullying in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or when an author like J.K.Rowling says and allows transphobic people like Matt Walsh to have a platform, or when the Narnia Books are used to indoctrinate children into Christan Nationalism and Apologetics. Part of it is listening to a child's questions no matter how silly and giving them an answer that makes sense to them, and not keeping their eyes shut.